A change in my schedule has landed me temporarily on the night shift and allowed me a relatively large amount of free time during the hours when most people are dead to the world. I’m trying to use that time to get back on the proverbial horse in regard to my writing (of which I’ve done woefully little this year), and started with this relatively simple story. Anyone who knows what I’ve been dealing with the past few months—and the last week in particular—should have no trouble spotting the metaphor.
The foundation had cracks. The floorboards were warped and swollen from moisture. Shingles were missing from the roof and there was a hole over the kitchen where a hailstone the size of a baseball had broken through during a storm the previous spring.
None of that phased Doug. Nor did the termite damage, the poor insulation, or the rusted old pipes that jetted brown water out of the faucets before clearing up. The first time he looked at the house, the realtor’s apologetic tone fell on deaf ears as Doug gazed at the small patch of blue sky visible through the hail-born skylight.
“It’s perfect, he said. “I’ll take it.”
The realtor’s jaw hung open momentarily. He blinked. “You’ll take it? You want to make an offer?”
“I want the house.” Doug found it difficult to put what he was feeling into words. He looked at the scuffed up wall where an old refrigerator had presumably stood for decades, crying for a fresh coat of paint and gestured around the room. “It’s got character. This is the house for me.”
The realtor was smart enough to keep his mouth shut and get Doug back to the office to start the paperwork before he changed his mind. Fourteen days later, Doug had the keys.
It went smoothly enough, to start. Doug patched up the hole over the kitchen and replaced the missing shingles on the roof, then began slowly replacing floorboards and installing new plumbing. He adored the house in spite of its imperfections. Possibly even because of them. It was about a month after he moved in that the real problems started.
At first it was little things—a faint puff of air that sounded like a whisper but was probably just the wind, things falling off of shelves that he must’ve left too close to the edge—Doug didn’t think much of it. Soon doors started slamming behind him and the faint whispers became moans and groans. Doug got less and less sleep, spending much of the night picking up broken knickknacks, the rest of the time forcing himself to keep his eyes shut while he lay in bed and ignore what was happening around him.
He soldiered on, fixing what he could and picking up the pieces as more broke, never asking himself what he should do about it. Things were just the way they were. He dealt with the issues as they arose and carried on, slowly realizing he was absolutely exhausted. Months went by until one day he mentioned his woes to a coworker who asked him a question profound in its simplicity.
“Why do you still live there?”
Doug frowned. “What do you mean? It’s my house.”
“There are houses everywhere. Literally, everywhere. You can find another. It sounds to me like the one you’re living in has some ghosts—demons.”
The notion hung in Doug’s mind. Was that really all there was to it? Could it be a matter of just finding another place? Something about it seemed to him like cheating, like he was taking the easy way out. Was it really that simple?
Over the next few weeks Doug began to seriously consider moving—usually when he was somewhere else, lest the house know what he was thinking—and the idea started taking hold, putting down roots in his brain. His co-worker was right, his house was haunted, and he’d gotten so used to dealing with the moans and groans, the slamming doors and breaking knickknacks, that it had become commonplace. The thought of living in a house where those things didn’t happen seemed almost too good to be true.
Doug began mentally taking stock of what he would pack up first and and browsing through the real estate section of the newspaper. Excitement and anticipation grew in his belly as moving out of the ghost-riddled pit that had been his home became closer to being reality.
As if it knew, things began to escalate at the house. One night as Doug was padding into the kitchen for a glass of water, the cabinet door opened and slammed shut hard enough to rattle the windows and the chef’s knife that had been siting on the counter teetered and fell point down, stabbing the top of his foot. Doug shouted a wave of profanities, knowing it was no accident. It wasn’t a coincidence. The house was actively trying to hurt him.
After his second time tripping over and stepping on things in the night that hadn’t been there when he went to bed, Doug slept with all the lights on. He started parking in the driveway after waking one morning to find his car running in the garage and the house filling with exhaust. The house wanted to keep him there, all to itself.
With a lot of searching and a little luck, Doug found a new place. It wasn’t as big or nice as the house he’d be moving out of, but he could feel the different energy in the new place. No ghosts. No demons. Nothing but walls and a roof and a floor.
On each subsequent trip back to the house to pick up the last of his things it got a little harder for Doug to leave. Not necessarily for sentimental reasons but because the house made it physically difficult for him to get out. A bookshelf falling over, blocking the door; his car battery somehow going dead despite being brand new; the couch sliding in front of him when he had his arms full in an attempt to trip him.
The last time Doug was in the house, he was having a look around seeing what was left to be taken out. There were still some things he wanted to grab, but most of the essentials had already been taken to the new place. As he was walking down the hall, Doug noticed a chunk of drywall that had fallen away at some point since he’d been there last, exposing a stud full of rot and mold. Frayed electrical wiring hung haphazardly along the the board. Doug stared wide-eyed at the potential disaster, wondering how he’d lived there as long as he had relatively unscathed.
He reached up instinctively with a pointed index finger to touch the frayed wire then hesitated and took a step back, something telling him to use caution. As if on cue, the wire sparked and Doug recoiled. A second spark shot out and the wire began to smolder upwards. A chunk of the stud crumbled away and a puff of dust floated down from the ceiling, surrounding Doug’s head, and the ominous feeling grew inside him. Something bad was about to happen. Something worse than bad. Another piece of the beam crumbled and the ceiling above him buckled. Doug took a step back and a piece of tile crashed down, landing where he’d been standing five seconds earlier. A faint rumble carried through the house and the rotted, exposed stud gave way. The ceiling fell in a domino effect through the room and Doug took off in a sprint. The house collapsed behind him as he ran. At first he thought it was chasing him out, then he realized he was wrong—he was outrunning it as it tried to trap him inside.
Doug burst through the front door to the driveway, the house quaking on its foundation. He made it to his car before turning back to look, just in time to see the place he had called home collapsing in on itself like it were being consumed by a black hole. A small mushroom cloud of dust plumed up from the rubble, and for a moment Doug considered trying to go back and sift through the debris for anything left that could be salvaged, before wisps of smoke wafted up from the heap. The stuff went up like tinder; flames licked at the dry, brittle wood that had made up its frame, engulfing it all in under a minute. Doug leaned against his car and watched it burn as he called the fire department. He could hear the sirens but there would be nothing they could do. It would be little more than ash by the time they got there.
When he thought back, he had mixed feelings about the time he spent in the house. Although it ended in a flaming pile of rubble he would still always have fond memories of those early days—gazing through the hole in the roof over the kitchen, thinking about all the potential, how much could be done to turn it into the house of his dreams. It didn’t turn out that way, of course. As far from it as you could get, actually. But in the end one thing went through his mind like a gunshot in an echo chamber:
At least he got the fuck out of that godforsaken house before it collapsed and trapped him inside forever.