"Boys chase girls who chase butterflies," Sarah Williams hummed along with her iPod. "Who chase red balloons who chase better skies…"
The wind of the car's passing swept up a skirl of dust, obscuring parts of the woods on either side of Ash Valley Road. It made the world around her look patchy and a little dingy, and with the scattered way the sunlight penetrated the trees, it put her in mind of the Underground's glitter.
Sarah took a deep breath in and let it out on a slow count. She returned her focus to the road, letting her awareness of the woods around her fall away into periphery. Gradually, the road turned from deep black asphalt to something lighter, a paler brown that looked more like pebbled concrete than solid tar. Even more gradually than that, the older part of the road petered out.
By the time she reached the crossroads where — if she went left — Ash Valley Road became Old Ash Valley Road and (if she went right) Ash Valley Road became Ashtree Lane, she was facing a choice between two dirt tracks.
"Turn left onto Ashtree Lane," her GPS informed her. Sarah rolled her eyes.
In the passenger seat, Red cheered and flung up its hands. "Throw GIPS out the window!"
She reached over and patted the goblin on the head, lightly noogieing the mop of red ringlets from which it drew its name. "No, Red. We're not throwing the GPS out the window. And you need to stay out of sight."
Red grumbled, but she ignored it and turned right onto Ashtree. When she didn't say anything else to it, the goblin clambered into her car's backseat and burrowed its way into a cardboard box.
Sarah consulted the handwritten directions. She'd taken them down from Christine over the phone, after a lot of clarifications. Christine had a liquid, musical accent that hinted at French being her first language.
The last house on Ashtree Lane, Christine had said.
The last house on Ashtree Lane was a beautiful, Victorian-looking affair. She saw three stories — the top two had balconies; the ground floor had a porch with a poofily upholstered swing — and a pair of shuttered doors hinted at a cellar. The front porch had no screen, but the scrollwork in the columns that held up its roof was too beautiful to mar with a screen, anyway.
Cherry trees shaded the two carports, in which three other cars and a minivan had already parked.
A curly-headed blonde half-flung herself out the door, moving in an elegant, excited spin. She caught herself on one of the porch's columns, turning the spin into half a swing, and then stepped down onto the lawn. She made her way across a gravel-and-grass driveway, straight to Sarah's little Kia.
Sarah rolled down her window.
"You must be Sarah!" The woman spoke in the same lyrical accent Sarah had heard on the phone. "I'm Christine Daae."
"Nice to meet you," Sarah said. She rolled her window back up and opened her car door. She heard Red make a strange squeak and hoped that Christine just assumed it was junk settling in the boxes. "I can't believe I found an open apartment this late in the semester."
And surely not for as cheap as the Ashtree neighborhood was going.
"Come on in, I'll show you which room's yours."
"Wait, just room?"
"This is more like a boarding house than apartment complex. It all used to be one house, you see? So we share the kitchen and laundry room. Every floor has its own bathroom and sitting room. Oh! We're on the third floor."
Sarah looked to her car, packed full of boxes heavy with books, then looked up at the third floor, and sighed.
The sun had gone down by the time Sarah and Christine had lugged the final box into Sarah's room. The landlady — Marsha — had promised that the rooms came prefurbished. Sarah had expected to ask permission to throw half the furnishings out, or at least in some sort of storage, but the furniture provided was actually tasteful.
Her bedroom's far wall was one huge book case. The dresser was heavy and huge, with plenty of room for clothes. Next to what had to be a walk-in closet stood a floor-length mirror. The bed had a gauzy canopy that could be drawn in close. She'd always dreamed of having a bed like that.
"The netting keeps out mosquitoes if you want to sleep with your window open. It's an old house, sometimes the air conditioner goes out, so having the window open in summer can be nice."
Sarah didn't say that she'd learned to leave her windows locked and the blinds drawn at all times, unless she particularly wanted Jareth to leave feathers and dreambaubles.
Instead, she nodded like she totally planned to try that sometime. And then she asked, "So how many other people live here?"
"Right now just three. I've only met Javert and Jamie, down on the second floor. They've got a real attachment to the first floor living room. And there's someone on the first floor, but we've never come across each other." Christine paused, tilting her head a bit as she thought, and then added, "Marsha says one more is moving in sometime this weekend."
It turned out that 'Jamie' was James Norrington, who was sharing an apartment with Javert. If Javert had any other names, he seemed disinclined to share them. Then again, Javert just didn't seem to care for company.
Sarah tucked a box of cookies and a box of poptarts into a bare cabinet and then poured peppermints into a tray to leave in the first floor living room. If she kept sweets around the house, she'd probably look a little less suspicious for the candy she was going to have to keep hidden in her room.
Sir Didymus and Hoggle seemed to have a better grasp of the need for subtlety than the goblins who had never quite introduced themselves, like Red. She didn't doubt that Red and his brethren were smart, but they seemed to think Sarah could protect them from everything. The last thing she needed was yet another roommate freaking out about the goblins that always seemed to be lurking about. And that wasn't even going into the amount of creepy the King could bring.
No, the rest of this semester was going to be blissfully goblin drama free.
"So, Sarah, what's your major?" James asked as he tipped a bottle of whiskey into a saucepan already holding a gloppy mixture of tomatoes, garlic, ground beef, and other herbs. The smell it produced was just this side of heavenly.
"Political Science." Sarah gave him a lopsided smile. "I changed it from Musical Theatre."
"That's quite a jump."
"Well, I was dual-majoring at first, but they're so separate and time-consuming, and I can't really see myself on Broadway…" Sarah shrugged. "So I picked one."
Christine laughed. It was a tinkling sound, resplendent with the same sense of rhythm that seemed to inform all of Christine's actions. (Some people were naturally graceful. Some people really clicked with stage movement. In both regards, Christine didn't so much take the cake as own the bakery.) "I knew you were a musical sort! Finally, somebody else musical around here!"
"Javert sings," James said.
Javert looked up from his mug of coffee — black — and said, darkly, "Not often."
"James and the mysterious first floor resident don't sing?" Sarah raised a brow. "But James here was obviously born to be on the big screen."
James blushed. "Nothing so grand, I'm afraid. I teach history."
"He plays piano," Javert added, setting the coffee aside to draw a cigarette case from his pocket. "Not well."
"Harpsichord, and I learned to play as a child. I had little use for it once I was out of my teens."
Javert laughed without any real mirth and opened the cigarette case. He pulled out some thin paper and a small bag of tobacco, then began rolling a cigarette with quick, efficient movements. He ignored the look James shot him.
Sarah searched the other cupboards and found the dishware. She set the table for four, then held out an extra plate. "Is the guy on the first floor going to…?"
"Probably not," Christine said.
"Does the house usually eat together?"
James laughed and carried over a huge pot of spaghetti and his delicious from-scratch meat sauce. "What? Oh no. We've only been here a month. I just thought now that there were four of us, it was time for a housewarming party."
"Better than fruit baskets." Javert finished rolling his cigarette. It was surprisingly straight for hand-rolled, and he'd miraculously avoided spilling even a speck of tobacco on the table.
Sarah tried to imagine how she would have reacted to strangers bringing her fruit.
Dinner was a far, far better idea.
Sarah probably should have started unpacking her clothes first. Instead, she emptied the box in which Red had hidden onto the bed, then moved on to unpacking her clothes and flinging her class texts and readings onto the desk provided.
That was about where her plan petered out. In a big way.
At first, Red was content to muck around on the bed, generally toying with the various items he'd hidden in. Sarah looked up from her dresser to find him with a colander on his head and a blue kerchief tied around his neck to imitate a cape. The colander had no hope of constraining his unruly hair.
A few moments later, she heard a noise not unlike an increasingly irritated cat. It was a long, low sound, a whine ramping into a growl and curling back again. Not unlike — in her opinion — the sound of a lawnmower.
She turned to find Red staring at the room's farthest corner. He'd abandoned the cape and was holding the colander forth fearfully, like it could shield him from the evil forces of the empty corner.
Red's only reply was the continued whiny growling. His fingers had begun to shake as he held the colander.
"Red, there's nothing there."
Red just kept staring at the corner. At last, he sank to his knees and pulled the colander over his head. It didn't work well to conceal him — he was tall for a goblin, about the size of a three year old human child — but the colander did manage to cover his eyes.
"Red? Seriously, that corner is empty."
"That's what's wrong," he whined from beneath the colander.
"You want me to put the mirror over there?"
Red whine-growled again, then wailed, "It's always empty. It's always hungry. Call the King."
"Call the King." And then the be-colandered goblin began to rock back and forth. "Call the King. Call the King. Call the King."
"What am I supposed to do, huh? Wish that the Goblin King would move into this house?"
But Red didn't answer her. He was too busy rocking and mumbling.
Realizing she'd almost made a wish, Sarah pulled at the blinds, but there was no U-haul nor even an unfamiliar car outside to herald a new arrival.
Opening line comes from Red Balloons by Goh Nakamura.