“Do you know why it’s called the Julia St. Clair house?”
I hadn’t expected to be living in upstate New York when I was first accepted onto my university’s summer school program abroad. All I knew about New York was the city I had seen in my favourite films and television programmes. I soon realised that yellow taxis, hot-dog stands, and Times Square would be far away from my bedroom window as the cab drove from JFK airport over Queensboro bridge, past skyscrapers, and onto the evergreen landscape of Port Chester, where the college was located.
There were four cottage-style houses on the north side of the campus that we were assigned to and about five or six people in each house. Two houses, Cedar and Rowan, were next to each other and closest to the centre of campus. My house, Thomas, was further away, situated on the edge of the woods that surrounded this part of the campus. I lived with four other girls. Then there was Julia St. Clair, or just St. Clair, the house that was the furthest away, right in the middle of the woods. These cottages had been transformed into student houses in the past ten years or so.
The campus was huge; it took around twenty minutes just to walk from the house to my lectures every day. I was usually distracted on the way by fire hydrants dotted along the path or one of the many black squirrels that roamed the campus. I liked trying to find shortcuts which weren’t really shortcuts but just an excuse to explore. That was how, about two weeks after I arrived, I stumbled on the music department.
The one downside to studying in New York for the summer was that I didn’t have my piano with me. I loved playing piano and not being able to play while I was away from home felt incredibly bizarre, like not brushing my teeth in the morning. It was a relief to have found the music department which had a long corridor of small rooms, each with a piano in. I spent the rest of my day thinking about it, because finally, I could play again! I couldn’t concentrate on my lectures and the rain that started later that afternoon barely registered with me. After I’d had dinner with my housemates, I left to go to the music building again. It was still raining.
In London, it drizzled most days, occasionally getting heavier but then returning to a drizzle. In New York, on the days that it rained, there would be an unyielding downpour that wouldn’t stop until a full twenty-four hours had passed. I hadn’t taken an umbrella with me when I left the house but I was happier than ever that I lived in Thomas, not St. Clair, where I would have to trudge through the muddy woods before reaching the safe tarmac path. Even so, I wish I’d thought to wear shoes other than Converses.
I arrived at the music rooms, soaking wet and dripping rain all over the floor, but classes had finished long ago and no-one would see me.
I hadn’t meant to stay as long as I did but after being away from the piano for two weeks, I lost track of time. The windows were high up and I hadn’t noticed it getting dark. When my housemate texted asking when I was getting back, I was surprised to see that it was already ten o’clock. I closed the fall board and picked up my jacket. The door opened.
A man, a security guard judging by his uniform, appeared in the doorway. I stood up quickly, worried that I would get in trouble for being in the building after hours or using the music room without permission or daring to spell the word ‘colour’ with a ‘u’. But his expression was kind without smiling and his grey hair reminded me of my grandfather.
“Hey, sorry, I’m locking up the building so you’ll have to leave now,” he said, looking genuinely apologetic.
“That’s fine,” I said. “I was on my way out anyway. I didn’t realise how late it was.”
“Yep, and it’s still raining pretty badly,” he said. “I could drive you back to Thomas house if you’d like.”
I knew that the security guards often drove people around campus. Ariana, my housemate, was dropped off by the lecture hall the other morning. Warnings of stranger danger flashed through my mind but disappeared quickly at the feeling that my Converses would never be dry again.
“That would be fantastic,” I said. “Thank you so much.”
I shivered a little once we were out of the building but to my relief, the car was warm. “Thanks again,” I said.
“No problem,” he said, starting the car. “So how are you liking New York?”
“It’s great,” I smiled. “It’s my first time here and it’s been incredible. I’ll be sad to leave.”
“I’m sure,” he chuckled. “How’s your house?”
I shrugged. “It’s fine. A bit far to walk to lectures but it’s not as bad as St. Clair, I suppose.”
“Yeah, I guess,” he chuckled. He fell silent for a moment, then: “Do you know why it’s called the Julia St. Clair house?” he said.
It was something that I hadn’t thought about before. I frowned. “No, why?” I asked,
He slowed the car down, the engine quietening, making the rain against the window louder. I turned to look at him, curious, but he was staring straight at the road.
“About seven years ago, there was a family of three that lived in that cottage. The parents worked on campus; the mother was a lecturer. Their daughter, Julia, was a student here.” he explained. I nodded. “One night, the father came home and found his daughter strangled with a belt, dead on the floor. Then he went to the bathroom and saw the mother trying to do the same to herself.
“The court case ruled that the mother was guilty. She went to jail and the father continued to work on campus for a few years. But grief or depression or something got to him. It must’ve been the same year they were renovating the cottages for student housing. He committed suicide and that brought everything back, so when the board of trustees came to naming the house, they decided to commemorate his daughter.
“And that’s why it’s called Julia St. Clair house,” he finished, driving normally now.
“Oh,” I said, for the sake of having something to say. There was an odd ringing in my ears.
“Here’s Thomas.” He said, pulling up to the door. He stopped the car.
A question occurred to me. “You didn’t say what the father did on campus.”
He hesitated before answering. “He was a security guard.”
“Oh,” I said again.
He turned to me, looking concerned. “Are you ok?”
“Yep, I’m fine. Thanks. Bye,” I muttered, getting out of the car and fumbling in my pockets for the key.
My housemates were still sitting around the kitchen table when I got in. They stared at me; I suppose I was a sight, standing frozen in the doorway, shivering, damp, and horrified.
“Are you ok?” Ariana asked. I opened my mouth, about to tell them everything, when yet another question occurred to me. How did he know that I lived in Thomas house?