Homeshell: A Short Story

On the road, I’d thought that when I got here, I’d be a feather on the wind of exhilarating freedom, but this apartment is nothing but an empty shell. (feedback and criticism 100% accepted. I may even beg.)

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1. Homeshell: A Short Story

Homeshell

The apartment was an empty conch shell: open, bare, echoey. Grime clouded the corners of wide windows, turning them to oval frames, like the old pictures above my fireplace, back at home. My real home. But instead of warm memories of birthdays and weddings, these framed Leesport, a dark costal city, salted with headlights, peppered with brick.

The lights cast a dim glow behind my worn blue shoes. It paved a dusty path to the bathroom door, blocked by the new mattress resting against the wall. It was still entombed in its plastic shroud, delivered earlier that day. I got a delivery notice when I was on my way, probably somewhere between the cornfields and the mountains, westbound. Coastbound. Freebound.

On the road, I liked to think when I got here, I’d be a feather on the wind of exhilarating freedom. But when I finally stood in the doorway of my new apartment, and when I finally stared into those wide-open windows, the city I so wanted trickled off into the sea. Threw me on the verge of a dark, writhing mass of unknown possibility. What a racket.

I stacked my suitcases by the door, a meager offering to fill the skeletal void. Exhaustion carved up my insides at the thought of unpacking.

Shower first. With some effort, I found my toiletry bag and a flannel PJ set, worn soft from high school all-nighters and sleepy college Saturdays.

I’d have to move the mattress to get into the bathroom. Weary, I looked up the steep, narrow stairs to the rickety loft, where the whale belonged. No way could I do that alone. I would have called my mom, but she was miles away. At this time of night, she was probably in bed, watching her shows. If I’d been there, I would have heard the characters’ voices, ringing fake through the walls, but I wasn’t. I tipped the mattress off the wall. It fell flat, sending dust skittering across the floor. I flinched.

As I fumbled for the bathroom’s light switch, I unwittingly flicked it on. I blinked at the tile, at the glow of warm light. The mirror had no fingerprint, reflecting nothing but white countertop, simple toilet, grey and white checkers behind glass doors. This small bathroom, this illuminated box, was the only cold, flickering oasis of life on the whole planet.

A sudden, humming rush in the wall startled me out of my tiny reality, leaving my little heart beating in my ears long after I realized someone simply turned their water on. It reminded me— I was there to shower. Somehow, I’d forgotten. The odd tap contraption twisted on with a cranky squeal. It took me ages to balance steam and scald. As the water whooshed, relentless, I wondered if I startled someone else, too. Probably not. It was hard to believe there was anyone but ghosts here, much less that they’d be bothered by me.

I undressed like I was being watched anyway. Paranoia chased me into the shower as adrenaline squeezed me into a chokehold.

As I steeped myself, a faint voice seeped through the walls. Paper-thin. Noted. Someone was crooning gently, something bluesy and just in-tune. I couldn’t quite pick out the words over the drone of water dribbling through the walls, bombarding the white tile. I probably should have been irritated. In the movies, it always seems like people with apartments are irritated with their neighbors for having lives. But me, I had the urge to sing along, imagined myself reflected in a glossy piano in some red velvet lounge, perfectly uniform waves in my hair and a long cigarette dangling from my fingertips...Not standing in a strange shower that I was suddenly supposed to call my own. My home.

The guy had a beautiful voice though. Like a polished rock, all rounded and smooth. I almost did hum along, a little harmony, but I didn’t. What if he heard? That would be awkward, if we met. “Hello, I’m Meg, the girl who hijacked your shower musical. Nice to meet you,” I’d say. He’d look at me like my face was full of fingers. I’d die lonely. So it goes.

After drying and dressing, I cut the mattress free of its casing. I didn’t have any scissors, but I found my pocketknife, red paint chipped at the edges, stashed in a sneaker so I couldn’t lose it. By the time I got the plastic off, I was sweating through the dampness from the shower, stifled by the flannel pajamas. The sheets I’d ordered were soft cotton, in a dark, warm shade of violet. I fought them onto the mattress and collapsed. Screw the loft, I was sleeping on the floor.

Despite my fatigue, sleep did not come easy. As lights and shadows twirled, strange drafts and sounds made me feel oddly exposed, only shielded by a thin panel of knit thread.

Odd thoughts ran through experimental mazes in my mind, bumbling into the same walls again and again. I was a cricket in an abandoned ballroom, a lone leaf in a dead expanse of snow.

Eventually, I counted myself to sleep, talking over my homesickness like Mom taught me, back when I was as small as I felt.

In the morning, light poured into the apartment, filling it like a glass. Dust glittered in the sunbeams. When I peeled myself off the ground, blood rushed from my head, leaving me woozy.

Funny that this apartment was my home now. I didn’t think it’d ever feel like it. Not like my real room, with the bright orange bookshelf overflowing with worn novels and keepsakes. Not like my dorm room, with it’s wacky rugs and toothpaste walls. I didn’t have any of those things with me. They wouldn’t fit in my baby car.

I regretted it. Looking around that empty, cavernous room, I missed my clutter. I missed the movie posters, the stacks of music, the sticky note clumps on the walls. My jewelry box, the one my aunt gave me. I could have brought that. In it, the necklace with three pearls, from my best friend. One for each letter of my name. How could I have left it?

Momento after memory floated by my brain as I stared into the kitchen’s empty air. My body was as unsettled as my thoughts. I needed food, and I’d have to go find it.

When I shut the front door behind me, the whole brownish hall sighed. I locked it too, as if I had anything to steal. As if I had anything at all.

The floor squeaked by the elevator. I stood still, careful not to anger it, as I listened to the mechanical storm rising up to me.

The elevator wheezed to a stop. I stepped in to music. Something too busy for blues, too major for jazz. The music of impending insanity. The doors had just begun to trundle closed when an elephant stampede sounded down the hall, off rhythm, hooting “Save the door! Save the door!”

Bewildered, I reacted only at the last second, pushing the DOOR OPEN button in a mild panic. Confused, the doors paused, inches from kissing. A hand from the other side wrenched them apart, set them on their opposite ways.

“Thanks,” the guy connected to the hand said, ruffled, stumbling in. He had to be the crooning shower man. Aside from the one next door, there’s only one other apartment on this floor, across the hall, and it’s emptier than mine.

“Sure.” I smiled. Or at least, I think I did. I tried, anyway. The doors finally shut, and the elevator lurched into motion. In my periphery, I noticed him glance at me.

I glanced back.

The music tweedled on.

The elevator dipped into a stop.

“Well,” he said as the doors wheeled themselves away. “Welcome to the neighborhood.”

“Thanks,” I said, but he’d vanished. The first person I met, and I didn’t even get his name.

I wandered downtown with no idea where I was going or how to get there. Everybody else on the streets seemed to have an undeniable sense of purpose, like something knit into their hats whispered the secrets of the city in their ears.

The only thing whispering in my ears was the nippy autumn breeze.

Brick storefronts extended on into oblivion. I walked past them in a haze. Past windows with green lattices and silk scarves. Past windows with quirky antiques and jewelry displays. Past hobby stores, photography studios, and chocolate shops until, tucked away in a corner, I found a little bookstore cafe. The red-striped awning read “Tea & Tomes”. The window added “Breakfast pastries DAILY”.

When I walked in, the door tinkled a tiny tune. A round lady drenched in shawls stood at the register. Behind the counter, mugs hung on the wall, for sale. Below, bags of tea and coffee sat, shelved by color.

“Um, a cinnamon muffin and a creamy chai tea, please,” I told her, throat dry and flaky, paiper mâché. As I unzipped my distressed wallet, a plain white mug with a simple drawing of a sleeping kitty caught my eye. “Oh, and that kitten mug, thank you.” Hey, maybe the apartment would be warmer with a cat.

“Sure thing.” She counted my change, fingers deft, scooping up the little coins like a dog lapping water, and slapped them into my hand with a smile. I settled in a blue leather armchair nestled between two overstuffed bookshelves.

Books of every color and orientation lined the walls, a haphazard mass of story. I picked one at random. Eenie meenie minie moe. It was worn, cloth-bound, with raggedy pages, full of fairy tales I’d never heard. I sipped my tea with a vain emperor and a wise bird. I left the store with a slightly heavier bag.

I wandered the streets for a while, first by foot, then by car, collecting things I needed. Around noon, I hauled my loot back to the apartment to unpack.

I cased the doughy pillows and spread the afghan, the color of a deep forest on a gloomy day, on the mattress. I hung my clothes up in the closet, simple colors, worn well. I stored my luggage on the highest shelf above.

The mug found a home in the kitchen windowsill, next to a striped flower pot I found in the window of a herbology shop. Finally, I put my one, new-old book on the bookshelves under the stairs, threadbare cover facing out for the world to see.

Hungry again, I fried myself an egg. It sizzled in a new pan. I ate perched, cross-legged, on the kitchen island’s countertop, looking through the room.

It still didn’t feel like home. Not yet. The mattress was still lying dead on the floor, it’s plastic shredded, crumpled in the corner. Empty boxes littered the floor with their packing tape tentacles. There was no furniture, nothing to fill the barren loft or the nook beneath. Open, bare, echoey.  But, as I ate that fried egg, yolk dripping down my chin, I heard the rushing call of potential gathering up ahead. Pulling me into the unknown.

These days, I’m a regular at Tea & Tomes. My own shelves at home feed on the ones there, growing fatter every day. I got a job, as a clerk at a curio shop. Sometimes, I bring things home, like my coffee table. An old, steampunk trunk, half-full of blankets.

My flower pot in the window houses my little Aloe (called Alfie). Behind the gauzy curtains draped from my loft, there’s my big, fairy-lit window. I have rugs. I have jewelry. I have art.

My neighbor’s name is Jess. He turns coffee into music. Sometimes we sing duets.

My mattress lives in the loft. Jess helped me get it up. When I’m in bed, my skylight welcomes me home with the stars.

Home. Picture frames. Knit hats. Showers, stars, teacups, books.

My apartment is still a shell, one speck in a city built on a beach, but now it echoes me.

 
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