twitter novel, continued: THE PLACE BELOW

“Where do I begin?”

Irvin leaned back in his chair. “Take it from the top. I’ve got all night.”

Thom rubbed his aching forehead. “I don’t; I have to return that truck by midnight.”

The food had made him feel tired and heavy. And old. He still had his relationship to un-ruin, as well. All this pressing down on him made the truth slide out, unpolished. “Only girl I’ve ever loved?” That part felt like a question. The next part did not. “Only girl I’m capable of loving.”

“Oh shit,” said Irvin.

“Not that I don’t ‘love’ Nathalie. Etc. Standard disclaimers apply.”

“You just put the love you have for your girlfriend in finger-quotes.” Irvin slid the keys across the table as if they were a loaded gun.

Thom didn’t get home from returning the U-Haul until two in the morning. He was relieved to see that Nathalie had waited up. While Thom and Irvin carried up the trash bags full of her clothing, she had stayed silently in the bedroom, the door shut.

It had taken them two-and-a-half trips. Thom had not realized that Nathalie’s wardrobe was so extensive. The closet in the bedroom was already full. He had no idea where she planned to put everything — but at least it was all here, in one place, and so were they.

“Thank you.” Nathalie got up to embrace him. “It’s occurred to me that I’ve behaved horrendously.”

Thom couldn’t deny it, so he just kissed her on the cheek.

Nathalie put a hand to her face. It was an old, unconscious gesture. Her cheek bore a puckered two-inch scar, the result of a nasty fall she’d taken at summer camp years ago.

It was the first thing Thom had loved about her. On their first night together, he had sneakily tried to kiss it but she had kept her face turned away.

“I looked through your phone,” she said. “And of course there’s nothing there.”

“No,” said Thom.

“So now I feel like an absolute shit.”

“She is the person I’m still mixed up about,” Thom said. “To be honest.” As soon as he said this, he regretted it.

“Yeah. That was obvious.”

••• ••••• •••

Nathalie did not allow herself to think much that night about what Thom had said. But in the morning, he left for work before she woke up, as if their first full day living together meant nothing.

She lay by herself in the big bed, thinking. It was rare for anyone who worked in her lab to show up before ten, so she had grown accustomed to sleeping late. But she hated waking up alone, especially in Thom’s apartment.

Our apartment now, she thought firmly.

But the place was always cold and lately Trixie had been going on about how she thought it was haunted. Nathalie was not sure where Trixie had gotten the idea, but it reinforced something she’d long felt herself.

Thom’s apartment building reminded Nathalie of her mother’s orchids. Her mother had long kept orchids, a hobby that expanded out of the attached greenhouse and into the empty upstairs bedrooms of their house. Some of the orchids were paper-thin and delicate, like otherworldly geishas. But the ones that happened to inhabit Nathalie’s old bedroom were bulbous, grotesque-looking beings. Nathalie got the feeling that even though they did not have eyes, they were looking at her. She was convinced that they possessed some kind of alien intelligence. She took to sleeping on the couch when she visited her mom.

Thom’s whole building felt the same way. Well, not quite the same way, but Nathalie suspected it was also, somehow sentient. Times like now — when the building was particularly quiet — this sensation intensified. It creeped her out.

She would have suggested getting another apartment, but she knew Thom was attached to this one. He was a set-in-his-ways kind of guy. Nathalie had liked that about him when they first met, thinking that it meant stability. Now she was beginning to understand that it did not. Not necessarily. It was more about Thom being in a rut than anything else. And who wanted to live in a rut?

She sat up in bed and gazed at the wrapped-up package from Darcy that Thom had placed so carefully on his side of the bed. Seeing her boyfriend’s name written in some other woman’s affected, curlicued handwriting pissed her off all over again.

She crawled out of bed and knelt on the cold floorboards to give it closer inspection. The brown paper was secured along the edge with plain masking tape.

Nathalie grabbed her phone from the dusty top of Thom’s black-painted bookshelf and texted Trixie. “I know I just checked his phone last night & that was crazy but I’m about to open that girl’s package too.” She sent a second message immediately. “Stop me if you think I shouldn’t…?”

She set her phone aside and went to take her shower. When she came back, Trixie had responded. “do what you gotta do girlfriend…maybe you shouldn’t unpack?”

Like I can move back in with you, Nathalie thought. Trixie had already cashed the Toronto woman’s check the weekend before.

There are other places I can live if I need to, she told herself. But she didn’t feel that she could ever find another guy, not one as nice as Thom. Nathalie knew that that was not objectively true, but she found it impossible to make herself stop believing it.

She placed Darcy’s package gently on the bed and began working away at the masking tape with her finger. She thought that, if she was careful, she could open it, have a look, and seal it back up again with no sign that she’d snooped.

Read the next section.

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