There weren’t many people in town who noticed 5 Ophelia Street. Two oak trees stood in front − like cupped hands shielding a crying face − blocking the house from view. The neighbours, while walking their dogs or waiting for their kids’ buses, spotted the corner where the house stood, noted it as old and eerie, and returned to their lives, where the house’s existence slid from their memories.
Mia was one of the only people, besides the house’s occupants and owner, who intended to find it. Was desperate to find it, in fact. That didn’t stop the house from cowering under the approaching attention, slouching behind its oaks and urging the vines on its skin to grow, grow, grow!
Mia’s car squeaked to a halt behind a crowd of vehicles in the driveway. She’d suffered through a morning of touring one-room boxes of misery she could barely afford, and 5 Ophelia Street was her last stop of the day. She’d spent the tours in quiet resignation: resigned to her single studio-ed fate, resigned to the loss of her two-bedroom loft with her ex, resigned to it all.
The landlord hadn’t posted any pictures with this Craigslist ad, but the three-story house impressed Mia, its patio garden bursting with gardenias and tomato plants, the wildness of it, how very different it looked from the lifeless apartment complexes she’d spent the morning touring. This house exuded style, it had witnessed history; Mia could feel it.
Cranking up her window and peeling her legs from the car seat, Mia stepped out into the hot summer day. A man stood by the front door, hands in his jean pockets, head hanging. The landlord. Rob, she thought his name was.
‘Is it okay to park here?’ Mia called to the man.
He nodded, and she walked up the driveway to meet him.
He squinted at her in the midday sun. ‘Mia, right?’ Before she could answer, he continued. ‘Like the ad said, it’s a studio. Appliances are less than five-years-old, floors were polyurethaned last week. Rent’s $650 a month, heat included. There’s a washer and dryer in the basement, coin-operated.’
Mia watched as the landlord produced a jangling set of keys from his pocket, selected one indistinguishable from the others, pulled it from the ring, and held it out to her. Mia squinted at the key. Did he think she was moving in?
‘You can go up.’ He flashed the key in front of her again. ‘The door swells a bit in the heat, so give it a nice shove.’
Mia plucked the key from his hand. Holding the door ajar with his foot, he continued, ‘Well, go on. I’ll be here when you’re done to answer any questions.’
Finally, Mia understood. She would tour the apartment alone.
She grasped the key between her index finger and thumb and entered the house, the door creaking closed behind her. Dust coating the entryway, Mia approached the staircase and began to climb.
Every other landlord that morning had presented their apartment for rent with enthusiasm, spouting declarations about their tiny studios like ‘It’s cosy, don’t you agree?’ or ‘Isn’t this open layout great?’
Why was this landlord waiting outside instead of leading her up these stairs? Should she turn around, rush to the first floor, drop the key in his hand and speed away? Mia’s footsteps echoed in the stairwell, loud in the otherwise quiet house. Her hands were slick with sweat, the metal key sharp against her palm.
Finally, she reached the top. The third-floor landing was small, just enough space for one person to slide a key into the lock and ram the swollen door open with her shoulder.
The door swung in and the apartment opened up before her. Based on the landlord alone, Mia expected a dump filled from floor to ceiling with junk, or a cave with cobwebs thicker than rope.
But the apartment surprised her. It was indeed one room, but it was sprawling and hardwood-floored and dotted with windows. It looked bright and smelled of lemon. A small kitchenette stood beside her. The sloped ceiling reminded her of an attic. The bathroom tile was ocean-blue.
Mia’s worries about the landlord floated out of her head. She imagined it: Her bed pushed into that corner with the best morning light. Her bookshelf along that wall, an armchair slumped beside it. The small island where she’d drink coffee and eat toast every morning. She could see herself being happy here, content.
Mia snapped a picture of the apartment. Aching to send the photo to Kerry, she texted it to her mom instead.
Locking the door behind her, Mia rushed down the stairs. She found the landlord pacing the driveway.
‘$650 a month?’ She dropped the key into his outstretched hand.
‘I’ll take it.’
Something flashed across his face.
It wasn’t until later, months later after everything happened, that Mia realised what that flash was.
It was fear.
Ethel left her first-floor apartment to weed those stubborn begonias in the patio garden at the exact moment Mia pulled out of the driveway. When her landlord’s telltale dark green truck flashed into view from her kitchen window, Ethel rushed to catch the man before he sped off.
‘Robert!’ Ethel yelled as she pulled her gardening gloves on.
The landlord turned, truck door ajar, and stared at her. He was never one for words. Luckily, she spewed enough for the both of them.
‘Something’s wrong with my showerhead,’ she said. ‘The water pressure’s all off. It’s down to a trickle. Soon, I’ll have to rinse with the garden hose.’
‘I’ll send someone tomorrow,’ he said.
‘You sure you can’t take a look? I’m suffering here.’ She fanned herself for effect.
He climbed into his truck, gave the house a darting look, and drove away.
Kneeling, Ethel yanked weeds out by the fistful.
Ethel had never gardened a day in her life until she’d moved to 5 Ophelia Street twenty years ago, a forty-five-year-old spring chicken with a bounce in her step that had disappeared by now. Before she’d lived here, she killed indoor plants for sport. She didn’t know what a spade was, never mind how to use it.
But she’d arrived to this house newly divorced and terrified to live on her own. The world didn’t teach women how to survive without a husband and hers had preached the he-does-this, she-does-that mindset. How would she handle a flat tire, a clogged toilet, her taxes? She’d dig her heels in and figure it out, she knew now. It’s not as if her ex-husband was very smart. Years of living on her own had taught her the world crawled with men lecturing women about what they couldn’t do, and all of it was bullshit.
Back to her point. She had never gardened a day in her life. In those days, the house stood straighter, its siding new and smooth, its fence broken in one spot instead of three, and she’d glided into the freshly painted first floor. The owner, a friend of a friend who told her about the place at a church BBQ, had bought it a few months before Ethel moved in. The previous owner had lived in the house and sold it because of that awful incident, what a tragedy, poor thing.
Funny enough, during her divorce, Ethel had driven past Ophelia Street for every stupid meeting with her lawyer, but never noticed the house. But once she’d visited it − three-stories tall, gorgeous bay window on the first floor, her floor − it was as if the house had sprouted out of the ground, budding and new, just for her.
So she moved in. Hung provocative art on the walls − Harold would’ve hated the Goya. Learned to use a drill for the first time. But as her fingers gripped screws and slid anchors into walls, they ached for something else. Her hands wanted to be plunged into cold soil, for the dirt to run through her fingers like sand, to tend and to nurture, and who was she to ignore such a visceral, spiritual call? She might not believe in marriage anymore, but she still believed in God.
Back then, her landlord was always around, renovating the other floors into apartments himself. It was on one of those first summer days when Robert, paint cans balanced in both hands, found Ethel in her new garden and spoke more to her than he had or ever would again:
‘The lady who used to own this place liked gardening, too,’ he’d said. And Ethel had found that comforting, like she was doing her part in that poor woman’s stead, carrying on her legacy.
She didn’t know how right she was.
Chelsea didn’t understand why no one wanted to live with her. She excelled at sharing space with strangers; in fact, she’d argue that no other person in the world was a better roommate than her. How could she convey how awesome she was in a Craigslist ad?
So far she’d written:
Friendly 24yo looking for a roommate. Shared second floor apartment. Roommate will have their own bedroom, shared bathroom. Rent is $400 a month. Applicants must be easygoing and social, willing to talk after long days at work, not just cruise in without a word and slam their bedroom door behind them. Needs to like to eat because I love cooking for people, and apparently, some find that ‘overbearing.’ If you’re allergic to gluten or lactose, need not apply. No fad dieters or exercise gurus, no exceptions. Vegetarians are negotiable, vegans are not.
Chelsea’s last roommate, Shianne (Shitanne, Chelsea called her in her head), had only lived with her for a month. None of her roommates stayed for long − there was Heidi, then Chris, then Ann, then Anne with an e, then Julie, she was forgetting one − but all of them had legitimate reasons for leaving. Chris was allergic to dust and this old house was coated in it. Ann wanted to move closer to work; the ten-minute commute was just too long. Heidi had a friend with a couch and it had been a while since she and that friend had any time together; she had to move there. All of them had perfectly decent reasons.
But Shianne didn’t. The previous weekend, Chelsea, assembling empanadas in the kitchen, had watched as Shianne’s possessions appeared in stacks in the hall, Shianne darting back and forth from her room with items by the armful.
Shianne was dragging her boxspring through the kitchen when Chelsea decided she couldn’t survive the silence any longer. ‘What’s going on?’ Chelsea asked, the tiny circles of dough waiting for her on the counter.
Shianne paused her heaving of the boxspring, truly a task meant for two people, of which Chelsea would have been more than happy to assist if she had been properly informed and politely asked to help. Chelsea watched Shianne let the boxspring go. It slammed against the kitchen wall, rattling a framed print of measurement conversions on its hook. Shianne still didn’t say anything.
‘Well?’ Chelsea asked. ‘Are you moving out or something?’
‘Yes, I’m moving out.’ Shianne gripped the boxspring as it slipped to the floor. ‘What the hell did you expect?’
A fury rose in Chelsea that was so hot, it left her sweating. If anyone was going to be frustrated by this situation, it was her.
‘Why?’ Chelsea waited for the usual answers.
‘Why?’ Shianne shrieked. Abandoning the boxspring altogether, Chelsea watched Shianne’s hands clench into fists at her sides. ‘Seriously? Why?’
‘Yes, why?’ Chelsea hated to repeat herself.
Shianne motioned around the kitchen. ‘Because of this.’
Voice raised, Shianne railed about Chelsea’s ‘obsession with cooking,’ ranted about the plates of food deposited outside her door ‘at all hours of the day’ − which Chelsea thought had been gestures of kindness, but whatever, this girl was clearly ungrateful − and complained about how none of her juiced vegetables and bottles of Kombucha ever fit in the fridge. After Shianne moved out, Chelsea couldn’t forget her roommate’s critique. It left her feeling buzzy and uncomfortable with herself.
Bolding the line about exercise, Chelsea posted the Craigslist ad. Her roommates over the years weren’t alike except for one trait: they all obsessed over working out. Never the same kind. It was always a delightful surprise to Chelsea, and it seemed, to her roommates. They’d be regular people for a couple of weeks and then boxes of supplies would appear stacked at their door, usually all at once as delivery people often forgot 5 Ophelia Street. Sneakers, sports bras, yoga mats, free weights.
Heidi ran marathons, looping the neighbourhood in a blur. Chris liked pilates, the instructors in her videos yelling, ‘One more, you can do it, come on!’ echoing through the apartment. Julie practised yoga, taking a balance pose while she brushed her teeth or applied her makeup. Shianne’s was the worst of all: boxing. All Chelsea could hear from her room was the constant slam of Shianne’s glove against the punching bag, the sound startling her every time.
It wasn’t that Chelsea was opposed to fitness − she walked for thirty minutes and powered through a set of calisthenics each day − but she did feel her roommates overdid it. Single-minded in their exercise after moving in, their bodies were temples and they therefore refused Chelsea’s cooking, eating raw kale and cashews by the handful. It was a tragedy really. They restricted themselves from any real culinary pleasure.
The ad posted, Chelsea returned to her kitchen, her haven, the place she felt most like herself. Weirdly enough, when Chelsea had toured the second-floor apartment three years earlier, she didn’t notice the kitchen. She’d zoomed right past it, spotted the clawfoot tub, and paid her deposit on the spot, the landlord waiting for her outside. He’d given her the space to tour the apartment by herself, a gesture Chelsea appreciated.
She’d moved in, straight out of college after landing an assistant position at an accounting firm, and expected to live on ramen noodles and takeout sushi. Fair expectation, considering that before moving to 5 Ophelia Street, all she could cook was an egg, and even that, she broke the yolk.
But now? Chelsea cooked three full meals a day, sometimes a loaf of bread or a batch of scones to round them out. She made her own pizza dough, she canned jams, she pickled all sorts of vegetables. The pasta maker she’d ordered was in transit. She’d find a roommate who appreciated her talents.
With the tang of tomatoes lingering in the air, Chelsea checked the lasagna cooling on the counter and wrapped it in foil. She tried fitting it into the freezer first, but it was full of chicken pot pie. She’d baked so many last month that her pie plates had sagged from exhaustion. Opening the fridge, she managed to find a spot on the second shelf between two containers of empanadas and a frittata.
Could she convince Rob to buy her another fridge before her next roommate moved in?
Either way, she needed to buy more Pyrex.
Mia struggled to drag herself out of bed in her new apartment.
Lines of morning light peeked through her blinds and boxes surrounded her like statues. After her mom left the night before, Mia ran a wet finger over her teeth, stretched a set of sheets onto her mattress, and fell into bed in a heap. Moving exhausted her. She refused to move again for a long time.
Since she’d arrived at 5 Ophelia Street, she couldn’t stop imagining her old life running parallel to this one. Not her life at home with her mom, back in her purple-walled childhood bedroom, gashes from where her boy band posters had stripped the paint off when she’d grown out of them. Why had her mom preserved Mia’s room like an exhibit? Did she know there would be a day when Mia would return home? An inescapable conclusion to her daughter’s mid-twenties? What a depressing thought.
No, her other life with Kerry haunted her. If they hadn’t split, she’d be waking up in their gorgeous loft, Kerry already awake and perched at her desk in underwear and a t-shirt, their neighbour plunking his guitar, the sweet smell of conchas drifting from their other neighbour’s kitchen. When Mia swung out of bed in this other life, someone else would live there too, someone to brew her coffee, to talk to, to kiss good morning. She wouldn’t live in a studio. Alone.
Mia buried herself further under the covers. Had Hannah already moved in? Hannah, the name like a knife to Mia’s heart every time she thought it: Hannah, Hannah, Hannah. Was Hannah shaving her legs in Mia’s stand-only shower, leg propped against the wall, suds dripping? Was she slipping spice bottles off of the shelf Mia had hung in the kitchen? Was she sprawled in Mia’s bed, her and Kerry’s feet pressed together, their hands interlaced as they fell asleep?
After Mia had found out about Hannah, it took her three weeks to leave. Three excruciating weeks. Where she cried for days. Where she and Kerry lived in a stony silence. Where, after her anger fizzled out, Mia told Kerry she forgave her, they could start over, pretend Hannah never existed. And that’s when Kerry finally admitted it: she wasn’t in love with Mia at all. Maybe never was. Hannah, Hannah she loved. That’s when Mia moved out, boxed up her possessions and piled them in her old car, drove home, and crumpled into her mom’s outstretched arms.
In her new apartment, Mia crawled out of bed, flicked every light on, and studied the task ahead of her, forcing Kerry and Hannah from her head. To start, Mia sliced open the top of every box with her keys and lined them side by side. Next, she opened every kitchen drawer, the bathroom cabinet, and the closet. It was the only closet in the entire apartment, but it stretched wide: four or five people could comfortably join Mia inside. Built-in shelves lined the back wall and cobwebs gathered in the corners.
About to turn back to her boxes, an odd shape caught her eye. A canvas was crammed along the wall of one of the shelves, its color the same as the closet walls, making it almost invisible, camouflaged really, like a lizard sitting on a tree branch.
She pulled the canvas from where it was jammed between the two shelves, worried she’d damage it in the process. After jiggling, it released. It was small, about the width of her torso. She flipped it over, expecting the forgotten canvas to be bare.
But she was wrong. It was a painting.
It was a painting of a woman staring out of a window at a neighbourhood below. Small houses crouched beneath her view, snow dusting their heads. Tires had stamped parallel lines into the snow-covered street. Trees sprouted above the houses and reached for dreamy blue sky. A small mountain huddled in the distance.
With a jolt, Mia recognised this scene. She backed out of the closet, painting in hand, and rushed to the window by her bed. Holding the painting up, she compared. Sure, the house colors had changed, there were fewer trees now, and it was the middle of summer, not winter. But otherwise, the scenes were identical.
Heart pounding, Mia focused on the woman in the painting. Her brunette hair fell straight except for a slight curl at the ends, and she wore a blue dress that cinched at the waist. She was tall, her hands resting on the window sill, poised as if waiting for something.
Something about the width of her hips, the smallness of her hands, the curl of her hair, felt familiar to Mia. Mia wished she could beckon the woman to turn around, for if she could, she’d swear the face staring back at her was her own.
Mia rushed back to the closet, flung the painting inside, and slammed the door behind her.
Hours later, Mia was wiping her kitchen cabinets with a rag, sweat dripping from her forehead, when a loud knock rapped on the door.
Mia heaved herself up, threw the rag into the kitchen sink, and weaved through half-unpacked boxes to the door. On her way, her eyes flicked to the closet, door shut tight.
Mia swung the front door open. ‘Yes?’
It was a woman. She looked about twenty-five, but her outfit screamed middle-aged housewife from the 50s: checkered dress, floral apron, kitten heels, hair swept back into a bun. Mia berated herself for her gym shorts and crop top, her banged-up sneakers, her hair pulled back with an old and sweaty headband.
‘Welcome to 5 Ophelia Street!’ the woman said, holding out a foil-covered Pyrex.
‘Wow, I didn’t expect anyone to…’
The woman pushed past her and power-walked straight for the kitchen. Opening the fridge, she slid the Pyrex in and emerged shaking her head. Mia heard her whisper, ‘Well, that won’t do.’ And suddenly, she’d returned, thrusting out a hand.
‘I’m Chelsea. With an “A”, not a “Y”. Don’t you hate it when people spell your name wrong? Anyway, welcome to the house. I live on the second floor. I’ve brought a three-cheese lasagna. You heat it at 400 degrees for twenty minutes, okay? Don’t use a microwave, it’ll zap out all the texture. I stuck instructions to the side of the pan. Don’t forget to pull the post-it off before you bake it.’ She laughed, one of those nervous high-pitched ones. ‘Wouldn’t want you to start a fire on your first day here!’
‘Yes, I’d like to avoid fires. Any disaster, really.’ Mia laughed. ‘Thanks so much. I’m Mia.’
Chelsea clapped her hands together. ‘Mia! I love it. Is it just you?’
‘Just you living here?’ Chelsea scanned the apartment behind Mia.
‘Oh. Yes, just me.’ Mia’s face grew warm.
‘That’s great. I’m single, too. Who needs men, right? Do you have everything you need? Let me know if you want to borrow my drill.’
Mia ignored the men comment. ‘I’m good, but thanks.’
‘I might not look it, but I’m very strong. All of your appliances work?’
‘I think so.’
‘Good. When I moved in, my fridge leaked so much water, it was like my own personal pool. Don’t hesitate to call Rob if something breaks. He’ll usually fix it. Well, send someone to fix it. I honestly haven’t laid eyes on him since I toured this place.’
Chelsea turned toward the door. ‘Oh! And the mail isn’t delivered here every day. It’s like the postman forgets about our house. You’ll get used to it. One time, we waited a week and a half for mail and I missed ten per cent off a Dutch oven.’ She clapped her hands again. ‘My jam is simmering so I should go, but let me know if you need anything.’
And as quickly as Chelsea had arrived, she disappeared, her heels click-clacking down the stairs.
Later that day, Mia realised she couldn’t avoid the closet any longer.
She’d unpacked most of her belongings. The sun streaked through the windows, blazing and bright. She’d forced all the windows open, but the apartment was an oven. It needed fans, and fast, before she melted. Sweat dripped down her spine and gathered behind her knees.
Unpacking had exhausted and depressed her. Most of her possessions reminded her of Kerry, even ones Mia had bought before they’d dated. This pot, they’d burned soup in once, leaving its bottom black. This necklace, Kerry wrapped around her finger when they kissed. This book, Kerry never finished, a post-it stuck halfway through. Mia wished she could start over with brand new possessions, ones that Kerry never touched.
All that remained was the closet.
Squaring her shoulders, Mia opened the closet door. She knelt to grab the painting she’d thrown in hours earlier, but it wasn’t there.
Mia spun in the closet, scanning the walls and floor for the canvas, but nothing.
The painting had disappeared.
Days passed and Mia adjusted to her new home.
She learned that the postman only delivered mail to 5 Ophelia Street every three days or so, just as Chelsea had said. She also realised how neglected the house was. Her apartment itself was fine, but during her first rainstorm, Mia found Chelsea in the stairwell, placing buckets under cracks in the ceiling to catch the fat droplets of rainwater. During her first load of laundry, Mia ran two floors up for Chelsea’s help, her quarters stuck halfway in the coin slot. Chelsea gave the appliance a nice slap, jiggled the slot, and managed to deposit Mia’s quarters inside, instructing her on how to do it herself the next time.
Mia hadn’t met their other neighbour yet. She was an older woman, tall and grey-haired. Mia often spotted her knee-deep in her flower beds, their only introduction a couple of waves as Mia entered or exited the house.
Mia spent most of her free time in bed, the summer heat pressing down on her like a shroud, the single fan she’d bought oscillating above her. She scrolled through Kerry’s social media pages for hours, a jolt to the heart whenever she posted anything new. The night Kerry had posted a photo of Hannah framed in a sunsetted window, Mia cried herself to sleep.
Five days after Mia moved in, the painting reappeared. Mia returned home from work, threw her sandals into the closet, and there it sat. Jammed between the shelves as if it had never moved. Prying it free again, Mia flipped it over. Her skin prickled as she studied the scene, the woman, herself.
She’d determined the discovery of the painting on her unpacking day to be a wild, heat-induced dream. But here it was. Solid, the edges of the canvas rough against her hands.
Mia carried the painting from the closet, knelt beside her bed, and slid the canvas underneath. She wouldn’t lose it again.
The painting moved.
It seemed it was made to travel, and Mia discovered it in various locations around her apartment: on her kitchen counter, under her pillow, in her bathroom cabinet. Mia became used to this, the surprise of finding it somewhere new, lying there as if it had always lived in that spot. Each time, Mia grabbed the painting, marched it to her bed, and tucked it underneath. Afterwards, she’d collapse on the mattress and give it a good bounce, as if trying to demand that the painting stay where she left it.
Sometimes, she’d lie on her bed, the painting safe underneath her, and read every text she and Kerry ever sent each other, a thread she’d refused to delete even as her phone ran out of space. Their conversations were prosaic − discussions about dinner, ETA check-ins, funny internet memes − all punctuated by I love yous. Had Kerry lied to Mia the entire time?
This became a warped routine for Mia: work, find the painting in her sock drawer, return it to its spot, eat the meal Chelsea dropped off for her, mope about Kerry, go to bed. Until one morning, when she found the painting in her car.
There it sat in her passenger seat, as if waiting for Mia to chauffeur it around town. Mia carried the insipid object back to her apartment, shoved it under her bed, and slammed the door behind her.
After work that day, Mia headed home. But instead of turning onto Ophelia Street, she drove past it. Swearing, Mia prepared to turn around, but instead, passed by every opportunity. She thought about turning down one road, then a second, then a third, but her foot didn’t let off the gas.
Finally, Mia turned into a strip mall a few miles from her apartment. Planning to turn around, Mia surprised herself by pulling into a parking spot instead. Her hand shifted the car into park. Her foot removed itself from the brake. Her fingers twisted the key from its ignition.
Mia slid out of the car and locked it behind her. Her legs led her one stride at a time toward the line of stores. Something was happening, Mia knew this, but her questions about it were as light as a bubble, floating up, up, and pop, they disappeared.
Mia’s feet led her to an art store tucked between a pizza shop and an insurance agency. Her hand pulled the door open, a bell tinkling above her. A man in a beanie waved from behind the register. Mia forced a smile as her feet led her to an aisle brimming with painting materials. Overwhelmed by choices, she was shocked to watch her hands select a variety of supplies: a long box filled with tubes of acrylic paint; a handful of brushes, some with thin, pointed tips, others round and fluffy; and a package of canvases.
‘A woman on a mission,’ the cashier said as she unloaded her goods at the register. Knowing how low her checking account was, her hand slid her credit card from her wallet. ‘Your total is $68.95.’
Receipt in hand, Mia strode back to her car. She opened her trunk to drop her supplies inside, and there it sat:
Ethel was washing dishes when the new girl returned home from work later than usual.
The girl climbed out of her car and walked to the front door with a plastic bag hanging from her arm. Squinting, Ethel drew her hands from the soapy water and gripped the edges of the kitchen sink. The bag brimmed with items. A package of canvases. Paintbrushes with their ends poking out. The girl’s other arm grasped a painting − its front pressed close to her middle.
Abandoning her dishes, Ethel paced her apartment, straightening frames on the walls, sticking her finger into her houseplants’ soil, her mind tick, tick, ticking.
It was happening again.
Mia propped the painting against the window after she returned from the art store.
For a while, she stared at it, studied how the painter had transformed the landscape outside of her window into parts, into lines and shapes and shades. She examined the curve of the woman’s neck, the texture of her hair, the detail of her fingers.
Using the spine of a book, she drew the strong, straight lines of the window, and sketched a rough outline of the woman standing in front of it.
Mia hadn’t held a pencil in years, hadn’t drawn anything since her art electives in college, but she found it didn’t matter.
She didn’t know why she was drawing, just that she had to.
A few nights later, Mia was perched in front of her window again when there was a knock at the door.
She hid her wet canvas and paints in her closet, and the original painting beneath her bed. ‘It’s unlocked,’ Mia called. The smell of warm, melted cheese filled her apartment.
‘Counter or fridge?’ Chelsea asked, her iconic heels clicking.
Mia watched as Chelsea slid the trivet from the day before across the counter and placed the warm pan on it.
‘Ravioli. Spinach and mozzarella, butternut squash and parmesan, mushroom and ricotta. I hope the mushrooms aren’t polarising for people.’
Chelsea always talked as if she were cooking for a large crowd. Strange, considering the only person she fed was Mia.
‘Sounds amazing.’ Mia watched as Chelsea placed the reheating instructions on the counter, straightening the paper until it was displayed just right. ‘I’m starving. Want to join?’
Chelsea perked up. ‘Sure! I’m curious about the mushroom.’
This was their nightly song and dance, as Chelsea seemed as low on friends as Mia was. Mia slid plates from the cabinet while Chelsea filled two glasses with water. They both scooped large mounds of ravioli and headed for the couch where they balanced their plates in their laps. Mia’s eyes drifted to the closet door.
Four days had passed since she’d visited the art store. She’d begun painting that morning, focusing on the trees first, their dark, leafless skeletons reaching toward the sky. For four days, Mia thought of the painting, the painting only. It occupied so much space in her head, nothing else fit, not even Kerry.
She hadn’t shared any of this with Chelsea. What would she say? ‘Hey, any paintings following you lately?’ But somehow, Mia needed to figure out what was happening to her. Paintings didn’t appear and disappear for no reason.
Mia speared a ravioli and placed it in her mouth. Mushroom, nutty and warm. ‘How’s the roommate search?’
Chelsea’s plate sat untouched on her lap. ‘Dreadful. A few responses, but whenever I send them my questionnaire, they stop answering.’
‘One accused me of invading her privacy. It’s not like you don’t apply for everything else: a job, a lease. Why not apply to live with someone? How else will I screen out the crazies?’
‘They’re that bad?’
‘Not necessarily. Though my true wish is to find the perfect woman who both loves chicken pot pie and falls in love with you.’
‘I told you, I can’t imagine dating right now. Kerry and I just broke up.’
‘Six months ago! You’re ready, trust me. Kerry’s an ass.’
‘You never even met her.’
‘Doesn’t matter. I’ll find someone wonderful for the both of us.’
Mia watched Chelsea spear her first ravioli, inspect it on her fork, and cut it into perfect halves, placing one in her mouth. ‘The dough could be thinner,’ Chelsea announced. ‘And more sage in the butternut squash wouldn’t hurt.’
‘They’re amazing.’ Mia said, already halfway through her helping, but Chelsea didn’t listen. She was chewing with her eyes closed. ‘Remind me,’ Mia said, the painting drifting back into her head. ‘How long have you lived here?’
‘What about the first floor?’
‘I don’t know, a bazillion? She’s about a hundred.’
‘Okay, maybe more like sixty. I remember Rob saying she’d lived here since the 90s?’
Mia mulled that detail over as she chewed. ‘I haven’t met her yet.’
Chelsea’s eyes finally popped open. ‘Ethel?’ So that was her name. ‘Really?’
‘Nope. I mean, I’ve waved, but that’s it.’
‘It’s for the best.’
‘Is she awful or something?’
‘No, she’s fine.’ Mia cocked her head at her. ‘Okay, well.’ Chelsea leaned closer to Mia on the couch. ‘A couple summers ago, I was canning my own tomato sauce and was one tomato short. So I borrowed one from her garden, key word, borrowed, like obviously I planned to replace it. Wasn’t neighbourly, the way she yelled at me. Let’s just say, I stopped leaving casseroles on her doorstep after that.’ Chelsea leaned back on the couch. ‘Why are you so interested in her?’
Ethel answered the door immediately when Mia knocked on it the next day, almost as if she were waiting for her.
‘Hi,’ Mia said. ‘I moved in a few weeks ago to the third floor? I wanted to stop by and introduce myself.’
‘Of course,’ Ethel said. ‘Come in.’ Mia followed her inside. The older woman wore a button-up and jeans, her feet were bare and blue-veined, her long gray hair was pulled back into a braid.
Ethel instructed Mia to sit in the living room while she brewed a pot of tea.
A few minutes later, Ethel returned with a wine glass in each hand and a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc tucked in the crook of her arm.
‘I was going to play respectable older lady and serve you Earl Grey, but screw it. Wine is what we both want, right?’ Mia nodded. ‘So let’s be honest about it.’
‘Great.’ Mia watched as Ethel uncorked the bottle and poured the wine, handing Mia a glass. They sipped in tandem and Mia scanned Ethel’s apartment. Art plastered the walls and plants stood as sentries in the corners, their stems pale in the late afternoon sun. ‘I love your apartment.’
‘Thank you. What’s great about living alone is you control everything. I can redecorate whenever I want. Blast Joni Mitchell, eat oatmeal every night, and no one cares. It’s liberating.’
Mia pictured her apartment’s bare walls. The painting leaning against the window. She hadn’t even bothered to hang it.
‘How long have you lived here?’
‘Wow. Have you always lived here alone?’
‘Yes.’ Ethel smiled. ‘You look surprised.’
‘No.’ Mia laughed. ‘Well, maybe a little. You’re never lonely?’
‘Not really. If it makes you feel better, I’d never lived in a single room by myself before this place. I moved from my shared bunk-bedded bedroom with my sisters growing up to a house with my ex-husband at 19. Don’t get married when you’re 19, okay?’
‘Great. Don’t get married until you’re out of your twenties. Your twenties are a miserable time, you need to feel them down to your bones.’
Mia felt safe there on the couch, Ethel perched across from her in a floral armchair, a coffee table shaped like a tree stump between them. It smelled like incense and laundry and her wine tasted of apples.
‘So.’ Ethel placed her glass on the table. ‘I’m happy to shoot the shit, but you looked like you walked in with a discussion topic in mind, am I right?’
Mia nodded, startled by Ethel’s perceptiveness.
‘So?’ Ethel leaned back in her chair. ‘Get on with it.’
Mia paused, considering the best way to phrase it. After a gulp of wine, she asked, ‘Have you ever noticed anything weird here?’
‘Like you’re doing something, but you’re not sure why.’
‘Don’t be like the others.’ Ethel’s eyes focused on Mia’s.
‘The others?’ Mia’s pulse quickened.
‘Let it in. Don’t fight it.’
Ethel continued to stare, her eyes wide and unblinking. Goosebumps prickled on Mia’s arms. She sipped the wine, but it soured in her mouth.
‘Something happened here,’ Ethel said. ‘A death.’
‘Look it up.’
‘Look it up,’ Ethel repeated. ‘A quest is good for the soul.’
Questions piled in Mia’s throat.
‘Especially when that soul’s had her heart broken,’ Ethel continued.
‘What? How do you…’
Ethel looked away, her face clouded. ‘Would you like a spider plant? I can give you a cutting.’ Before Mia could answer, Ethel rose and crossed the room. She leaned over a plant, cut a sprig of it loose, and dropped it into Mia’s hands. Soil sprinkled across her palms.
‘Keep it in water for 24 hours before you plant it. Indirect sunlight only. Thanks for dropping by.’
Cradling the cutting in her hands, Mia left, Ethel’s stare following her out the door.
‘Something happened here. A death.’
Those words rang in Mia’s ears for the rest of the night. They circled her as she climbed the two flights of stairs to her apartment, her head swimming a little from the wine, the spider plantlet small and green in her hands. They whispered in her ear as she painted, coating the sky in a pale blue. They distracted her as she ate dinner that night with Chelsea, the onion tart barely registering as she chewed.
‘Did someone die here?’ Mia asked. Sunlight settled in blocks through the windows, bathing the apartment in a golden glow.
‘What?’ Chelsea grinned across from Mia on the couch. ‘Way to bring down the mood.’
‘Do you know if someone died here?’ Mia repeated.
‘No, no idea.’ Chelsea squinted at her. ‘Who told you that?’
‘You’ve never heard of anything bad happening here?’
‘Ethel is bonkers. She could totally be a witch. Plus, if something did happen here, would it matter? It’s not like you believe this place is haunted.’
Mia stared at her barely touched rectangle of tart, the onions fat and brown.
‘You do not,’ Chelsea said.
‘I’m not sure,’ Mia said. ‘Nothing weird has happened to you?’
‘Like temperatures dropping and doors slamming? No.’ Chelsea paused, thinking. ‘But sometimes, my apartment smells like cloves. Can’t explain it. It’s not like I cook with cloves often.’
Chelsea snorted. ‘What do you want me to say? You’re talking crazy. No one has died since I’ve lived here. I’ve never heard of anyone dying. Ethel’s a loon, I’d ignore her.’
‘So nothing strange has happened to you?’
Abandoning her plate on the couch, Mia walked to her bed. She withdrew the painting and handed it to Chelsea, who rambled on: ‘I mean I didn’t take you for a superstitious, can’t live near a cemetery, believes-in-ghosts kind of person.’ She paused, looking at the painting. ‘What’s that?’
‘I found it,’ Mia said. Threads of the story dangled in her head. Should she tell Chelsea how the painting could move? How she couldn’t seem to escape it?
‘I guess it’s a little creepy.’ Chelsea studied the painting. ‘How she looks like you from the back.’
Mia’s body chilled.
‘A coincidence, I bet,’ Chelsea said. ‘This is your evidence? An old painting?’
‘Have you ever done something, but not known why?’
‘I once baked ten pie crusts in a row for no reason.’ Chelsea grinned. ‘Well, actually, I was trying to perfect my technique, so I guess it was on purpose.’
‘You’re not taking me seriously.’
‘I am. I’m sorry. This isn’t my thing. I’m not sure what you want me to say.’
‘Come here.’ Mia led Chelsea to the closet and opened the door. Mia’s replication of the painting laid on the floor, swathes of white amidst strokes of color.
Mia pointed to the floor. ‘I’m not a painter.’
Looking at it, Mia itched to paint. While she worked, she forgot Kerry for entire swaths of time. It was such a relief, Mia often cried.
‘So you think you’re painting because a dead artist doomed to paint the same scene over and over again after his untimely death is haunting you?’
‘Ethel gave you zero specifics?’
‘None. She said, ‘A quest is good for the soul.’’
‘God, she’s ridiculous. Did you know she once told me the right roommate would appear when I least expected it? She thinks she’s so original, but she’s terribly cliché. And rude.’
‘I kind of liked her.’
‘Of course you did.’ They both returned to the couch. ‘You could call Rob.’
‘What?’ Mia pictured their strange landlord.
‘He’s owned this place as long as Ethel’s lived here, right? If a renter died, he’d know. I guess that’s not a fact you include in the apartment listing. “Hardwood floors, new appliances, and our very own tragic ghost!”’
Mia turned this idea over in her mind, as if inspecting an odd stone.
‘Okay, maybe I will,’ Mia said.
‘Great!’ Chelsea said. ‘See? I’m a great help. Now can we please change the subject? This has been nice and all, but I’m dying to tell you about the woman I interviewed today. I told her if she moved in, she’d need to bring her own fridge, which is forward-thinking of me, considering the conflicts I’ve had over fridge space in the past. You will not believe what she said to me!’
Chelsea rambled on, but Mia didn’t listen. Instead, she stared at the painting lying by her and Chelsea’s feet. The woman’s hands gripped the windowsill in anticipation, as if she knew exactly what Mia planned to do next.
It took Mia three days to drum up the nerve to call her landlord. They hadn’t spoken a word since she’d signed her lease, their only communication a check Mia dropped in the mailbox at the start of the month.
After a night of frantic painting, streaks of paint up and down her arms, Mia decided to call. She planted herself on the bed, staring at the painting, the woman’s back to her as if she disapproved.
The phone rang three times. ‘Yeah?’ a male voice answered.
‘Rob?’ Mia asked. ‘It’s Mia, your new tenant on Ophelia Street.’
‘Oh, yeah,’ Rob said. ‘Something broken?’
The list of repairs the house needed scrolled through Mia’s head. ‘No, all good.’
‘So what’s up?’ A TV chattered in the background, the voices low and quiet.
Mia searched for what to say. ‘This is sort of weird, but Ethel? On the first floor? She mentioned someone died here?’
Silence. The TV voices grew louder, high and aggressive.
Inhaling, Mia continued, ‘Don’t worry, I’m not moving out or anything. I was just curious.’
Still nothing. Mia regretted calling at all. Should she hang up, pretend it was all a mistake?
A huff of breath. ‘Something weird happen?’ His voice croaked, as if he were scraping the words from his throat.
Mia hesitated, her eyes fixed on the painting hanging above her. ‘Maybe, yeah.’
‘That place has always freaked me out. Ethel never understood, she never knew.’ He rushed now, his words spilling out like water.
Mia’s heart fluttered. ‘Never knew what?’
‘The place was so cheap, I couldn’t pass it up. Didn’t know what I was getting into.’
‘What happened?’ Mia was surprised to hear her voice sounding so strong and clear.
‘Ethel’s right,’ Rob said. ‘Someone died.’
‘Who?’ Mia asked.
A silent pause from both of them, and then:
Mia googled it as soon as she and Rob hung up, her body taut like a rope stretched between two trees. She searched for Ophelia Street and narrowed the results to twenty years ago. There, she found it. Easy.
Five-year-old boy dies after being hit by car
August 4, 1999
A boy has died after being struck by a green sedan on Ophelia Street Friday afternoon in front of his home.
Jacob Morris, five, was hit at about 2pm, police said. His mother, Amy Morris, reported that he was safely inside their fenced patio at 5 Ophelia Street, but must have slipped out while she was gardening. She did not witness the event. A neighbour called the police.
The driver fled the scene after the crash. Residents on Ophelia Street report that he was driving a green sedan. Please call the police with any leads on identifying this vehicle. This is an ongoing investigation.
Afterward, Mia slipped out of her apartment and walked up and down Ophelia Street. She watched cars fly by. Ethel was gardening, her back to the street, and Mia saw Jacob’s mother there instead, as if the accident was happening again, was happening always.
The article said that his mother, Amy, didn’t witness the event, but she must have heard it. The squeal of the brakes, the thud of a body hitting the bumper, the sickening crunch of it landing on the ground. She must have heard it all.
Hot tears pooling in her eyes, Mia climbed back to her apartment, scurrying up the driveway to avoid Ethel. She needed to paint.
Settling at her makeshift easel, she focused on the snow-covered street. She squinted, trying to understand how the painter had shaded the snow. That’s when she spotted it.
A figure stood in the street of the painting. Nothing more than a splotch of paint, a tiny frame she could barely see.
Mia stood, grabbed the painting, and pressed her face as close to the canvas without her eyes blurring.
The figure was small with a mop of brown hair. A ball in his hand. A kid.
It was Jacob, and he wasn’t there before.
Mia called her landlord again the next day. It took persuading, but she managed to convince him to give her the seller’s phone number from all those years ago.
‘The only reason I’m giving this to you is because it probably won’t work,’ Rob had said. ‘It’s twenty years old, for god sakes.’
Mia stood in front of the window, a mirror of the painting beside her, the scrap of paper with the number in blue ink fluttering in her hand. She dialed.
‘Hello?’ a woman answered. Her voice rasped.
‘Hi, is this Amy?’ Mia asked, her heart hammering.
‘Nope,’ the woman said. ‘It’s Carol.’
‘Oh, sorry. Do you happen to know an Amy?’
‘Okay, sorry to bother you.’
Defeated, Mia collapsed on the bed. She googled Amy Morris and found a White Pages website with five numbers listed in her area. She called them in order. The first was disconnected. The second was a man. The third, a woman answered.
‘Hi, is this Amy?’ Mia asked.
‘Yes, this is Amy,’ the woman said. Mia heard the howl of a tea kettle in the background.
‘Amy Morris?’ Mia asked.
‘Great, hi.’ Mia exhaled the breath she’d been holding. ‘I’m Mia.’ Her brain whirred.
‘Hi Mia.’ Her voice was quiet, tentative. ‘Can I help you? I don’t want to buy anything.’
‘Oh I’m not a telemarketer,’ Mia said. ‘I moved into your old house on Ophelia Street? And I found something of yours. A painting?’
This was the key, Mia had decided. Everything had changed the moment she’d found the painting. She needed to banish it from her apartment. Return it to its owner. Then everything would revert back to normal.
‘I don’t want it.’ Her voice became abrupt, angry.
‘If I could just ask you a few questions about it?’ It embarrassed Mia to hear how desperate her voice sounded.
‘I’m sorry, but no.’ Each word was like a pin pressed into Mia’s hand, small and sharp.
‘I’m never going back there,’ Amy said. ‘Don’t call here again.’
The line died.
Mia spent the next few days trying to forget about Jacob and Amy Morris. She brimmed with questions, but she shoved them all deep inside her chest. The painting hung on her wall now and she spent hours trying to recreate it. The same scene, over and over again, canvas after canvas.
Painting calmed her in a way nothing else had. She focused on her task, and everything else faded away.
The urge to paint could intrude at any moment, Mia learned, and she let it in, as Ethel had encouraged. She abandoned sinks full of dirty dishes, her hands still dripping. She sprung out of her bed before dawn to return to her painting, her eyes still crusted over and squinty, and stayed up past midnight, the summer sky outside her window dark and pricked with the occasional star. Each work day, she counted down the hours until she could return to her apartment, to her window, to her paintbrush.
A few weeks later in early August, someone knocked on Mia’s door. Mia expected Chelsea to barrel in as usual, but instead, there was another knock, this one more feeble than the last.
‘Coming!’ Mia called, abandoning her paintbrush on the table.
She opened the door.
It was a woman Mia had never seen before. Bags sat under her eyes and her brown hair, pulled back into a tight ponytail, was streaked with grey.
‘You said you found my painting?’ the woman asked.
‘I don’t know why I came.’ Amy was small in Mia’s doorway, hunched and clutching at the purse on her shoulder.
‘Come in,’ Mia said. ‘If you want to, I mean.’
Amy entered, her steps small and shuffling. She left the door open behind her like an escape hatch. Mia didn’t close it.
Mia watched Amy circle the room. She was tiny, not only in height and weight, but in presence. She’d shrunk into herself, blurring at the edges.
‘What changed your mind?’ Mia asked.
‘This.’ Amy pointed at the painting tacked to the wall. ‘I couldn’t stop thinking about it, about this place, about everything.’ She whipped around and glared at Mia. ‘Where did you find it?’
Mia felt a surge of guilt, but swatted it away. ‘In the closet.’
‘I thought I’d lost it.’ Her voice was soft like cotton again.
‘Do you still paint?’
‘No. Not since. No.’
‘Take it.’ At those words, something loosened inside her. Mia’s urge to paint remained, but it was muted, hazy.
Amy backed away from the painting and studied Mia’s work in progress. Mia felt her cheeks flush, an urge to hide the painting away, for no one to ever see it.
‘You’re a painter.’ It wasn’t a question.
‘You are,’ Amy said, and Mia’s humiliation morphed into pride. ‘This was my studio.’
‘Really?’ They were still standing, and Mia considered asking Amy if she’d like to sit, but worried that any disruption would scare her off. She looked so nervous standing there, huddled into herself, her hands wringing together.
‘The light was always so perfect up here.’ Amy circled the room. ‘Still is. When my son was little, I’d put him down in that corner and paint while he napped.’
Mia’s breath caught at the mention of Jacob.
‘I never thought I’d come back here.’ Amy straightened up as if she were preparing to flee. ‘I should go.’
‘Sure, no problem.’ Mia crossed the room and removed the painting from the wall. ‘Here.’
Amy joined Mia at the window, and stared out at the street below.
It was only then, with Amy at the window and the painting in her hand, that Mia finally understood the painting’s perspective.
It wasn’t of Mia, or Amy, or anyone specific. The woman could be any of them.
The painting was about waiting.
Waiting for something to change, and being ready when it did.
A month later, Mia, Ethel, and Chelsea gathered in the patio garden.
A car pulled in, and they all straightened up.
Amy emerged. They waved, and watched her walk up the driveway to join them, her arms full of jars of dark purple jam, a bag of scones swinging from her hand, a heavy canvas tote hanging from her shoulder.
Amy had wildly transformed from the devastated, color-drained person who had appeared at Mia’s door a month ago. Her face was bright, her hair falling in waves around her face.
Amy reached the patio, settling her wares on the table. Chelsea snatched a jar of jam, popped the lid off and inhaled. Amy watched her and laughed, looking like another person entirely.
‘Don’t think I forgot about you,’ Amy said to Mia, her eyes sparkling. She unloaded tubes of paint from her bag, a deep magenta, a yellow ochre, a cadmium orange. ‘I was at the art store, and I just couldn’t help it.’
‘I understand the feeling,’ Mia said, running her fingers over the smooth tubes of paint. Mia’s newest paintings looked nothing like Amy’s window scene. They were more abstract, full of jagged lines, broken circles, reds and pinks and blacks. ‘You don’t have to keep doing this.’
‘Let the woman do what she wants,’ Ethel said. ‘Anything in your bag of tricks for me, kid?’
Half of Amy’s mouth turned up in a grin as she pulled out a giant jar full of what looked like dark sand.
‘You brought her dirt?’ Chelsea wrinkled her nose. ‘I’ll keep my jam, thanks.’ Ethel and Chelsea’s ability to share space without insulting each other remained a work-in-progress.
‘It’s ash.’ Ethel smiled. ‘Ash fertiliser. You brilliant goddess of a woman. Thank god Mia found you.’
‘Shall we try it?’ Amy asked, eyebrows raised.
‘You bet,’ Ethel said, the jar already tucked beneath her arm.
As Amy and Ethel left the table, a truck pulled into the driveway.
‘Hello, ladies,’ Rob called on his way into the house, a toolbox hanging from his hand. ‘How’s the new washing machine?’
‘I sort of miss having to hit it every time,’ Chelsea said.
Mia kicked Chelsea in the shin under the table. ‘It’s working great, thank you.’
He disappeared inside the house.
The afternoon faded into dusk, the heat of summer still lingering in the September air. Mia and Chelsea listened to the low talking of Amy and Ethel as they circled the house, pruning and fertilising. A soft hammering rang through the house’s windows.
Mia and Chelsea discussed a variety of topics over the course of the afternoon: how Mia’s spider plant was flourishing, how Chelsea’s new roommate was a food critic, which both terrified and excited her, how the mail was delivered every day lately instead of every three, and how Mia had enrolled in a painting course at the local college where there was a cute redhead with a nose ring she couldn’t stop looking at.
Their conversation lulled. A bird swooped overhead. Amy and Ethel laughed, the sound soft and comforting. Mia looked up from her third scone and found Chelsea quiet, her face scrunched as if she were contemplating something.
‘What?’ Mia asked. ‘Does the scone have too much vanilla?’
‘You would never put vanilla into a ginger scone,’ Chelsea said. ‘God, have I taught you anything? No, I was just thinking.’
‘It’s kind of weird. Don’t you think?’
‘They can’t hear anything when they’re talking flowers.’
‘Amy isn’t weird.’
‘That’s not what I said,’ Chelsea continued. ‘I’m saying it’s weird how she likes all of the same things as us.’
‘Oh.’ Mia had waited for someone else to notice. ‘That. I know.’
‘I’m just saying,’ Chelsea said. ‘Maybe you were right after all.’
Mia thought about that afternoon for a long time afterward, about how each of them seemed to be a disparate piece of Amy’s whole. Mia returned to the moment she’d led Amy into her apartment for the first time, and how she thought she’d felt the entire house exhale.
The house was old, so maybe in that moment it was just settling.
But Mia didn’t think so.
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