“I’ve never seen a house like this one,” a woman in a pink jacket said, letting out puffs of warm breath on the cold cloudy day.
“I built it, brick by brick, as they say,” said a tall slender man opening the front door.
The house’s unique style never settled well with the neighbors. The owner, Jeff, built the house to resemble a Victorian brownstone with a battlement and a glass conservatory filling up the top. Truth be told, none of the neighbors remember when the house was built. Last year, the community committee agreed to investigate if the property permits were in order. However, every year they agreed to the same thing and every year when they went to the city, they dealt with everything they had on the agenda but the house.
“What an incredible place Jeff,” the woman admired every part of the house with the innocence of a kid in a science museum. “Can I ask you something?”
“Sure. What’s on your mind Janet?”
“The living room, this is an odd choice. This diagonal line dividing the room between exposed dark red brick and,” she paused while she touched the other section, “white brick? I thought it was paint.” She carefully examined her fingers after touching the white surface noticed a powdery residue. “Could it be efflorescence? Is this line intentional?”
“Of course, it’s intentional. It’s not efflorescence at all. I mean, indoors? It’s just a bit dusty. Bachelor life and all. However, this side won’t always be white. I’m just not completely done building this place. Would you like to see the garden in the last floor?”
“I was just about to ask, what’s up with the dome on the roof, and the castle top?” she asked dusting off her hands and propelling in long steps towards the main staircase. As she passed the white bricks, she felt them pulling her in. The moment she laid eyes on the house, it numbed her mind and all the anxieties she had about her future seem to fade away. She’d had to really put an effort to remember her dream of opening a gallery.
The grand foyer of the house felt empty, but the cavernous three floor area still gave Janet chills down her spine. When they first arrived, he hurried her to the living room. She wanted to stop and admire the uniquely thick spiral staircase. At first glance, she could have sworn the uncanny black balusters were shaped like human arms holding up the rail. The staircase’s supporting central beam measured almost six feet wide, and extended all the way to glass dome with noticeable vine-like texture. It also got smaller as it went up, giving the illusion that it went up to the sky.
“How did you make this place yourself? This seems impossible for you to do by yourself,” Janet, no matter what he said, wouldn’t believe him.
“Well, I had help-”
“-I knew it!” she interrupted him, making his gaunt elongated face stretch into a frown.
“Would you like something to drink? It’s lovely up there this time of day, perfect for a mint julep,” his question, felt more like a command and she nodded her head in agreement.
She waited in the grand foyer, looking up the staircase she already affectionately called in her head the road up to hell. Nonetheless, the structure easily ranked as one of the most impressive she’s ever seen and most likely one of a kind. Jeff didn’t take long, but his tussled salt and pepper hair demonstrated he rushed making the drink. Not a drop of julep escaped the perfectly frosted tumblers. As he handed her one, he thrusted the glass gently to toast.
“To new beginnings,” he said, with a smile she found charming.
“To new beginnings indeed,” she replied, toasting back. She sipped a bit of the drink and gave him a stare that drew him in.
She drank a little more and started to climb the stairs. He stopped her, holding her hand gently. He looked around the high walls leading up to the dome and stalled. Her mindset changed and she sensed danger, but kept it all in with an award-winning poker face. She freed her hand politely and handed him her drink.
“I don’t feel like a mint julep at all today. How about I call it a night? If you don’t want me to stay, I can get a room in one of those hotels we passed along the way,” she said hoping he would ask her to leave.
“Nonsense. You came all the way here from across the country to meet me.”
“Well, you went all across the country to meet me first,” she said, recalling that first date when they had dinner on the roof of one the tallest buildings in Los Angeles. At first, she conned him. Like she did to other men before him. She wasn’t going to be a sugar baby, but she also wasn’t going to be a broke ass baby. She went on dates, set a trap, racked up the money, and ghosted.
“Don’t you trust me?” he asked, sipping on his drink leaving a little bit of liquid on his salt-and-pepper mustache.
In her mind she screamed, “hell no,” but out of her mouth came the safer answer “don’t worry about it, never mind.” She put her hands on his chest and gave him a kiss on the cheek. She pulled back her curly hair, and used a few crocodile pins to rearrange it. The act, while subtle, prompted Jeff to frown again. Her Garifuna grandmother used to be quite a fighter in Belize. She told little Janet that if she wanted to win fights, she either shaved her hair, or kept it tight. Since then, she carried around plenty of pins to follow her grandmother’s advice.
“My dear, your hair looks great no matter what,” he said placing the glasses on a small end table near the door to the living room. “Come back to the living room, sit down, we’ll see the garden later.”
“It’s ok. I think I’m going to head out anyway,” she walked the opposite direction, towards the door. At that moment, she felt it. A burning sensation in her throat, and a numbing of her hands. “What did you give me?”
“Either you sit on the living room or collapse before you even reach the door. It’s just a matter of preference,” his voice reverberated throughout the room, really more throughout the house.
“You motherfucker,” her voice angry and defiant only echoed in the grand foyer.
“You will still be able to see it all. Don’t worry, it will be alright.”
She started to run towards him, ready to punch him in the throat. However, she didn’t make it very far, only two steps landed firmly on the floor. She collapsed, as promised, but in front of Jeff. He bent down to see her face, and examined her eyes carefully. Janet blinked frantically, almost as if that could fight him off.
“I’ve never seen a person like you before,” he grabbed and carried her to the living room. He placed her slowly on a divan near the fireplace and arranged her sitting. “This person you see, isn’t really me. This suit has been very useful for the past few hundred years.”
From the fireplace he reached into the flames to grab a white brick. He cleaned a bit of soot collected on top and showed Janet the brick. He hovered it inches away from her face. In a split second, he pulled back, lifted the brick high above him, and then swiftly hit her face with the brick. The side of her cheek felt the porous surface rip through the skin, but she couldn’t even scream. He examined the bloody brick and smiled. She watched in horror as the brick absorbed the blood and turned that signature dark red from half the room.
“I can make a red out of this year,” he placed the brick in the white side of the living room making one of the bricks red. “Perfect. An unremarkable life, that’s what I needed. Simple years for a simple task.”
He lifted the brick again, high above him, and hit her harder. This time, she felt it breaking a cheekbone. Once again, the brick absorbed the blood and another red spot appeared on his wall. He repeated the process two more times, leaving her face bloody and with chucks of skin pealing off. Her eyes never stopped blinking. The last time he hit her, the brick turned red hot instead. He dropped it and turned his back on Janet.
“A good year. What a pity. This won’t make me a simple brick,” he said with a shiver in his voice. He turned around and in his hand a bunch of flowers bubbled like popcorn. As they hit the floor, each one created a fast-growing plant that bloomed in less than a minute. “Be right back.”
Jeff scooped the plants and the flowers in one swoop. He took them up to the garden while Janet was still catatonic with her eyes wide open. She could hear him go up the stair, each clonk getting lower as he made his way up the three floors. She tried to will herself from the effects of whatever drug he gave her. It didn’t work. The clonk, clonk of his steps got louder as he hurried down the staircase.
“Janet. I’m not going to need you after all,” he grabbed her by the collar of her shirt and dragged her halfway to the front door. From the floor, the grand foyer appeared even bigger. The pool of blood gathering underneath her filtered through the porous tile floor. “I need unremarkable people. I need people with years full of emptiness and maybe envy. The years you suffer are the best foundations. But happy years, fulfilling years, content years, they are fickle. They grow beautifully but they must be tended or they wither into nothing. I can’t build a castle out of those. Already have a garden full of them.”
She saw a few more greys in her hair than usual, now that her tight hairdo loosened. She struggled to understand what Jeff was talking about. The pain reached a tipping point, by then she felt numb. She tried to guess what being could this be, a trickster, a demon, an angel, a monster? She also repeated over and over in head the phrase: what can I do?
“Nothing. There’s nothing you can do my dear. This façade just won’t cut it anymore,” he picked her up again, but this time he carried her to the front door. “My kind built a lot of places on this rock floating in space. I didn’t have to hide from the people before you. They had no reason to destroy me, so they let me be. Then, the people that look like this disguise came and they were ruthless, they decimated the first people. I knew they would come for me soon enough, so I hid amongst them. I built giant castles for them and they never questioned it. They made so many miserable years for so many people. A feast.”
He tossed her outside and she tumbled down the short steps in the front – still catatonic. She was free, in her mind she screamed freedom. From the door, he looked at her disappointed. For a minute, just a minute, she felt sorry for it. As the pain started to return, her feelings of compassion for the monster faded.
“Good bye Janet. Live your life,” he slammed the door shut and that woke her up. She screamed, and thrashed her hands in the air as if she was still getting hit by Jeff.
She looked for the house, for Jeff, for something familiar, but nothing. She stood there, in the middle of an empty road, face bloody and in pain. She screamed, louder and louder until each light of every house on the block turned their lights on. A nearby ambulance stopped to help her and she couldn’t remember. She couldn’t remember why her face was bloody.
“Jeez, did you get hit by a car?” said the young paramedic as a crowd started to form around her. A trail of blood and some of the skin from her face laid in smudge on the pavement.
“I think so,” she said, tasting the blood still running down her face, but struggling to think about anything else.
“Hey babe, is this really your house?” said a man loud enough for the neighbors to hear. “This is crazy, like a castle or something.”
“Yeah, it’s mine. I built it, brick by brick,” said a short blond woman with a midwestern accent.
“Nah way, what about that part, that’s not brick,” he pointed at the iron fence delineating the property. “I dig a woman that, you know, builds and cooks and shit. It’s hot.”
“Maybe we should finish this conversation inside,” she said, hurrying him along the front walkway. “You’re the hot one my dear, you’re perfect for me.”