This story is by Kate Petersen and was part of our 2016 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the Winter Writing Contest stories here.
I walked up to the first house on my list, exhaled slowly, and rang the doorbell.
Moving across the country for a job is supposed to be exciting, right? And sure, difficult. But I knew I could make this work. I had done my research, triple checked reviews, and reached out to people. I had my list, and I reassured myself that, like always, I was in control.
“Come in, come in,” trilled an older Japanese lady, ushering me through the door and placing a screaming baby in my arms.
“I’m sorry,” I stammered, “I…uh…whose baby is this?” Taken completely off guard, I tried to get my bearings. This was not matching the online ad.
“Come in, look around. Your room is on the second floor. Next to the baby’s. Can you take him up?” the lady said, shuffling around the room.
“So his parent’s live here too?” I wasn’t sure what I wanted the answer to be. “Room available in group house, young people welcome, family atmosphere,” I repeated the ad in my mind. Panic started to wash over me.
“His parents, aunts, uncles, cousins…” she trailed off.
The impulse to bolt was diminished only by the knowledge that I had a baby in my arms, and being arrested for kidnapping would probably put a damper on the housing search. I moved cautiously toward the stairs. Four kids were playing Legos at the foot of the staircase. They didn’t look up, so I just stepped over them.
Halfway up the stairs, I was nearly run over by a young blonde couple. “Are you the parents?…Or cousins?” I blurted out awkwardly.
They exchanged a bemused look and replied, “No, we rent the room on the third floor.”
“Oh…well…,” I fumbled.
“Get out while you can,” the girl whispered earnestly. They looked around quickly then hurried down the stairs.
“It’s just an option,” I chanted like a mantra.
Frazzled, I wandered down the hall and turned into the only doorway. In one corner was a crib, where I gently but quickly deposited the still screaming baby.
Looking around, I realized there was a sheet hung down the center of the room. That’s what she meant when she said my room would be next to the baby’s.
At least seven people walked past the door as I was contemplating this.
I hurried downstairs, told the lady I would think about it, and rushed out the door.
“It’s fine. It’s fine!” I assured myself. It just wasn’t a good fit. Too much commotion for my taste. I needed to be somewhere where I had a little…control.
Walking down the street, I saw a “For Rent” sign in the window of a modest sized house. This wasn’t on my list, but I could make it work for me.
I walked up to the house and knocked on the door. An awkwardly tall man answered. “Hi,” I said, “I saw your sign, and I was hoping to take a look at the available room.”
He smiled a little too widely, but replied “Of course!” and beckoned me in.
Stepping over the threshold, I nearly tripped over a bowling pin, but caught myself on the wall. Glancing around, I noticed the oddest assortment of items, from pins to balls to scarves, even a few clubs in the corner. “So you…” I stammered.
“I’m a juggler, by trade,” he replied. “The wife wasn’t much for it, so she’s left, but it’s what I do, so I just keep doing it,” he finished with an unwelcome wink.
I smiled. Hopefully politely. I followed him to the back of the house, down a hallway with several shut doors.
“This can be your room if you’d like,” he grinned, unlocking one of the doors. “I rent these to the girls.”
I nodded, turned, and left the house.
I made it to the end of the street and fought the oncoming breakdown. I could and would operate in this realm of unpredictability.
I looked at my list.
The next house was set a little off the road, so I wandered up the path. An old lady was raking out front. “Excuse me,” I called, “I’m here to look at the room.”
“That’s wonderful,” the woman said, not turning around. “Oh look at those apples,” she murmured dreamily.
This didn’t bode well.
“Don’t mind Gloria,” said a cogent voice from the house. “It’s useless talking to her when she’s in the garden.” Another old lady appeared on the porch and beckoned me inside.
“We are extremely busy,” she said, walking and cleaning. “We need help four days a week.”
Maybe she meant keeping up with the housework.
“There’s nothing major to worry about. We just need someone to look after her.” This made significantly less sense, but I followed her.
“Oh the apples,” said Gloria, wandering through the house absently.
She needs a caretaker, I realized, staring after Gloria, now ready to manage the situation.
“If she goes into labor, you’ll have to call us immediately,” the bustling woman continued.
I started. I couldn’t even begin to guess what was going on. I stared blankly at her. “I—I was just looking to rent a room.”
“Yes. The room,” she said impatiently. “For the farm hand. To look after our pregnant mare.”
That was unexpected.
“I was just looking to rent a room,” I repeated.
“The room is only for the farm hand. That’s non-negotiable and stated clearly in our ad,” she said, turning away.
My temper began to swell. I had done my research. I had a system and a process.
“No. No it was not mentioned in your ad. If it had been mentioned in your ad, I wouldn’t be here looking for a room. You are mistaken.” I was ready to fight. I was done with my brief stint in a world of maybes and what ifs. I was not about to have someone operating in complete disorder tell me I was wrong.
I stood firm, ready to deflect and counter any assault.
“Oh. Well maybe I’m wrong,” she replied nonchalantly, casually extinguishing my fury. “Regardless, we need a farm hand.”
I felt like I was melting into the floor. I waited for a moment, powerless.
I left, passing Gloria, ten feet up a ladder, reaching for apples.
I had been grossly mistaken. No amount of preparation was going to change this situation and I didn’t know if I could deal with that.
Looking at my list, I laughed at my naiveté. One place left. It was at the top.
Nearly defeated, I walked up to the front of an apartment complex. A short, pleasant looking lady was standing there smiling at me. “Are you Anita?” I asked blandly.
“Yes, it’s so nice to meet you! I’m very excited to show you the apartment,” she responded cheerfully. We got into the elevator and headed up to the 12th floor. In my gloom, I began asking a few questions about the building. She answered succinctly and without hesitation. Though I attempted to suppress it, I felt a slight hope rise within me.
“Here we are,” she beamed, opening the door to the apartment.
I looked around. From the small living room, I could see a small kitchen, a small bathroom, and two doors, which I could only assume led to two small rooms. It looked clean and well-kept and had a beautiful view.
I headed toward the rooms, but Anita stopped me. “Sorry, dear. Those are Richard and Jen’s rooms. You’ll meet them later.”
“Oh,” I said, turning away. “I’m sorry. So…where is the available room?” She went over to the wall and began pulling a curtain between the living room and the kitchen.
“We’ve been using this as a room for years now and it’s worked fine.” I felt a defeated smile slide across my face. “And I don’t mean to push,” she leaned in, “but I do have someone coming to look at the room. They’re ready to take it, so if you’re interested, I’ll need your answer now.”
I looked around again. My “room” was still fairly private, even though it was only guarded by a curtain. I weighed my options and checked my list. This was the last place.
In my final, fleeting attempt to feel powerful, I jumped. “I’ll take it,” I said.
“Fantastic,” said Anita. “I have the papers here.” I read the lease thoroughly and signed. “Looks like we’re all set” she smiled. A glimmer of pride warmed me inside. I had maintained control. I had managed the situation. Maybe this was exciting.
“You know,” said Anita as we headed to the elevator. “I’m glad you’re here. You can help control some of the drama.”
“Oh?” My insides froze.
“Yes. You see, Jen and Richard used to date. But then things went south because she wanted to get married and he didn’t. Meanwhile, Jen’s father and I were, well, involved—” she rambled, as the elevator doors shut.