In which Alyssa begins to connect with her houses . . . in very different ways

The bathroom in Alyssa’s rented house would have been perfect with one of those old-fashioned club-footed bathtubs in it, especially with the sweet little octagonal stained glass window that was set high in the wall over the toilet, next to the sink. But someone at some point in the house’s history had put in a one-piece surround that was so cheap, it had a deep rust-coloured ring around it that no amount of scrubbing would remove. Alyssa had tried everything from her grandmother’s favourite, Comet, to Scrubbing Bubbles, to plain old bleach, but nothing worked. 

At the very least, she reminded herself with every shower, she knew it was clean. And it was only herself, after all. If she ever had company over, her pretty flowered shower curtain would hide the appearance of the tub. 

Turning the water on before undressing, she leaned toward the mirror to pluck away some unwanted hairs while the stream heated up. The warming air and steam were reassuring, but when she looked over at the tub, Alyssa sagged with disappointment. “Damnit, not again!” she cursed aloud. 

The water was red.

Stomping as she crossed back to twist the taps off again, Alyssa stifled an urge to kick the tub, knowing it would only result in a broken toe. “Stupid rusted pipes. Getting what I paid for, I guess.” She tried the hot water again, but it was clear. The cold was the problem: it flowed richly, darkly tinted, the flakes of rust swirling like clots of blood around the drain.

Alyssa turned it on full-force to flush the pipe. When it was finally clear, she let the tub drain fully, wiped it down with an already-stained old towel, and then started the whole process of finding her temperature again. 

By the time she stepped out, freshened and dripping, the sun was no longer shining through the stained glass. She realized with dismay that because she still wasn’t quite used to living alone, she’d forgotten to leave a light on downstairs again.

The bathroom was suddenly a bastien of safety, warmth and light, even with the awful red stain around the white tub. And the way the red stoplights at the intersection nearby gleamed through the sections of coloured glass, the window evenly partitioned like the iris of an eye. Suddenly Alyssa didn’t want to stay there, either. A shiver crawled up her spine, a half-remembered moment from a childhood sleepover. Something about Mary in the bathroom, and what you’d see in the mirror if you said her name three times. 

Alyssa avoided looking in the mirror. She snatched her bathrobe off the back of the door, gripped the doorknob, and took a breath.

“Stop it with the overactive imagination, Lyss,” she told herself, firmly. “It’s just nighttime. Nobody in the house but you. There’s no such thing as — as that.”

But there was the dollhouse, sitting in the darkness of her kitchen, its rows of empty windows staring out like dead eyes in the face of a skull . . .

Ashamed of herself, Alyssa vowed never to tell anyone that she was a big scared baby in her own home. She opened the door a crack, her hand faltering on the knob, and reached a finger out just enough to hit the light switch in the hallway. Her heart beat faster at the thought that something might brush her finger back, or be still visible in the light, but —

“I’m an adult!” she cried out. She swung the door open and stepped into the hallway.

Of course, it was empty. 

Retying her belt with emphasis, Alyssa jutted her chin high and marched down her stairs to make a cup of tea. And turn the rest of the lights on.

The white shell of the dollhouse was only creepy for the short time it took her to locate the switches on each of her living room lamps, but she studiously looked the other way, even averting her eyes when she walked past it into the kitchen. With the steady glow of electric light passing through its open, curtainless windows, they no longer looked quite so freakish. Alyssa filled her kettle and set it to boil, and then perched on her counter, one foot propped on a nearby chair, contemplating what to do with it next.

“I could always cover you with a sheet for the night,” she said to the dollhouse. “But picture you with light glowing through the windows and the sheet — kind of a reverse Caspar. Not sure about that. What if I come down for a midnight snack later, and I’ve forgotten you’re there? Big hulking white sheet in the middle of my kitchen, that’s going to give me a heart attack.” Alyssa shook her head, hopped back down from the counter, and went across to the pantry cupboard to choose her tea. 

Once there, she paused, her hand outstretched over the boxes of orange pekoe and lavender and chamomile. “That’s funny, I smell roses. But I don’t have any rosehips.” Alyssa turned around and saw a few dried petals on the floor. Realizing they’d fallen from the dollhouse and she’d stepped on them, she suddenly had a wonderful idea. “Oh, that’s PERFECT!”

Ignoring the faint warning whistle of the tea kettle, she dashed back up the stairs to the second bedroom, where she had some souvenirs from family events in a box. Among them was an old throwing bouquet from a cousin’s wedding, made of large silk flowers like peonies and daisies. She snatched it up and rushed back down to the kitchen, where she rescued the kettle before holding the lei up to the dollhouse’s windows.

“That is cool,” she told herself praisingly. The peony petals were long and wide enough to cover the windows like curtains, and their pale pink shades seemed to compliment the old-world paint textures. “Maybe with some glue, or tacks . . .”

Alyssa poured her tea, contemplating the best way to turn silk flowers into curtains that would fill the empty eyes of the soulless dollhouse.

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