Leo squatted on the naked stone floor and unfolded the cloth. The material stuck to his fingers, heavy with the soot of basement years, but the hidden folds were white and crisp. The red tiles lay in the middle, glistening like the heart of a flower.
“What do you think?” Leo said. “Could we use those in the bathroom?”
Pjotr cocked his head and clicked his tongue. “They might not fit next to each other.” He stroked his thumb along the top tileís jagged edge.
“I know. But canít we try?”
Pjotr gave him a stubble-bearded grin, took one of the red tiles and a metering rule and went into the bathroom. His two colleagues worked on the staircase. The saw howled, bringing a wave of fresh sawdust smell. A small radio crackled the morning news into the construction noise. The three workers murmured in Polish.
Leo tested the doorknobs and found one had become loose overnight. He tightened the screws.
* * *
Leo and Marijke had bought the red tiles when they traveled in Portugal, she pregnant with Wouter, the couple hatching plans for the house.
Leo remembered the shine of Marijkeís blond hair, the laughing lines around her eyes when she insisted on having the tiles for their luxurious future bathroom. Their tanned feet, covered with a white grid from the sandals, had nudged and pushed each other on the sandbed and linen.
The tiles eventually didnít pass the judgment of Vermeulen & Sons, who strongly suggested more durable turquoise mosaics. Leo trusted expert opinion over his wifeís frown. Over the few years of their marriage, he and Marijke tried to use the red tiles for the hallway, the kitchen, and even their bedroom, but they never quite fit. After Marijke had left, Leo kept them in his study for a while. Simone had stored them in the basement after a spring cleaning, where they had been ever since.
Leo carried the tiles to the bathroom and started to broom sawdust into little cones.
* * *
The moon shone through the windows. Leoís eyes adjusted to the dark. Simone, Karin, and Wouter breathed in the moist darkness, silver light resting on their hair, lips black and full.
“Ah!” Simone had found the light switch. The bulb flickered and hummed and decided at the last moment to live.
“It smells a bit moldy,” Wouter said. “You might need a dehumidifier—or to turn on the heater.”
“Take your time to look at everything,” Leo said.
Simone and the children wandered around in the second house like sleepwalkers. The soft light hid the sawdust, the stray tools, and the full ashtray.
“This is lovely.” Karin stroked the sepia blue kitchen tiles.
Wouter opened the door to the powder roomís wooden panels, bouquets of dried flowers, and a pyramid of toilet paper rolls. “This is not bad at all.”
They admired the bedís custom-made frame and the hand-stitched curtains.
“And now the bathroom.” Leo turned on the light, another naked bulb.
In its emptiness, the bathroom looked very big. A few red tiles lay in the corner. The bottom of the tub was covered in grout. A bubble-wrapped mirror leaned against the wall.
The children walked towards the red tiles. “I think I remember these,” Wouter murmured. “Are they...?”
“I bought them recently,” Leo said. “They were cheap.”
Karin picked up a tile and tilted it with outstretched fingers. “Smooth.”
The childrenís heads touched as they contemplated the tile. Fine lines framed their eyes, and softening cheeks sagged. For a moment, a third figure stood between them. A flash of a smile shone through the room. It lasted the twitch of a wrinkled eyelid. Long, blonde hair swished as the figure turned away and disappeared.
“Do you want to see my trophy room upstairs?” Leo said. “Weíll have to take the ladder, but...”
“I think weíre all tired,” Simone said. “Letís go back.”
Leo gripped the ladder. “Sure you donít want to have a look upstairs?”
Wouter peeked into the powder room again. “Another time, maybe.”
“Huh?” Wouter said. “I didnít hear you.”
“I said, sure,” Leo said. “It still needs a lot of work. A lot of work.” Simone opened the door and let in the cold garden air.
“Go ahead,” Leo said. “I just remembered something. Iíll be right over.” Simone and the children stood and looked at him with concern.
“I just want to check something upstairs, thatís all. Off you go.”
Simone and the children left. Leo turned off the light. The windows of the first house looked like tired eyes in the night, like signals of an abandoned coast. The second house fit snug around him, solid and warm. He grasped the sides of the ladder and climbed up to the second floor, his trophy room. It smelled of new carpet and paint. Guns leaned against the windowsill. The skulls of hunted game covered the walls, pale splotches in the dark. Antlers protruded into the room. The skulls grinned at him. Leo grinned back. He stroked one of the gnarled horns.
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