Jacob lives closer to the city center than me. Only before we actually reach it, we turn left at a junction and the Jeep follows a wide road. The further we drive and the higher we get, the larger the houses grow to the sides, hiding behind walls of stone and dark gates, surveillance cameras looming over those who pass by. Finally the Jeep slows down. An electric gate opens silently and closes behind us after we have passed it, and Jacob parks the car in the shadow of two oak trees, directly in front of a house. At least, I assume the building is supposed to serve for living in it, although I cannot imagine it to be much fun. In one word: reduced. It is white, rectangular shaped with a flat roof and approximately two stories high although it is hard to tell since there are no windows except for narrow horizontal slots close to the top.
“Uh… earth to Caitlin?”
I realize I have stared unmoving at the building in front of me for some minutes, while Jacob has exited the car.
“Oh… sorry. I uh…”
I jump out and walk around the car.
“Are you… uh… living here?”
Jacob chuckles and slowly turns to look back at me, gravel crunching under his boots. “No, this is the place where I keep the bodies of my victims.”
That explains ev- wait, what?
He shakes his head when I ogle at him, and laughs, his eyes sparkling blue. “Yes, of course I live here. What else would I do?”
“Oh…” I hate the house already. How can anyone live in there? Out of his free will? Besides, it is way too… expensive-architecture looking for how I pictured Jacob. Or for what a regular tech support worker earns, I suppose.
Jacob limps towards the gray door, which is discretely placed to the side as if to not mar the even facade. If he had not already confirmed it, I would have asked if this was indeed his house, because why would someone who struggles with steps have one in front of his own home? But since I asked already I only frown as I watch him succeed in pulling his left leg up the step on the second attempt.
Jacob tucks his cane under his left arm and fumbles for the keys.
“Tadaa. After you. Mind the orangutans, they are probably hungry now, I forgot to feed them before I left.”
I smile tightly and walk past him and inside, a few feet down the dim corridor and my mouth drops open.
What the house lacks in windows at the front, it definitely makes up for on the other side. The entire back wall of it seems to be glass, floor to roof and provides an excellent view over the city, bathing in the spring sunlight below us. There seems to be only this one, huge room, but when I take a few more steps further inside and turn around I can see that there is a second floor with a few doors leading to other rooms, set back, covering half of the area and connected with the ground floor by a winding metal staircase in the right corner. Every available surface is occupied by pots, with and without plants in it, bags of earth and other garden equipment. Smaller pots are lining up directly in front of the windows while larger ones are loosely grouped together towards the middle of the room.
Jacob has apparently left his cane at the entrance because his hands are empty when he appears at my side.
“Take a seat. I made ice tea, do you like some?”
My eyes follow the vague wave of his hand towards a large cream colored couch to the left, facing the windows and barely visible under a load of stuff. It seems he has been working or even sleeping on it recently.
I look down at myself.
“I am a little dusty… Don’t you think-“
He waves my concerns away. “Sit on one of the blankets if you want. But honestly… I don’t care about a little dirt.”
I look after him quizzically as he turns and slowly walks towards the open kitchen situated on the other side of the room. There seem to be broad pathways in this labyrinth of pots on the floor and one of them leads along the back wall, lined with bookshelves. He uses the shelf on waist height to steady himself, sometimes trailing fingers over it just for reassurance, but leaning on it more heavily when he misjudged a step. I take a closer look on the bookshelves and realize that first, the layer of dust is broken only on that one shelf and second, he sorts his books in alphabetical order by author.
I cringe a little when I make my way towards the couch, step over a shovel and notice the soil crumbs on the white deep-pile carpeting. My frown deepens the more time I spend in this house. There is something fundamentally wrong here.
The couch looks exquisite, but, as I carefully sit down after putting a few pillows, scattered books and magazines aside and straightening out one of the blankets, surprisingly impossible to sit on. The backrest is turned the wrong way, making me lean forward and jabbing my neck when I attempt to look anywhere else then my lap, and the seating is too long, especially for a smaller person like me. I feel like a puppet that has fallen on the couch in some strange arrangement of limbs and scoot forward to the edge rather than trying to find a comfortable position.
“I see you have already made contact with one of the most genius designer pieces in my humble home.”
I look up from the officially looking documents I found on the low table in front of the couch, the plate a dark, polished stone. Jacob approaches through one of the pathways cutting through the room, leading past a few tomato plants. He balances a tray with two full glasses in his right hand and moves deliberately and slowly, his eyes fixed on the liquid so to not spill anything. He drags his left foot considerably, slowly lifting the leg from his hip until it closes up with his right before taking a minimal and quick step forward with the other.
“W-what?” I blink, forcing myself to look away.
“The couch?” Jacob lowers the tray on the table after I hastily cleaned some space for it. “Nice to look at but apparently no one ever tried to sit on it before they sold it for the value of a small car. When I think about it, maybe it was designed for that purpose, so to not make anyone linger longer than necessary. Losing time slouching on the couch is definitely uneconomical. So in the end it might even be worth its money.”
Jacob lowers himself down with a small groan and pulls his left leg next to his right. He grabs a stack of papers and the documents I had looked at join others on a pile next to the table.
I blink and take the glass he offers to me.
“Hope you like it on the sweeter side.”
“Right, the sweet tooth.” Jacob smiles.
After downing half my glass because delicious, I place it back on the tray. “When did you move in here, you said?”
“Uh… four years ago. Maybe five? Why?”
I suddenly realize what struck me as weird from the beginning. This place looks like it has been built for some architecture contest and never lived in until Jacob hijacked it recently and turned it into some kind of weird indoor jungle. It definitely does not look like he lived here for longer. Hell, parts of it seem not accessible to him at all and he surely has not slept on the couch for five years, has he?
I feel suddenly cold despite the sun beams caressing my skin. “What about the upper level? Do you like to jog up that ridiculous stairs for fun? And the books? You telling me you enjoy Kafka as a bedtime story?”
Jacob pales. “What?”
“Whose house is this really, Jacob?” Let it be the house of a ridiculously rich friend’s father or something, please. Because all the other explanations I can think of belong to a horror movie. Does this house have a cellar? I feel goose bumps on my arms and my eyes flicker to the entrance door.
Jacob clears his throat and puts down his glass. His tongue wets his lips and he grips his left fist with his right hand. Is this all for show? Is his disability even real? I have read about people like that, pretenders who act disabled for whatever reason, some apparently to attract the likes of me. Could he be one of them? Is he faking the physical impairment to lure me into feeling secure, letting my guard down until-
“As I repeatedly told you, this is my house.” His eyes firmly meet mine for a second when he says that. The gaze chills me. Is he angry? Irritated? Sad? “Well… sort of. That’s another story. I bought it five years ago because I thought I should have something like that. I never sat on this couch or spent much time in the kitchen or the bedroom, for that matter, because I was rarely even here at all. At that time, I was heading to be top manager of one of the biggest software companies in this country.”
I blink. Jacob goes on, his eyes on a point somewhere outside, beyond the glass front. “I had a hot housekeeping lady, a beautiful and professionally tended garden and a Porsche and absolutely no time to enjoy any of it.” He chuckles humorlessly, not looking at me, the muscles in his shoulders and neck stiff. “I… uh… one year ago, roughly, I had a stroke…”
I feel something cold grip my heart and dig my fingers into the rough material of the couch. Shit.
Jacob swallows, his lips tight as he manually extends the stiff fingers of his left hand, his voice barely more than a whisper. “I spent half a year away in rehab, learning to... learning to talk again and feed myself and... When I came back I had not much left. I had lost my job and the housekeeping lady had taken off with the gardener and all the cash she could find in the house, which was actually a sum because apparently I enjoyed letting it lie around in bundles.” He spits out the last and his lips curl into a bitter smile. “Not much later I sold the sports car because I won’t be driving manual anymore. That staircase…” He nods to the fragile metal construction and hesitates a fraction. “I haven’t been on that floor since then.”
He lets go of his left hand, the fingers slowly moving back into a lose fist and drags his right one through his hair, a trembling breath escaping his lips. “I would have sold the house if it actually belonged to me already but… I try to make it more homely. Hence the plants…” He still does not look at me, stares at the table in front of him.
“I’m sorry…” I say, my voice cracking, and I feel awful. I am a stupid, paranoid bitch.
He shakes his head, rubs at his dry eyes and pinches his nose. “Don’t be. It’s not your fault.”
“I mean… what I said? That was rude. I'm sorry.”
He puts his head in his hand and says nothing. After a while his shoulders start to heave silently. For a second I do not know what I should do. Is he crying?
“What’s wrong with Kafka?” His voice is muffled behind his hand.
I squirm on the couch. “W- What?”
He lifts his head and looks at me and I am surprised and awfully relieved to see a grin on his lips. He is laughing. “What’s fucking wrong with Kafka? I actually read those books! Even if they’re probably the only ones from all of them… Some are not even real books. The ones higher up? Just empty covers.”
I gape at him, lost for words. I really have problems following this guy’s mood swings.
His grin falters when I do not react, his eyes clouding over again and he nods. “I understand if you don’t want to stay. I won’t force you. I can handle the stuff here on my own. Vito can help me.” He jerks his head to the pots surrounding us. “Don’t feel obliged… to anything.”
I look up to the wilderness around us and it all fits a little better now. I feel something bubbling up in my stomach. Jacob squints at me quizzically as I struggle to contain it but in the end I give in to a hysterical giggle that unloads itself in a full laughter.
Jacob lifts one eyebrow and stares at me while I try to get a grip on myself but his confused expression only spurts on more giggle attacks.
“And I… I…” I heave in air. “I thought ---”
“I thought you were going to murder me and bury me in the garden under the rose bushes or something,” I squeeze out, tears streaming from my eyes from laughter.
It takes a few seconds in which he stares at me silently and disbelievingly until he breaks out into a booming laughter, too. It is refreshing and relieving and we cannot stop laughing for minutes.
I grin at him when we have ourselves under control again. Jacob is bracing himself with his right hand on his knee, still giggling.
“I don't even like roses,” he hiccups. The corners of his eyes are a little wet with tears and as close to him as that I notice there is the faint shadow of stubble on his chin, turning his skin even darker and his eyes even brighter.
I cannot quite believe he has been an obnoxious rich guy before his stroke but it is an explanation. It is probably not all there is to the story but before I can say anything, Jacob’s eyes meet mine and the sincerity in the stunning blue depth makes me stay silent. His right hand lifts. Trembling fingers attempt to remove a strand of hair that has fallen over my face before they retreat when I involuntarily shrink back.
He clears his throat. “Are you hungry?”
I nod, not trusting my voice. I am starving.
He is back to business again, his hand in his lap. “I have to admit I have not had any time to go grocery shopping this week but I think we can do with what is still there.” He uses the protruding back of the couch to push upright, swaying some before finding his bearings.
“You honestly enjoyed Kafka?” I ask while I follow him towards the kitchen, trying to sound teasing and not as if I am interrogating him again. I snatched the tray with our empty glasses before he managed to and he is much faster now that he can swing his left leg without bothering about spilling something.
“Someone must have slandered Josef K., for one morning, without having done anything truly wrong, he was arrested,” he recites without looking back to me, concentrating on walking.
The kitchen screams expensive, shining stainless steel everywhere, but it is not big. It lines up along the right wall of the room and looks like it has never been intended to be actually used. Jacob confirms that he barely prepared more than a quick breakfast. Before. Now he is using it regularly and has done some adjustments.
“There are no drawers here, out of whatever reason. I bought a few of these boxes that you can use for your desk at the office. You know, those things where you can put documents you want to forget about? I store cutlery in them and stuff.”
I grin. Some of them are rotting on my desk, too.
“Contact lenses or blessed with perfect vision like me?”
Jacob waves something in front of my eyes. “If you use contacts you got to chop the onions.”
I laugh. “What? Why?”
He squints at my eyes closely. “Did it never occur to you that you were crying less during chopping onions?”
He fishes a chopping board from a shelf and hands me one of the knives from the knife block.
“I hope you don’t mind spaghetti? Someone told me you like to cook that yourself, from time to time.” His eyes sparkle and I giggle, feeling myself relax.
While I start peeling the onion he settles on a bar stool he pulled close to the counter, left leg dangling, right leg remaining in contact with the ground, and grabs a chopping board for himself. I notice they are solid ones with rubber on the edges, preventing them from sliding away. I watch out of the corner of my eyes as he cuts the tomato in half and then in eight parts, fixing the round fruit with the back of his curled up left hand, leaning slightly over the counter to be able to reach down. I wonder how he does onions. Somehow I do not think he eats them in chunky pieces, too.
“Oi!” I suck at my left finger. Well, great, this is so me. I managed to cut my finger because I let myself get distracted.
Jacob’s knife clatters onto the surface and he scrambled off his stool. “Shit, I should have mentioned that the knives are really sharp!” He takes my wrist and gently turns my hand to inspect the wound. “How bad is it?” It oozes blood rather dramatically. I do not feel pain, though; I am too much concentrating on the touch of his fingers.
“I have band-aid. Wait here, don’t move. Don’t touch any knives.” He winks at me and limps back towards the corridor from where we have entered, disappearing for a few seconds while I stick my finger into my mouth, tasting copper on my tongue.
Jacob insists on putting the band-aid on himself, obviously not trusting my one-handed abilities and I have to admit he does it rather gracefully, ripping the wrapping open with his teeth and managing it without touching the sterile surface ones.
“All good? How is the pain?” he asks when I inspect my wrapped up finger.
“It’s nothing, really. Thanks a lot.”
I feel awfully embarrassed to have caused such a scene and apologize profusely. But Jacob just shrugs it away and orders me to put a pot of water to boil on the stove and another one with a spoon of oil. He takes out yet another chopping board, this one has a few spikes in one corner and a raised lid in the other. Jacob fixes the half onion that is left on the spikes and resumes cutting them into small cubicles, thereby answering my question from before. It looks rather effective.
The rest of preparing the spaghetti goes smoothly and thankfully without another incident. We eat outside on the terrace which can be entered through a sliding door adjoining the kitchen part of the room. The shining white surface of the interior goes over to white even stones, a transition barely visible.
“Especially no step,” Jacob mumbles, with his mouth full of spaghetti, when I mention it.
I blush. Yes, that is true, too. I secretly watch him eat spaghetti, rolling the pasta on his fork by using the edge of the deeper plate as replacement for a spoon like it is the easiest thing on earth. Now that I know that he has had a stroke I also know that he will not become worse, I realize. There is something within me that uncoils with that thought, a dread I had not noticed weighing me down dissolving into nothing.
The cane has reappeared, resting next to Jacob’s right knee against the dark wicker chair and I force my eyes to look somewhere else. Where the terrace ends the garden begins, sloping down gently. It is large for the fact that we are still close to the city center but not too much to handle. Jacob has already prepared it, mowed the lawn and convinced Vito a few days ago to dig over some parts where Jacob wants to lay out the new beds.
After finishing lunch we set to work. I mostly carry plants from the house to the garden and dig small holes that Jacob fills with the seedlings. He sits on the grass much like he sat on the floor in my apartment, his left leg arranged to be relatively comfortable and working mostly with his right hand. When he is finished on one spot he moves by scooting a little further. We manage two rows with an assortment of low growing vegetables, carrots, salad, cucumber and zucchini, before the spring day draws to an end.
I bring Jacob’s cane from the terrace and offer him a hand. He wipes soil from his fingers before he grips it with a smile and allows me to haul him to his feet. There is a funny warmth spreading in my stomach as I wait a few extra seconds with his hand grasping mine before he nods to indicate that he is okay standing on his own and takes the cane. The frustrated Jacob that left my apartment in a storm cloud seems ages away.
--> Chapter 10
--> Chapter 10