Friday, June 24, 2022
▶▶WESTRN EXP Room Avail. - 5 Br 2 Ba - FREE Wifi - $300/mo CHAPTER 1


The laundry room smells like oranges.

Ollie still isn't sure why. It's been that way since they moved in, the same blend of the standard damp-dim-basement blend underneath the smell of citrus. It's not chemical: it doesn't come from the maintenance guy who comes through every few months when someone remembers to send him, it's not laundry detergent, air freshener, whatever. There's an authenticity to it, earthy without dirt. It's real orange. They just aren't sure how.

Whatever it is cancels out the usual smell of superheated detergent that drifts out of subterranean windows and swinging laundromat doors every Sunday morning. Ollie misses it, but Lloyd the landlord isn't an overbearing tyrant and you'd have to be insane to turn down three hundred a month with a western exposure. At least, that's what people tell them. Ollie has no idea what it means, but it impresses people.

There are bigger downsides to have in an apartment, even this one. It's a "converted" old timey boarding house, which in this case means the rooms have newer locks and in-window air conditioners. There's two bathrooms, up and downstairs, and sure, one kitchen, but as the only one who isn't a med student, Ollie basically has the run of the place, spared by the erratic, unending hours of the medical profession.

But there's a big porch: the kind that wraps all the way around, so you can sit out in the sun and not have to worry about the eyes of everybody walking down the street hanging over your body, though certain roommates glare when Ollie smokes out there. Ollie's windows face the sunset. The stairs aren't too creaky. The rent could be worse. It's within walking distance of the diner, convenient as long as they can keep it up.

So Ollie overlooks the weird things, the smell of oranges, the way it seems birds will fly closer to the windows than should be possible, pulling away half an inch from smash-contact with the glass. Tyler, the wannabe neurosurgeon who lives in the attic suite with his best bro Derek, is a side-eyeing douchebag, but he hasn't done anything too concerning yet, and Lovelace is always saying that if he does, she'll show him how to really fuck with heads (and, more pertinently, let Ollie couch surf).

Some things, though, are harder to overlook.


It's Dennis, the wannabe psychologist ("but I'll probably end up being a vet in Cleveland at this rate") who lives on the other side of the bathroom. They're always sharing baleful looks across the hall when someone's hogging the full bath. Of the roommates, Dennis is the closest to okay. They share a snide disdain for the others' petty feuds about who left lint in the dryer and whose turn it is to mow the lawn before the HOA takes notice. He's still got came-from-money entitlement, sure, but he's at least self-aware.

"Hey." Ollie shifts their basket onto their hip, stuck in the doorway. The washer and dryer are stashed in a nook where the stairs bisect the basement unevenly, leaving a galley kitchen's worth of space between the metal shelves of old half-empty cans of paint and the utility sink and everything. It's too small to fit more than two people on a good day, compounded now by a basket of wet clothes parked in front of the washer.

"Yeah," Dennis says when he catches them looking. "Pretty sure it's Allison's. I gave her a day and a half to move them over before I gave up."


"I'll be done in a sec," he continues, gesturing at the clunking washer. Ollie nods. Over the smell of draining hot water, lavender-scented bubbles running thin, the oranges linger. It's a waxy but authentic, like fruit skin. "You wanna leave your stuff here, I can start it."

"No." Like hell are they leaving anyone else in charge of their shit. "No thanks."

It comes off sharper than Ollie meant and they can see a question forming in Dennis's forehead when the washer buzzes, interrupting the thought before it can finish forming.

"So loud," Dennis says under his breath. He transfers over his soggy t-shirts and steps aside to let Ollie through while he gets the dryer going, but Ollie just waits. "Well. See ya."

Alone, Ollie sticks their head in to check there's nothing in the drum. They've seen it all: wet lint, mushy napkins, melted chapstick, whatever. One place had this brown pulp, somewhere between plant matter and soggy cardboard, that only ever fucked up their clothes and kept coming back no matter how many times they ran a cleaning cycle. Ollie is pretty sure they're cursed by some laundry god. There's no other explanation.

The metal drum is clean today: Dennis is one of the more reliable roommates in that sense, which is why Ollie skipped work when they saw him head down here. Relatively painless laundry beats minimum wage table bussing every time.

It's fine, though. Ollie tells themself that as the lid clangs shut, tamping down the spike of anxiety that comes with every press of the start button, knowing in 45 minutes they'll have to deal with some catastrophe or another. It's Friday. They'll make it up elsewhere.

Weekends are for bartending. A friend of a friend was a promoter for a couple places that were always losing staff, flakey twenty-somethings and part-time-DJs who were about to make it big, and somehow Ollie ended up on the shortlist for perpetual replacements. Someone wouldn't show up, they'd call Ollie. Someone would show up but get into it with the bouncer, they'd call Ollie, who would show up to see said bouncer stubbing out a cigarette on the wall as whatever dumbass got carted out by a begrudging friend. Someone would get fed up with coming home smelling like flavored vodka and other people's sweat, they'd call Ollie, who had no problem with that. Drunk people tip great, and it's not like Ollie wasn't gonna be up all night anyway. Blizzardz (tonight's gig) sucks no more on the whole than the diner, and at least there they had a chance to...

"You live here?"

Maia—dark hair, darker eyes, darkest tattoos banding her arms—whistles low as she wanders up the sidewalk, cracking a grin when she catches Ollie's rolling eyes. Her teeth are strong like the grip she had on Ollie's hands when she pulled them around her waist, first in the bar and then on her motorcycle (because of course she rides a motorcycle).

"With twenty other people, but yeah."

Now, back at the house, Ollie feels a little of that confidence that only standing behind the bar with everyone clamoring for your attention gives them... drain away. The house is imposingly Victorian without daylight to give away its real, crackling age. Shadows catch on the scalloped edges of the porch like intangible cobwebs or clumps of mascara. It feels like eyes on the back of your head, the skin-crawling awareness, but there's no one there. Of course there's no one there. Everyone's on the night shift these days. Right?

"Hey." Ollie's eyes slip back to Maia's face. The nearest streetlight is across and down a ways, but her eyes glow yellow-white in the farthest ripples of it. "Show me the inside?"

No one is home. Somehow, no one's ever home, except when Ollie thinks the coast is clear to make a beeline for the good bathroom, only to find the door locked and the shower inside already running—so, when it's inconvenient. Not the case tonight, though.

Maia's dark eyes wander the dim walls, the sun-faded spaces where portraits hung for decades lost in the wavy light coming through the old glass in the windows. They're cursory glances, though, Ollie is none too bothered to notice, as her gaze seems to stick to the back of Ollie's head, shoulders, down and down.

They both pause on the landing. Maia smiles at Ollie. Smirks. Something between.

Up the stairs, there's a light under one of the doors on the other side of the house, but no one banging around the attic, no one grinding coffee while everyone should be asleep. The only sound is their four collective feet on the floorboards.

"Hang on," Maia says, her hand on Ollie's elbow, her eyes sharp. "I wanna guess."

Ollie finds their eyebrow quirking to match Maia's. Skepticism meets confidence.

"...Guess what?"

"Which room is yours."

She takes a slow step back, back, into the center of the central room, too wide to be a hallway but too purposeless to be anything else. She rolls her head with lazy swagger, eyes shutting, and begins to turn with both hands outstretched like she's wielding an invisible dowsing rod. Ollie watches as Maia turns and turns, never so fast as to be described as spinning but always moving, light glancing off her at many varied angles that make her look like twenty different people, twenty different faces.

The one she stops on faces Ollie's door.

"Lucky guess," Ollie fires back, unlocking the fresh deadbolt over the crystal knob.

"Yeah, forgot to mention," Maia says, leaning over their shoulder, "I'm a little psychic. If you give me your palm, I can tell you your future."

"You must be really lucky, then, if that's what the rest of your lines look like."

Maia's laugh covers the sound of the door unlocking, as it does the soft swing of the hinge and their close-following footsteps

The first thing to cut through is the conspiratorial snick of the lock behind them. Echoing like a gunshot in the untouched room, it's there and gone when Ollie turns to find Maia already there, crowding them into the shut doorway until the lintel is pressing pleasantly sharp all up their spine. She smells like black tea and dandruff shampoo, and her mouth opens wide as Ollie steers her around to the bed.

Or at least, tries to.

"Shit." Maia rubs her head, laughing through a wince. "Didn't see that coming."

She smiles with the awkward politeness of strangers only here to fuck, but Ollie's eyes have slid past the halo of mussed hair around the crown of her head, past the open air, straight to the corner behind her: a corner which should not be there.


"Nothing, just— Me either."

With another sideways glance, Maia steps away from the wall into Ollie's arms. "Okay."

Later, in the mostly-dark, Ollie keeps turning to the wall.

Maia turns away from the headlights of a passing car. A flicker of orange light, it's enough to confirm all the things on the wall—the lightswitch, their degree, the etching a college friend did of Ollie's late cat—aren't where they should be. They aren't. Not in the middle. The desk was right in the middle of that, little wastebasket wedged into the corner, and now it's not. The lightswitch is miles from the edge, and the cat—

There's so much bare wall. There shouldn't be bare wall like that. But there is: a wide expanse of beige.

But it can't be. Right? It's the angle of the shadow from the streetlight below. It's the slight wobble of booze. It's Ollie needing glasses, or a higher adderall dose.

It's advancing age. Endorphin high.

Maia's leg winds between Ollie's as their eyes slip uneasily shut.


It's nothing.