So, I’ve just finished a novel. The first draft, anyway. And I’m not sure what I have. So I'm turning to you, Gentle Reader. Below is the first chapter. What’s your sense of the story’s genre?
The house dominated the crest of a knoll, aloof from its neighbors, its roof a sharp line against the darkening sky. It stood near the end of a street that had still been farmland ten years ago. Streetlights illuminated a series of wide, shallow, cement steps that led from the sidewalk up the grassy, slightly overgrown lawn to a walkway that in turn led to a wooden stairway and a porch running the length of the house. A recently-painted white railing contrasted with the dark field stones that sided the house. The posts supporting the narrow roof over the porch were squared off, and wider at the bottom than at the top. Two dormers jutted from the roof, their windows dark with the fading day. The front door was thick wood, light-colored, with an ornate brass knocker centered beneath the thick, beveled glass insert. The doorknob matched the knocker.
A sign planted in the middle of the lawn proclaimed that the house was for rent via Albans Realty.
Standing on the walkway, Ash took it all in while the realtor, Maddie Bowen, waited patiently on the porch.
Other houses lined the street, each with its own style, some bigger but most smaller. Cars filled the driveways and lights gleamed from windows. Dinner time smells floated on the cool wind that blew red and yellow leaves around the lawns and sidewalks. The houses were set apart from the one on the hill, as if shying away.
Would those people be able to hear screaming from the house on the hill? Would they come running?
“Pretty grand, isn’t it?” said Maddie. She wore black pants, sensible brown leather flats and a heavy red plaid car coat over a white turtleneck, her “showing” outfit. She was always the one to show this house to prospective renters. David, her partner, didn’t like setting foot in it. She had no idea why. The house was a hundred years old, with beautiful lines and in a great location. The owner had completely renovated it, then decided to use it as a rental property instead of living in it.
Not that she blamed him.
“Come on,” she said cheerfully. “Let’s get out of the wind.” With a determined step, she turned to the front door.
She tried to strike just the right balance of enthusiasm and professionalism, although really, the chances of this girl renting the house—any house—were pretty damned slim. Still, you never knew.
Ash nodded, even though the realtor had turned her back, and followed more slowly, adjusting her leather backpack. Inside were all her important papers—new birth certificate, driver’s licence, passport—and her important numbers: safety deposit box number, bank account numbers, her lawyer’s phone number, and the pre-paid cell phone. The backpack came with her wherever she went.
From those dormer windows, she would see anyone coming up the road. Her battered Volvo would stand out in this settled, affluent neighborhood of new Nissans and Hondas, but maybe she could park it around the back.
She would stand out, too, a young woman alone on a street full of families.
She reached the steps, where Maddie Bowen waited for her, and followed the middle-aged woman’s gaze. It wasn’t totally dark yet, but the sun had set a while ago and all the lights in Albans proper spread through the long, shallow trench of the Ottawa River Valley. A smile flitted across Ash’s face at the sight.
Most of the people on this street probably worked in Ottawa, commuting the hour there and back by train. During the day, most of these houses would be empty.
Nobody would hear screaming during the day.
Next to her, Maddie Bowen suddenly shivered as the wind picked up. Without a word, they both turned toward the dark house. It surprised Ash that the realtor hadn’t made sure the lights were on to greet them. Wasn’t that Realty 101?
Maddie climbed the porch steps and unlocked the doorknob, speaking over her shoulder.
“Sorry about the lights,” she said. “I sent someone by to turn everything on earlier today, but clearly they forgot.” Damn it, Dave. He could at least have turned on the porch light.
Maddie got the door open and stepped inside. She flipped the porch light on and Ash blinked in the sudden brightness.
“Come on in,” said Maddie, taking Ash by the arm and leading her through the doorway. The girl was skin and bones, for Pete’s sake. She looked like a waif.
Warm light flooded the wide entrance hall and Ash stood in silence, staring. To her right was an open room with a stone fireplace and a tall ceiling. A tufted black leather couch faced the fireplace, while mismatched club chairs huddled closer to the fireplace, facing each other across an oval glass coffee table resting on a rug patterned in blue and silver. Paintings hung on the wall, but she couldn’t tell what they depicted since the entrance light didn’t reach that far into the room.
The place smelled… sterile. As if someone came in once a month to dust but otherwise, no one had lived here for a long time.
“This way,” said Maddie, leading her down the hallway toward the back of the house. On the left, across from the living room, was another room, closed off with French doors. It looked like it might contain a desk. Halfway to the kitchen, they passed a wide staircase with black wooden steps and white risers. Maddie flicked on the lights as she passed but swept right through into the dining room and kitchen.
“Gas range, quartz counter tops, glass-tiled backsplash, counter and stools, big table,” Maddie rattled off as she strode through the dining room to a pair of French doors. She opened them and stepped out onto a large deck. “Come on out,” she invited. “I don’t want to turn on the lights until you see this.”
Ash obediently stepped out next to her and a small gasp escaped her.
“Yes, indeed,” said Maddie with satisfaction. This was why she liked showing the house at night.
The view of the valley Ash had glimpsed at the front of the house was in full glory here. A swath of darkness immediately below her gave way to an expanse of lights, mirrored above by the stars just beginning to emerge in the night sky.
“You can’t see it now,” Maddie continued, “but just below your house, at the bottom of the hill is the river.”
Ash noted her judicious use of “your” but let it go. She hadn’t even seen all of it, but she liked the house. Still, it wasn’t as if she was planning to buy it. She just wanted to rent it for a few months while she figured out her next move. Albans seemed like a good place to stop. It was big enough to hide in but still had a small town feel.
She took a deep breath of the cold air, breathing in the scents of cooking, and wet leaves, and faintly, sawdust. For a moment, her throat closed up as tears threatened. It smelled like home, the home she used to have when Mom and Dad were still alive.
“Let’s go upstairs,” said Maddie, oblivious to Ash’s reaction. They headed back inside, through the dining room and past a small powder room across from the stairs. They climbed the steps, turning at a small landing. Upstairs were four bedrooms, three of them smaller and sharing a bathroom, and the fourth slightly bigger, with a small ensuite. All the rooms had mouldings, deep window seats and mullioned windows.
All of the rooms—the entire house—seemed to be fully furnished.
“Of course,” said Maddie once they returned to the entrance, “you would need to see the house in daylight, but when you mentioned you were looking for a house to rent, I immediately thought of this one.” Because it was the only rental she had on the books.
Maddie kept the smile plastered on her face, but she was beginning to suspect that the girl was wasting her time. She looked eighteen, for crying out loud. She couldn’t afford this place, even at the rock bottom monthly rental it was going for.
Ash saw the look in Maddie Bowen’s eyes. She knew that she looked younger than twenty-four. Sometimes that was an advantage, but mostly, it led people to discount her, or worse, patronize her.
“Why is the rent so low? What’s wrong with it?”
Maddie shook her head. She hadn’t expected the question. Most people didn’t ask. “Absolutely nothing,” she said firmly. “The rental market is a little depressed right now, and this is a big house, bigger than most people need.”
Ash looked around one last time, taking in the light wood floors, the cream walls with warm wood trim, the faint smell of cedar and mothballs. It was bigger than she needed, too.
“How long has it been empty?” she asked.
For the first time, Maddie hesitated. “Seven months,” she admitted. She revised her estimate of the girl’s age upward.
Ash looked at the realtor. Seven months was a long time.
As Maddie reached inside for the door handle, Ash gave the interior a last look. Maddie had turned off the lights in the kitchen and hallway, but in the light spilling inside from the porch she glimpsed a shapeless shadow at the foot of the stairs just before Maddie pulled the door closed.
Okay, that’s the beginning. What do you think?