by Jann Everard
Amy’s second reaction was to step to the left so that she couldn’t be seen through the kitchen window. Her third reaction was to swipe and tap on her phone until she heard it dialing Julie. The ringing stopped.
“You know it’s five-thirty in the morning, right?”
“There’s a man in my treehouse,” Amy whispered.
Julie’s laugh fluttered down the line. “Well, I haven’t heard that one before, but good for you!”
“No, seriously. Maybe I didn’t tell you about the treehouse in the back of my new place. Should I call the police? Tell me what to do.”
Moments before, Amy had approached the kitchen window with her eyes closed, knowing that when she opened them she would experience her first sunrise in the first house she’d ever owned. She had complete faith that the colours wouldn’t disappoint. Fiery red at the horizon would fade skyward to a wash of florescent pink and deep-ocean blue, just like in the photo that had sold her on the property. It would be perfect, one of those memories that would become secret and indelible, a celebration of a milestone in life only she would attend.
Except that what caught her eye was not the sunrise. Directly in front of her, a naked man stood on the treehouse platform, his pee arcing into the garden below.
Her first reaction—before she’d stopped herself—had been to lean forward to rap on the glass, but what reflected back was a petite woman in a nightgown while the man outside had a broad chest, thick thighs, and a huge penis. In less than a second, her disgust at his act transformed into a mental image of being overwhelmed, silenced, and violated. Calling the police was her next thought, but would they take her seriously?
She slipped into the shadow, hoping her movement hadn’t caught the man’s attention. There she dialed Julie, the only person she knew who would answer her call, regardless of the time.
Julie’s laughter wasn’t quite what Amy expected. She said she didn’t think the situation was a real threat or merited calling the police. Instead, she told Amy to go back to bed. According to Julie, the guy would clear out by the time any reasonable person woke up. She couldn’t seem to get over what she thought was the funniest euphemism she’d heard in a long time. “There’s a man in my treehouse,” she kept repeating, until Amy said she had to go.
Light was already infiltrating the kitchen by the time they hung up. There was no way Amy would be able to get back to sleep, and work didn’t start until ten. She darkened her phone screen so its glow couldn’t be seen through the kitchen window, then lowered herself to her knees. As she crawled past the kitchen table, she nabbed the cast-iron frying pan from where she’d unpacked it the night before. Passing by the back door, she glanced at the bolt. It was horizontal, and she couldn’t remember if that meant locked or unlocked.
Back in her bedroom, Amy waited. She would give the guy until eight to clear out. With any luck, the problem would resolve itself. It would only get complicated if she had to move on to reporting her trespasser or confronting the man herself. Both had downsides. Involving the cops would take up her morning, and who knew how the man would respond if she approached him at daylight on her own. Offering him a cup of coffee and a polite but firm declaration that he “please leave” felt like the moral high ground, but it was still nerve-wracking. The man had heft and, being new to town, Amy had no one to call on for support. Julie was back in Vancouver, now a ninety-minute ferry ride away.
The digital deadline passed. Amy crept to the dining nook, which had the only other window view of the garden. There was no sign of the man. Maybe he’d gone back to sleep after relieving himself. What she could see was that his occupation of the treehouse was not impromptu. A garden hose was attached to the faucet by the back door, the nozzle hanging in a bucket by the treehouse’s rope ladder. And an electric cord was strung between the outdoor outlet and one of the tiny shuttered windows that flanked the treehouse door.
So he was both a freeloader and a thief, she concluded, wondering how much water and electricity he’d consumed in the months her new house was vacant while she finished up at her last job. The property manager she’d contracted to look in on the place regularly must have been negligent. The first thing she’d do when she got to work was call him.
The walk to the office was more of an awkward jog since Amy couldn’t be late on her first day. She was determined to make a good first impression as the newly appointed office coordinator of Barker and Lane Consultants. There was a mortgage to pay now, an amount higher than her previous rent on a salary lower than she’d previously pulled. Eliminating transit costs, moving to a smaller town on Vancouver Island, and accepting more limited job opportunities were concessions she’d made to afford the house.
But it was worth it she assured herself, trying to fill with air those parts of her lungs that always felt collapsed. The corners of her mouth twitched into a smile; and she walked straighter just thinking of her little bungalow, space that was all hers and completely under her control.
Of all life’s milestones, owning a home was the only one she’d been able to achieve. A partner, kids, a successful career, world travel—at forty, these events seemed destined to remain out of reach. But owning a house was an accomplishment that almost none of her city friends had managed. She couldn’t believe how much satisfaction she’d got from the responses to her photos on Instagram. She had been a little disingenuous—posting close-ups of the burled oak fireplace surround, the established perennial gardens in front and back, and the walk-in closet without ever sharing that the total square footage was smaller than her friends’ condos. That she had a yard with actual grass was enough to elicit the desired responses. “You’re soooooo lucky!” and “I’m soooooo jealous” were her favourites, and she always tapped the heart icon to reinforce her self-satisfaction. For once, she understood what it was like to humblebrag on social media and experience the envy of others.
She made it to the office just before ten. From then on, she was too busy to think of anything other than the work to be done.
By the end of the day, Amy was stressed. Her new boss had been unable to meet her as planned and had left her in the hands of an assistant who was too busy to give her a proper tour and introduction to the other employees. Deposited at her new desk with little instruction, she spent the first hour trying to contact the property manager, who had seemed decent and responsive when she first engaged him, but was suddenly unreachable by phone, no matter how many messages she left. She tried the number so often that she eventually had to escape to the women’s washroom to avoid the curious glances of the people at desks around her. And the day had been more challenging than she expected. It wasn’t easy to appear as a competent, confident, friendly boss without giving her new colleagues—most in their mid-twenties—the idea that she was a lightweight. Already she regretted things she’d said, but the temptation to slip into the conversation a comment about her new house had been too great. She thought it would elicit some respect for her lengthier work experience and signal that hard work paid off, but it seemed to have the opposite effect. Maybe in smaller towns home ownership had a different significance than in the city, marking someone’s stagnation or immobility. Or maybe the slim hopes for traditional markers of success had been completely quashed in the next generation. Everyone seemed bored and disinterested, their glances shifting to and from their phones as she tried to break the ice. It was as if they understood aspiration as something only to do with breathing.
She called Julie as she glumly trod home along weed-infested sidewalks.
“So, how was it?” Julie’s voice was loud, usually a sign she’d had a drink or two. “Any more men to shake out of the trees?”
“Sorry, I’m not in the mood for jokes.”
“I thought I’d like being in charge of an office. I was told it was like a family, but they’re all so young. It feels like they’re putting in time before they make their escape. I can feel their suspicion. They’re asking themselves why I left the city to come here.”
“So, did you tell them you left so that you weren’t still living with a roommate in your forties?”
“How’s the new roomie?”
“She’s not you. It sucks. I wish I could afford a place of my own.”
“You could come here. Buy a place nearby.”
“You know I’d die in a small town. How’d it turn out with Tarzan, by the way? Did he clear out?”
“I’ll let you know once I get home. Call you later?”
“Yeah, sure. Go get him, girlfriend.”
It wasn’t until Amy hung up the call that the tone in Julie’s voice struck her as odd. It seemed to contain a note of mockery, as if Julie didn’t think Amy could deal with this problem on her own.
The backyard was fenced and, like a lot of yards on the coast, it was surrounded on three sides by a cedar hedge high enough to provide a screen from the neighbours. Amy stood by the gate. The yard was private, but it was also cut off from view. A sensation like rising hackles crept up the back of her neck.
“Hey!” she called out. “Hey, you up there!” The door of the treehouse was wide open. Next to the main house, the garden hose lay coiled; the bucket and electrical cord were out of sight. She steeled herself to ascend the rope ladder, something she hadn’t done when she’d toured the property initially because the real estate agent counselled her not to until a safety inspection had been completed. Later, when she’d received the report, it assured her that the little house was well built and to code, and that she wouldn’t have to go to the expense of removing it if she didn’t want to.
She started up the ladder, happy now for shoes with heels that caught and held her to the ropes. At platform level, she realized the treehouse was bigger than she expected and that the door had been left open almost as an invitation for her to look. The man was tidy to the point of military precision. Lined up on a shelf were a two-burner camp stove, a flashlight and a goose-neck lamp, a phone charger, and a rolled-up sleeping bag. Stacked milk crates displayed clean pots and metal dishes, a few tinned goods and boxed staples, and three books (the top one titled Planting and Foraging.) A suit bag hung from the ceiling, zipped and thick enough to enclose more than one change of clothes. With the exception of a couple grains of rice stuck between two planks on the floor, the place was clean. The whole set-up was snug and dry, and Amy had no trouble standing upright.
“Well, crap,” she said out loud. “I’d live here too. It’s practically one of those tiny houses.” She caught sight of a small pair of field glasses resting on the window ledge as she turned to leave. She picked them up to assess the view. Just as she feared, her trespasser had a perfect eye on her kitchen. She could see the unpacked dishes where she’d left them on the table.
“Well, that’s it, buddy. I don’t care how tidy you are.” Startling a flock of chittering sparrows, she shut the treehouse door behind her. In her mind, she was already crafting an eviction notice that she’d tack to the base of the ladder. Looking down, she was surprised to see vegetable plants peppered throughout her perennial garden.
“Wait a minute,” Julie said. “I’m putting you on speaker so I can get a glass of wine. So Tarzan has been there long enough to grow vegetables?”
“Uh-huh. Mostly tomatoes, green onions, basil. So, what do I do now?”
“Listen to yourself. You just told me you were going to print off an eviction notice. That’s what you do now. Otherwise, you’ll be giving up your property rights to a squatter.”
“Is that a real thing? Squatter’s rights? I didn’t think so.”
“Did you go through his stuff?”
“Why would I do that?”
“To see if there were drugs, stolen wallets, pictures of naked women. He’s obviously a peeper.”
“Amy, didn’t I teach you anything in all the years we lived together? If it walks like a creep and acts like a creep . . . Hey, did you hear back from the property guy?”
“He left a message. Said he totally understood how upset I was, and that he plans to come over to the house tomorrow evening to discuss it.”
“So, it’s status quo tonight? Tarzan’s at home?”
“I guess he could be. I haven’t looked. I have a ton of work to do for tomorrow, so I’ll put my notice out for him in the morning.”
“You’re killing me. Do you want me to draft it for you?”
“Of course not,” Amy answered. She frowned at the phone screen wondering again how and when Julie had concluded she was so incompetent and needy.
For the rest of the evening, Amy worked at her desk. She left her phone in the bedroom on purpose, disappointed that she’d called Julie twice in one day. She loved her friend, but after more than thirteen years of living together, people who knew them both had started to treat them more as a couple than as longstanding roommates. She’d let years slide by until waking up one day to find herself on the cusp of middle age with nothing but some decent savings in the bank and the reputation of being a closeted gay. And while Julie had purported to be supportive of Amy’s decision to relocate to Vancouver Island, she’d also pointed out that Amy wasn’t used to being independent—an observation that had rankled because of its obvious truth. Amy needed to prove to herself that she could sort out problems like Tarzan on her own. Just before bed, she fired off a text to Julie: “Going to be a crazy wk. Taking break from non-work-related media and phone.” And since there was a good chance Julie wouldn’t believe her, she added: “I’ll call u Saturday.”
The following morning, it was raining so hard that there was no point tacking up a paper sign. Standing on two books to appear taller should the guy have eyes on her, Amy mustered up enough confidence to look out the kitchen window. There was no sign of the man. She stepped off the books. Allowing him to live in her treehouse was an untenable situation. Untenable, she repeated in her mind, feeling more in control just using the word. She’d learned it only recently from the Word-a-Day calendar her previous boss had given her as a going-away gift.
She slogged to work in a waterproof coat and rubber boots, leaving early enough that she could change into heels and look dry and professional before anyone else turned up. There was another message on her work phone from the property manager.
“Just confirming our appointment tonight at seven. Again, please accept our apologies for whatever damages that may have incurred. I know we can sort this out.”
Perfect, she thought. She’d never mentioned any damages, but an apology was as good as an admission of guilt. She’d demand a refund, and she’d send the guy into the backyard to dislodge Tarzan. By tonight, she’d be back in charge, master of her own domain. She might even find a use for that treehouse, take up sketching or writing. She needed a hobby to fill the time she used to spend drinking wine and binge-watching Netflix with Julie.
Her second day on the job was harder than the first. It became increasingly clear that the office was dysfunctional, and she’d been hired to clean it up. Skimming through personnel files, she discovered that at least three of her reports were underperforming. Her predecessor had been doing the prep work to fire them.
She wanted to call Julie but resisted. Maybe once the treehouse issue was out of the way, she could ask Sam, the property guy, for advice on how to fire someone. He’d mentioned upon hiring that he’d been running his business for over ten years; surely he’d have the experience she didn’t. And getting rid of her trespasser was a kind of firing. She’d watch the process closely.
Sam arrived on time, ringing her doorbell just as she turned on all the lights in the house for the first time. She glanced outside. The electrical cord was, once again, strung between the outlet and the treehouse. “Gotchya,” Amy said, and went to let Sam in.
She’d imagined someone middle-aged, a little soft around the edges. This man was trim and smelled of lemon and sandalwood.
He pressed a bottle of wine and a potted begonia wrapped in clear plastic into her hands. “It’s Amy, right? I am so sorry. I hope these go some way to making up for what our services may have lacked.”
Both her hands were now full. In the narrow hallway, she and Sam were forced to stand close together. It felt more like a date than a business meeting. She put the bottle and plant down on a hall table. “Thanks. Let me show you the problem.”
He glanced into the living room, took in the floral patterns that Amy hoped didn’t suggest a woman living alone. “Why don’t we open that bottle of wine first?”
Sam gestured to the living room and smiled. “We’ve both worked today, and I’m guessing we’re both tired. So why don’t we talk over a glass of wine? You can explain to me exactly what the problem is.”
“I guess. But follow me into the kitchen first. I’ll get glasses, and you can see for yourself. Someone has been living on my property—clearly for months—and I want you to get rid of him. Our contract was for house and yard maintenance, and security. Look.” She hesitated, but the only way to really see outside was to turn off the kitchen lights. She waved Sam to the window.
“What am I looking at, exactly?” he asked, leaning towards her as if to adjust his view, warmth radiating through the linen of his jacket.
She stepped aside. “It would be better if we went outside.”
He followed her. She stopped at the base of the ladder. “After you.” The height of the cedar hedge and the isolation of the yard began to weigh heavily. She wasn’t about to let this stranger get a view of her ass by preceding him. “The guy’s been tapping into my water and my electricity.”
“You don’t say.” Ahead on the platform, Sam was directing his cellphone flashlight into the treehouse.
“Wait,” she said, when she joined him.
“Give me that.”
There was nothing. The treehouse was completely vacant. No sleeping bag, no milk crates, just the piney, mouldy odour of raw wood and neglect. Even the electrical cord that she’d seen draped through the window a few minutes earlier was now gone. Amy shone the light on the floor, bending over to get a closer view. No rice in the cracks either.
Sam blocked the door, had nudged it almost shut. Despite the dim light shrouding his features, she could sense how his attitude had changed. His shoulders were looser, his eyebrows slightly lifted.
“Well, it looks like your little problem has been solved. I don’t see any damage.” He took a step towards her. “So how about we have that glass of wine now?”
Amy tried to slide by him, but he turned suddenly so that his arm brushed against her breast. “Sorry,” he said, as she blurted out, “This is just so weird. I know the guy was here earlier. There was a camp stove and a bag of clothes.”
“Well, the important thing is that the property is safe now.”
Amy rubbed a hand along her hip. Her phone wasn’t in her pocket. “Look,” she said. “I’m sorry about this, but . . .”
Sam didn’t move. Dampness spread across Amy’s upper lip. She was acutely aware that today was Tuesday, that Julie wouldn’t expect to hear from her again until Saturday, and that no one who reported to her would care if she turned up at the office tomorrow or not.
“Excuse me,” she said again. Sam wasn’t as big as Tarzan, but in comparison to Amy he had the height and bulk to overpower her. This was exactly the kind of situation she should have been smart enough to avoid, and she couldn’t help thinking his expression resembled that of a cat who’d cornered a bird in a bush where it had thought itself safe. Her voice, when she finally found it, came out higher pitched than she intended. “Would you please step aside, and let me get down.”
The question of what to do if he didn’t move was just passing through Amy’s mind when her kitchen’s screen slammed, a wood and metal clang that reverberated on the night air. It was followed by a two-note, high-low whistle that a dog might respond to when called in for the night.
Sam moved immediately to let Amy pass onto the treehouse platform, and they both clambered down the ladder. Back on the ground, Amy peered into the gloom but saw no one. She strode to the side gate and opened it to indicate Sam should pass through. She wanted him off the property immediately. She could have pressed him for a refund, but she knew she’d get nowhere. She knew his type.
Back in the house, she flipped on the kitchen lights and stood at the window looking out at the shadowy outline of the treehouse. Her eye caught on a half-dozen ripe cherry tomatoes arrayed on the outside sill where she was sure to see them. As she stood in silence, she searched for a figure in the blueness of the yard, but there was no movement except for the dark outlines of sparrows darting between trees and bushes. Her face reflected back to her, low in the window glass—a small woman alone in a small house, resisting what she knew was a ridiculous urge to call out: Come back. You can stay.