It wasn’t the stale smell of fallen leaves that filled the air--it was the scent of change. I took in a deep breath before I started to walk again. It surprised me how cold it had gotten in the past two weeks. Weather changed quite fast in October--especially here in Boston.
My nerves weren’t helping either with the cold. Stress always made the cold worse for me. So much was on my mind, and the thought of moving into a new place felt overwhelming. I’d be going to a new school and living with new people; I hadn’t had much time to plan for that.
The wind kicked up another patch of leaves; they swirled around in a colorful blend before melding back to the grey pavement a moment later. I checked my phone--1:15 PM. I started to walk a bit faster, the leaves crunching under my feet. The move-in time was 1:00 PM. My poor sense of direction had already gotten me lost a few times today. The last person I’d stopped gave me pretty clear directions: follow the signs ‘til I hit Subway and my place should be right across the street from it. The last sign I walked by said it was 1/4th of a mile ahead.
Mom had told me first impressions were the most important--being late wasn’t going to help with that at all. The best I could do at this point would be to apologize for being late once I arrived. I dug my fingernails into my palms and continued to walk.
The U on the Subway sign flickered as I approached. Of course there wouldn’t be a crosswalk. At least this part of the city wasn’t too busy. I studied the house while I waited for a chance to cross the road.
The neighborhood seemed grey. This house, with its pink paint job and its green window sills, seemed fresh by comparison. I also noticed there was a wooden fence enclosing the front yard. Half of it was painted dark blue, the other half coated in a lime green. There was a girl, holding a paint brush, studying both sides of the fence. She paced from one side to the other, leaning down to examine the paint. Her ambivalence kept up until I was just about on her.
She had her face so close to the fence that her nose was almost touching it. Despite her hair being tied back in a ponytail, the paint had found a way into it. Looking more closely, I discovered that this girl was covered in paint from head to toe; handprints dotted her white T-shirt, and flecks had managed to land all over her jeans.
“Hmm, green or blue,” she muttered. She looked up at me after a second or two.
“Hi,” I said.
“Adam?” she asked.
“Y-Yeah,” I said, “Sorry I’m a little late.”
She extended her hand in greeting. “I’m Savanna. It’s nice to meet you.”
I felt paint the moment our hands locked. She gasped and took her hand back, blushing. She took my hand and wiped it off against the side of her shirt. What a weird girl, I thought.
“I’m sorry. I forgot about the paint,” Savanna rested the same hand on the back of her neck. “Come inside and you can wash the rest of that off.”
As far as first impressions went, I wasn't sure how to feel about this. My showing up late hadn't seemed to matter much. Savanna seemed like a goofball, but she'd also seemed nice. Seemed I'd been worrying for nothing.
“So you only had a backpack’s worth of stuff?” She opened the door to the house, and left a handprint on the doorknob.
“Mom is dropping off some of my other things later.” I closed the door behind us, careful not to leave a print of my own.
“Hmm,” she started, “I think in honor of your last name, we should paint the fence green. What do you think?”
I had no clue how to talk to girls. I tried anyway.
“How do you know my last name?”
“Your backpack, silly. It has your name printed on it.”
I tripped coming up the steps, which caused Savanna to nearly cover me in paint again trying to help me up. She stopped halfway.
“Almost forgot again. No need to spread more paint today.” Her smile was warm.
I nodded and took off my shoes before getting to my feet. At first glance, the interior of the house looked pretty normal; as I followed Savanna further into the house, my opinion changed.
There were designs painted all over the walls. Some of them were really good, but some that looked childish--like something I might’ve done.
“You can do some, too,” Savanna said. “I did this one,” she pointed at the one I thought looked childish. “I thought of it as part of making this place my home.”
If that was her reason to draw it, it didn’t matter if it looked childish. In any case, I wasn’t quite ready to break out the paints yet; this place wasn’t really home yet. I followed her for a few more steps and spotted a bathroom to the right. I started right into it before she stopped me with a yell.
“Don’t go in there!” Savanna said. “Girl’s bathroom,” she pointed at a tiny sign above the frame.
“I don’t know how I missed it,” I said.
“Well, the sign is kind of small and way above the door. Maybe we should move it to actually be on the door or something.”
Savanna was a good talker. Things with her seemed easy, natural. Perhaps it would be different with her; maybe it wouldn’t be so awkward after all.
I followed her further down the hall, past a few bedrooms until we reached the end. The floor creaked as I stepped into the room.
“Shh,” Savanna whispered. “Gram is sleeping.”
From what I understood, there was an older lady that owned the house. The house was hers, but she rented out low income rooms to students. This sort of housing was usually for college students, this place was a lucky exception. Gram was probably the landlady.
“How was I supposed to know about the creak in the floor?” I whispered back. “You should’ve told me before I stepped on it.”
“How was I supposed to know you were going to step there?”
Savanna had forgotten to keep her voice down. It sounded like a chair moved in Gram’s room. Savanna and I shared a single, terrifying moment with both of our mouths wide open.
Gram opened the door and beamed down at us. Savanna had exaggerated her age. Gram stood slightly hunched and only a little shorter than Savanna. She hardly had any wrinkle. Her hair reached halfway down her back. There were a few grey strands between the dark brown.
“Why hello there,” Gram greeted. “You must be Adam.”
I nodded. “I’m sorry for the noise Mam. I didn’t know about the creak.”
She chuckled. “There’s no reason to worry. I wanted to meet you anyway. Contrary to what some people think,” she looked at Savanna, “I don’t usually sleep during the day. And please don’t address me as Mam. Gram is fine.”
“Okay, Gram,” I offered my hand, “it’s nice to meet you.”
“I see Savanna’s been painting again,” she said, taking in the mess on my hand.
I took back my hand with embarrassment. “Sorry, I forgot about the paint.”
Gram shook her head. “You shouldn’t apologize so much,” she laughed. “It’s a bad habit.”
Savanna had started whistling. It sounded familiar, but I couldn’t put my finger on the tune. It seemed rude, though, to whistle while there was a conversation going on.
“In any case, I’ll let Savanna finish her tour. She seems like she’s in a rush. Try to keep her from getting paint on the staircase. I imagine I’ll have to repaint the doorknob again.”
Savanna stuck her tongue out at Gram as she turned. “Let’s go. Your room is up here.”
“Where else would it be?” I asked, rhetorically.
I heard Gram chuckle as she closed her door. It earned me a glare from Savanna.
“Being a smart guy huh?” she asked. “Jonathan’s like that sometimes. You two will probably get along.”
The more I saw of the house the less nervous I felt. I mean, don’t get me wrong--I still felt nervous at the idea of living with all of these new people, but from what I saw of the house so far, everyone seemed friendly enough.
“Where is everyone else at?” I asked.
“School,” Savanna said as we started to climb the staircase--it was one of those rickety old numbers, like something you’d see in an old, dilapidated Victorian; it spiraled around slightly. I didn’t want to touch it, afraid to smear paint on it. I was also constantly reminding Savanna not to touch things as we climbed.
After a few minutes we were upstairs. It didn’t seem as well-kept as downstairs but it still felt nice. “So why aren’t you in school?” I wondered aloud.
“Someone had to be here to meet you and show you the house. And I wanted to stay home to paint the fence anyway.”
Talking with Savanna was strangely disarming. She wasn't like any girl I'd ever met. You know, the sporty sort who stick together in groups and gossip about the popular kids, or the bookish ones who kept to themselves. Where I come from she'd have been picked on, but it was safe here. I could be myself around this girl.
Savanna pointed at the room straight ahead, “Jonathan’s room.”
The dust thickened the farther we went down the hallway. There was a bend to the left and we approached another door. I looked up: Men’s Room.
“We put the men’s room up here,” Savanna added, unnecessarily, in her usual charming manner. I nodded.
I went in and started the hot water. “The labels are wrong by the way,” Savanna said, indicating the temperature controls. She was trying not to look into the bathroom as she spoke. “And I think there’s some baby oil to remove paint in there somewhere. Jonathan got tired of just using soap and water.”
“Baby oil gets paint off?” I asked. I used my left hand to open some of the drawers. “Can’t you just show me where the oil is?”
“It’s the Men’s bathroom,” she said. “I can’t come in or look or anything. It’s against the rules.”
“Alright alright.” I turned the faucet labeled C to start the hot water. The paint started to rub off after applying some soap.
“You find the baby oil?”
“Nope. It’s coming off fine with soap anyway,” I said.
The bathroom felt cozy. It was small, but there was enough room to move around in. There was a standing shower and a few accessories lying about: a comb, shaving gel, a razor, and some toothpaste. Only one towel was hanging up on the rack, and only one toothbrush.
“How many guys live here?”
“Two now,” she answered. I could hear Savanna tapping her foot, “Are you almost done yet? I wanna finish painting the fence.”
Well, at least there was one other guy here. However nice these girls might be, I couldn’t imagine living alone in a house full of them. Savanna was one of the nicest people I had met; even so, I still felt a little uneasy around her
After another moment of washing, most of the paint had come off. “I’ll be right out!”
If Jonathan was keeping a stock of baby oil it could be a bad sign; it could mean that Savanna pulled stunts like this often. That, and Gram guessed that she’d gotten it on the doorknob. I turned off the faucet and pulled my towel and my toothbrush from my backpack and put them away.
“Gosh, you took forever. It was just a little paint,” Savanna said as I came out of the bathroom.
“If you were more careful with paint you wouldn’t have had to wait,” I said.
“You don’t have to be mean, jeez.” She pointed down the hallway. There was another left turn ahead, “Your room is this way. Come on.”
I followed her and we passed another door.
“Who's room is that?” I asked.
“Oh, that's Claire's room,” she sounded apprehensive “she's... a bit anti-social to say the least.”
“Oh, really?” I pressed, “Like how?”
“Well, since you're room is just up here I suppose you'll probably find out yourself soon enough,” she said, and I sensed that the topic was closed for discussion.
We took a final left turn and approached the end of the hallway. Cobwebs were hanging off the corners of my door, and it stank of mildew. I was anticipating a whole host of nightmares beyond as the door swung open. I stepped through.
An air mattress was in the far left corner of the room--a small nightstand was set up beside it. The only other object in the room was a crooked bookshelf to the left of the door. Judging from the cobwebs I’d seen and how the air tasted just outside the room, I’d wagered this place was going to need a lot more cleaning, but now I could see that it was pretty much spotless.
“I got Alice to help me clean inside. I wanted to get the hallway, too, but,” Savanna’s eyes found her feet, “Claire’s door was open. Oh, and Alice gave you that bookshelf. She didn’t like it for some reason.”
“Well, I’ll have to thank Alice for helping when I meet her.” I raised my eyebrow, “And why are you blushing?”
Savanna turned away. “Well, it was the first time I had been in a boy’s room. Even if I was just cleaning it.”
Before I had a chance to say anything else, she was out of sight. I shook my head, amused, and started to unpack.
The bookshelf was the only place to store my clothes. Maybe Mom planned to bring me the dresser from my old room. Though, with the way the hallways were laid out, getting the dresser up the stairs might be impossible. I also had to remember to thank Alice for donating the most uneven bookshelf I had ever seen; it was so off kilter that my clothes were nearly sliding off of it.
I placed a book underneath the bookshelf to balance it. At least the clothes weren’t on the verge of sliding off now. After unpacking my clothes and books, I realized how little I had brought and I couldn’t believe I’d forgotten my blanket.
I shrugged. This wouldn’t be the first time I’d had to sleep in my jacket. There were a few nights at my old house when the heating oil ran out. I plopped down on the half-inflated air mattress and sank disappointingly, but still–it seemed like people were willing to help each other out around here; I got that vibe, and I had only met two people so far. I was still nervous about meeting the others and still felt a bit uneasy around Savanna, but maybe things here wouldn’t be so bad.
My thoughts went back to Savanna. I was envisioning the hallway covered in paint splatter, I could see it now–her hands completely caked in the stuff; Red handed as it were. I chuckled to myself. The least I could do would be to help her finish painting the fence. I climbed off the bed and headed downstairs.
Painting the fence had gone well enough. I knew Savanna enjoyed painting, but I figured it might be good to keep an eye on where she got it. That and I had wanted to try it myself; I hadn’t done much painting outside of art class.
After protecting the doorknob and hallways from more handprints, I sat down with Savanna in the living room. She was doing her best to describe some of the other people who lived here.
“Well, Jonathan plays a lot of basketball,” she scratched her head, “Sarah likes baseball. Um…”
Savanna still had paint on her face; it was difficult to take her seriously. Even though she had washed her hands and arms and changed her clothes, she had somehow missed a blue spot on her right cheek. The distracting little smudge had taken up all of my attention and I missed pretty much everything she'd said. The others were coming back from school soon in any case; I could worry about getting to know them then.
As I wondered whether or not to tell Savanna about the paint on her face, I heard the door open. After another few minutes, there were footsteps coming from the hallway. A tall boy walked into the living room, followed by two girls.
“Hey there,” he said. “You must be Adam?”
I nodded and got to my feet to shake his hand. “Jonathan I’m guessing?”
The girl standing beside him (while not as tall as Jonathan) was a bit taller than me. She had a baseball glove in one hand, and was throwing a ball into it repeatedly. The other girl had already taken a seat and started reading.
“When are we going to throw?” asked glove girl.
“After tea,” Jonathan said. “Mind giving me a hand, Adam?”
I tried to think of something to say as we walked toward the kitchen, but nothing came up. Finally, Jonathan broke off the silence as he filled the tea kettle.
“You seem a bit nervous,” he said.
“Did Savanna remember to show you your room?”
I laughed. “Yeah, and she managed to get paint everywhere.”
He laughed, too. “She does that. Just about every time we let her paint. Thankfully Gram’s gotten more cautious about it.”
We busied ourselves with a bit of small talk, nothing profound. I was getting more comfortable with Jonathan, but I still felt nervous about the other girls.
“The tall one’s Sarah?” I asked.
“Yep,” he said.
“So, was the one reading Claire then?”
“That’s Alice. Claire went upstairs. That’s usually the first thing she does when she gets home.”
“Ah, I see.”
After that we didn’t say much. I felt like I’d offended him or something. Each time I’d try to say something, I’d get nervous and stop. The tea kettle whistled. I helped carry some of the cups and tea bags out to the living room.
“Took you guys long enough.” Sarah said, still busy playing catch with herself.
“Don’t you ever get bored of playing catch with yourself?” Alice said without lifting her face from her reading.
“Don’t you ever get bored of that?” Sarah reached for Alice’s book.
Alice shifted to the side and wound up almost sprawled out on the couch facing away from Sarah. I couldn’t help but laugh.
“You think that’s funny, kid?” Sarah glared at me.
I put up my hands in protest, “No, no, no.”
Savanna and Jonathan both laughed. Alice continued to read. I ended up sitting on the floor near the table. I didn’t really feel comfortable sharing a seat next to anyone yet. Jonathan, who I might’ve been alright sitting next to, had already taken a seat next to Savanna on one couch. Sarah was still trying to wrest Alice’s book from her on the other couch.
Jonathan tried to involve me in the conversation, but I felt too awkward to join. I still hardly knew them.
“How’s your tea?” Jonathan asked.
“You don’t seem to be drinking much of it,” Savanna said.
“I’m just thinking.”
“Well, tea time isn’t really for thinking,” Savanna leaned back and slouched further down the couch. “It’s for relaxing and for conversation. You can think once you go back to your room.”
Alice wasn’t particularly talkative. The few times she’d spoken, it was from beneath her book, although I’d seen her surface for tea twice. Her blonde hair was tied back into a bun; it was a lighter shade of blonde than Jonathan’s and she wore such a blank expression. Why wasn’t Savanna trying to get her to talk more during tea time? She’d been just as quiet as I’d been. She lowered her book and caught me staring at her.
She wore bangs that framed her round face. The clusters of freckles above her well-defined dimples dotted both of her cheeks. She wasn’t smiling at the moment; she was glaring at me.
“You do know it’s rude to stare, right?” Alice asked.
I snapped out of my daze and looked away. “Sorry.”
A wave of anxiety shot through me. I started to avoid eye-contact. Sweat beaded across my forehead and suddenly I was having trouble breathing. I almost stumbled trying to get to my feet.
I shook off Jonathan’s offer to help me to my room. Once I cleared the living room, the feeling started to pass. I managed to climb up the stairs and escape to the bathroom to wash my face. The sound of the water helped to clear my head; I cupped my hands, then splashed some of it against my face to wash away the sweat. After a few more splashes, I turned off the facet and started back toward my room.
“Why’d you leave?” Savanna’s voice jumped me, but I kept going without responding to her.
“Hey, come on,” Savanna said. “Just wait a sec.”
I made it to my door, but then I felt her hand on my shoulder. My first reaction was to pull away.
I unclenched my jaw and tried to speak. The first few words came out as mumbles. Instead of patronizing me for it, Savanna just waited until I could form words.
“I got nervous,” I finally managed.
“I could tell,” worry had crossed her face. “You don’t have to be nervous around us, though,” she offered.
“But Alice seemed upset with me,” I argued.
“She gets upset with anyone who interrupts her reading,” Savanna laughed. “She’s silly like that. Even at the dinner table, if we’re too loud, she’ll glare at us. She doesn’t mean anything by it though; not really. She even laughs at jokes sometimes and jokes around herself once in awhile.”
“I think I just need some time alone,” I said.
“Well, we’re here for you. You don’t have to feel alone. But if you want to chill out in your room for awhile I won’t stop you,” she handed me a piece of paper.
“That’s the public bus schedule. If you don’t feel like coming on the bus with us, or walking, you can always take the public bus instead. It takes about an hour to walk there. Sometimes I like doing that in the morning instead of dealing with all the noise from the bus.” I was still at a loss for words. After another minute of silence, Savanna turned and started to walk away.
“Um,” I said. She stopped.
“Yes?” thankfully she didn’t turn to face me.
“No problem, silly,” and then she disappeared down the hall and I was alone.