← Return home

The Octagon House

Jennifer A. Howard

Inside the blank envelope was a letter printed on formal paper, as if from an office supply store in 1997. Showily mottled business paper, maybe for a resume for an office job where she would have had to wear nylons and modest pumps. The font mimicked a typewriter, but the characters weren’t equidistant from each other. They squished together here and there, i’s snuggling up against the a before them, but capital W’s unable to really get intimate with the o that follows. How off-putting. A letter written by some machine just learning to love the quirks of failure.

She set the letter on the bed without reading the actual words on the page. The cat’s food bowl was empty, and she had to pee. Where was the coffee maker in this hotel room anyway? And why did she bring a cat on, what is this, a road trip? The cat grunted her way up onto the bed and settled her heft onto the letter. A lavender calico she didn’t recognize.

Outside the window: a lake so big she can’t see the other side, a Ferris wheel down by the beach, a white deer and two brown fawns on the ground below, among some apple trees, maybe three or four stories down. She did recognize the t-shirt she wore to sleep in. The Smiley Barn. A happy-faced yellow barn on a red background, from the summer she spent working behind the counter at the bait shop in the barn’s basement ten years ago. Twenty?

She pulled the letter out from under the sleeping cat. There was no salutation, and no date. Maybe it was not even a letter. It began: Is your room a triangle too? She read on, My bed is too big a rectangle for this space, though the comforter is very soft and there are a variety of pillow firmnesses. I sleep on the left side, near my reading lamp. This feels like a learned preference but perhaps I was born with this inclination. I cannot decide how I would know. The letter continued to describe a triangular room, the gaps where right-angled furniture leaves smaller triangular spaces—hollow and unusable. At the bottom of the page was a rubber-stamped image of Snoopy and a speech bubble. He said, the blue ink smearing, “Please write me back.”

While her room was mostly a rectangle, two of the three doors were located in corners opposite the window, rather than along a flat wall. One of them must be the bathroom. But the first corner door opened onto another bedroom. The bed was made, and her cat—her room’s cat?—launched herself onto her neighbor’s pillow. She said hello, knocked lightly, but nobody appeared. She tiptoed in a little, gestured to the cat to come back to her. There was an envelope under the door of this room as well, but she left it alone, lifted the cat and returned to her room.

The other corner door, which she opened only a sliver, also led to a bedroom. This room was messier, an open suitcase on the desk chair, sundresses abandoned on the wood floor, one cute sneaker on the rag rug. She gentled the door shut.

The third door opened onto a spiral staircase, leading both up and down. She closed the cat in the room behind her and chose down.

The staircase creaked and swayed. She should have worn shoes. A voice echoed up, or down, the stairs, but the room at the bottom was empty. It was a kitchen, and she found a strawberry yogurt in the fridge and a spoon in a drawer. The garbage where she tossed her lid was empty.

Along the wall were a row of numbered cubbies. Some held umbrellas, one was stuffed full with balls of yarn. Many of them were empty. She should have looked to see if her room had a number before she came down.

She found a door and exited to wander the grounds. Maybe she was in a psych ward, or did she get really drunk last night and somehow check into a hostel? She looked for her car—it was silver, she thought, or green?—but she didn’t even find a parking lot. When she looked back up at the building, she could see it was oddly shaped, a tall cylinder, but with edges, like the tube you’d send your endorsed check through at the drive-in bank. She walked all the way around and counted the sides. The house was an octagon.

Back inside, she found the Encyclopedia Room, which wasn’t full of books. Instead, the shelves were full of plastic three-ringed binders full of computer print-outs. One wall held hundreds of messy binders that contained pages from a Survivor Wiki. US and international seasons—the tribal council vote breakdowns, the idol plays, where-are-they-now updates about players’ babies or career moves. Transcripts of podcasts where analysts ranked seasons and broke down player strategy.

She had liked that show. Wasn’t there an episode where somebody told somebody else a stick was just a fucking stick?

The other wall was more organized. The spines of these binders were neatly labeled. The binders held clearly marked data regarding land temperature, ocean temperature, sea levels, precipitation, glacial activity, storm tracking, and so much else. In one, she found a history of the population of Michigan. The chart showed a dramatic influx of people after 2031. One graph showed the population of the city of Escanaba being 58,285 in 2045.

It must be a projected number. Esky was a little Lake Michigan town—she might have lived there—with a paper mill and max population of like 15,000 in the 80’s, before people started moving south. But that’s not how the chart was labeled, as if it was imagining this world where Escanaba had, probably, more than one high school, or a hospital with doctors who specialized. In fact, when she turned the page, she saw more numbers describing an even further future.

She must be dreaming. This weird house, that stranger cat. And if she was dreaming, it wasn’t a bad dream; nobody was chasing her, she wasn’t about to get into a car accident. She wasn’t trying to scream but only whispering out her horror. Why not keep looking around at this oddball place her brain had built her for the night.

The floor was littered with the edges of papers run through a dot-matrix printer, and sand. A phrenology head sat on a countertop: the divisions painted in pretty pastel colors and labeled with playing cards. The 2 of Diamonds over the left ear, a 7 of Clubs at the tip top of the forehead. Ridiculous. Her dream world was full on nonsense, and it wasn’t even illuminating or meaningful. Maybe the next room would at least reveal a proper metaphor for whatever she, awake, was worried about. On her way out of the room, she saw that a spider had made a web between the skull and the wall, but it hadn’t caught any dinner quite yet.

The intern has delivered the letters and restocked the stationary and it is time to compile her report. All the letters said: Dear. Come down for lunch. Take the central staircase to the basement. Next, she will check in with Australia and South Africa, update the binders. The residents, she notes, are settling in nicely.

The historian is converting past tense to future tense and has called maintenance to fix the lock on the encyclopedia room.

The sundress neighbor had found the outhouse, and the first-floor bathtub. The room next to hers had a cat, she can hear it through the door. Tonight, she might let the door sit open and hope for a visit.

Back at home, the girlfriend’s internet is down. The thunderstorms are coming more often, but in between, the beaches are too crowded to walk the dog there so she takes her to the woods more often. Every tree with a distinct knot or hollow feels like it holds a secret. The internet will be down a lot for her, so it will be difficult to upload the video she recorded this morning.

The other neighbor moves into the tidy room. They arrive with a chicken. They feel an urge to unpack, but they did not bring any belongings.

The host is ready to dial down the memory filter. She’ll have to up their agreeability first.

The house’s first resident has been annotating the letters he’s received. Notes on the syntax of the sentences, the salutation (“Dear,” without any name or even a blank space afterwards), the formality of the language, the sudden reveals of intimacy and flirting, the way the writer knows about his children, his smallpox immunization scar, his favorite guilty pleasure movies. He has found the stationary center and is ready to write his own letter, but he cannot decide to whom yet, or what it will say.

The great-granddaughter is readying the guest room in the farm house, laying out the quilt her great-grandmother made and setting the manual on the nightstand. Later she will collect the eggs and bake a carrot cake.

The group went for a hike in the woods surrounding the house. At one fork, they followed the narrow trail leading to the observation deck. They had to walk single file, and without consulting they ordered themselves by the time they arrived, with the first resident leading the way.

They passed thimbleberry bushes, heavy with fuzzy red fruit. She felt like the berries were blooming earlier than normal, but given she didn’t know the date, or even the latitude of the woods they were in, the judgment made no sense. Chippies shot in and out of the brush around their feet.

All the residents were dressed in clean clothes. They had all shared that folded piles had been left in their rooms, but they weren’t in any sort of uniform. She had on jeans and sneakers covered in daisies and a plain blue hoodie. This outfit felt enough like her. Some people had on more formal gear—blouses or dress shoes and there was one fascinating crocheted poncho just ahead of her. The yarn was variegated, and she tried to track one strand as it wove in and out of the construction, but she kept losing it as it gradiated into another color or hid behind a stitch.

The trail went up and up, but gently, and the man in front soon called out that they’d arrived. They found a wooden platform, about six inches off the ground, next to a little sign designating it the Observation Deck, and she stepped up with the others.

But what were they observing? While they were high up compared to the land, the birch trees, the maples and white pines, were thick around them. Was there water in the distance—a sea or an ocean—or a pretty valley? It was hard to tell. Maybe there was a busy city far below and at night it would be lit up with streetlights and cars. It was all guesses, because there was no natural gap in the forest; she could only peek through the trees and imagine what magic they blocked.

She spied a birdhouse above, which appeared to be connected to a rope and pulley system. Ooh, maybe it was a geocache. She reached toward her back pocket for her phone to check the app, but of course her phone wasn’t there. She hadn’t seen it since she’d arrived. So she noted the birdhouse to the others, and the woman in the sundress released the rope and lowered it into the first man’s hands.

Inside was a camera. They thought maybe it was a trail cam, for catching pictures of the white deer they’d all seen through their windows, or maybe hoping to catch a moose or a woodpecker in action. The crew looked around and found other camouflaged cameras—lodged in nooks in the trees or hanging from branches—all pointing at the wooden platform.

The observation deck wasn’t a place to observe the world. It was the other way around. One went to the Observation Deck to be observed.

The first basement was one big, open octagonal room, the spiral staircase in the center. The staircase continued down, to the second basement, where the encyclopedia room was located, and maybe beyond. None of them had explored further than that.

The residents gathered in the circle of chairs around the spiral staircase and waited to see what they’d been called down for. She could see most of the other residents, though the iron stairs obscured her view of the people across from her.

The woman in the poncho sat to her left. “I think I used to be in AA,” she said. “Do you think I was?”

There were some shrugs. “We can’t tell by looking at you,” she said. “But you think this feels familiar, this circle, the folding chairs?”

“Yes,” the woman said. “Though maybe I’ve just seen a lot of movies.”

Many of them nodded. “I suppose we’ve all seen a lot of movies,” said the first resident.

She bristled at that. It felt to her like she didn’t like movies. Did some people not like movies?

Their circle of chairs wasn’t really a circle. They were 14 dots—new people were arriving every day or so—forming a 14-sided shape, and calling that shape a circle was an estimation, a blurring of the straight lines into something more rounded and satisfying and nameable.

A newcomer spoke: “The vibe for me is more like Sunday school.” Somebody on the other side of the stairs said, “Or group therapy.”

They could position themselves onto one side of this stupid centerpiece of stairs, she thought, move their chairs to sit in another shape, one that wasn’t so reminiscent of a séance. Unless it was time for them to raise the dead.

Her neighbor with the chicken in their lap said, “Spin the bottle,” which relaxed the group. They really were adorable, she thought. She would kiss them, if she could be sure she hadn’t promised anybody her fidelity. There wasn’t a ring on her finger. Though there were other ways to promise yourself to a person.

The stairs started their heavy shimmy and feet appeared above them. They saw tall, low-heeled leather boots first, then the jeans tucked into them, then a flannel shirt—oranges and golds in a plaid—a clipboard in a hand, and a long red ponytail, and then a head. Lip gloss, glasses, baseball hat. The woman reached the bottom of the stairs, smiling.

“All right,” she said to the group. “You’re about to head out to the fire pit. Let’s go over the rules.”

They held karaoke night outside on the patio. She sat at a table with some of the others and looked through the songbook. Reading through the list of songs felt like walking on gravel. She couldn’t hear any of these melodies in her head, but every title made her body want to move in a different way: to kiss, to put her bare feet up on the dash of the passenger seat of a car, to hold a baby, to pass a cigarette back and forth with someone wearing winter gloves. Whose mouth, whose car, whose baby was she holding. Which winter.

One song title put her behind the wheel of a car high on a bridge, holding her breath. Another, pressed against somebody wearing a soft sweater. She smelled brownies in an oven.

A little girl—four or five—handed her paper and crayons and asked her to draw her an octagon. The kid wasn’t a resident; maybe she belonged to one of the staff. “Octagons are difficult to freehand,” she said to the girl, but she accepted the challenge. She tried drawing the sides in order, without lifting the crayon from the paper, but the side lengths were uneven and who on earth could sketch a 135-degree corner with any regularity. The little girl said, “That’s a bad octagon.” Truth.

She tried again, sketching opposite sides in parallel pairs, but she couldn’t get a tidy stop-sign shape. Again: “Bad octagon.” Again. She kept trying, and the girl kept handing down the same pronouncement. The little girl loved this game.

And to be fair, it was kind of fun, being bad at something.

Somebody was really belting it at the mic. The words “Bon Jovi” came out of her mouth. What on earth did that mean. Maybe the phrase was another language: good happy, or somesuch? Her translation fit the face of the person on stage anyway—they were smiling and singing at the same time, how cute. She leaned back and she passed the crayon and notepad over to the person next to her, so he could feel how good happy it was to draw a bad octagon. Maybe she would wake up or maybe this was her eight-sided life now, but whatever the case, she wanted him—and everybody, and you—to get the kid's approval too. He, and all of us, however this whole world started and whatever we’re all doing here together, would never even have a chance to mess up because messing up an impossible task was the point.

⬡ ⬡ ⬡

Jennifer A. Howard teaches creative writing and edits Passages North in Michigan's snowy Upper Peninsula. Her most recent chapbook—Flat Stanley Reports Back to His Third Grader—was published by The Cupboard Pamphlet.