I see the kid in the red pullover jacket sitting alone at a table, with nothing but a water bottle covered in a motley array of stickers and a journal. Their head is bowed, and they scribble furious, ripping pages here and there in frustration. One such paper flies my way, the wind carrying it to my attention. I pick it up, and notice the scratchy handwriting shaping words and abbreviations meant for a screen play.
I smirk. It was a dream I once had, still have, but I remain skeptical that I am capable of ever doing it. My frustration stems from a lack of confidence that I have the talent, combined with not knowing where to start and then having the courage to do it. It’s scary, and sometimes its much safer to stay in a spot that’s ugly but is familiar, however, mostly it’s like stepping in a dark cave, walking forward in a darkness so thick I can only wave my hands out in front of me, trying to touch walls that somehow fall further away. I stumble and fall, pick myself up again, only to possibly be facing the wrong direction.
I wish the kid well, envious of their ambition, which only continues to grow the more I read and watch stories play out in every medium. But the question I need to ask myself is: why not me? Why can’t I do it? I’ve read about artists who reach success only after death, but at least they continued to pursue what they loved even in life. After all, its better to try and fail then not to try at all, so I’d like to try, even if it takes me a hundred more years to do so. Maybe after all that time my dreams, my thoughts, my words, can turn into something.
The House of Desiree
We pulled up early to the house early Friday morning, when the sun had yet to fully stretch and lay on its blinding glow. It was a simple house. Victorian-Gothic, the outside painted a deep red with blue shadows. But that wasn’t what drew me nearby. A soft hum vibrated along the blemished and dried grass, tickling my feet, and sending warmth into the core of my stomach. At first, I thought someone was singing- perhaps a neighbor in the white house with the curtain drawn who performed as a lounge singer.
“Cut it out!” I could hear the reprimand whenever I fancied to tell a story about people I didn’t know, like the woman pushing a stroller across the street from us. Clearly, she was in a hurry, trying to conceal the illicit child from a husband who lacked to notice her indiscretion. “Baby, how many times do I have to tell you? It’s not polite to assume, and those stories are absolutely ridiculous!”
This time, with the music reverberating at my feet, how could I not assume?
I pressed myself closer to the house, wrapping my hand around the doorknob.
I felt it again. Sound plucked from the air and twisted into an invisible string weaving between my fingers. So soft and yet so sad.
The house was indeed singing. The melody went into my skin, and it pulled me down, down, down, into its melancholy and mournful sea. When I took my hand off the knob, I came away with blood.
The house was now crying.
I run to my mother, who was busy unloading the car. “Look! Look!” I threw my hand up to her face, blocking her from seeing anything but the blood dripping from the tips of my nails.
“Oh, baby, it’s just a little paint,” she moved around me, unconcerned with my discovery. “They must have given it a fresh coat before we got here. It’s an old house, you know, around since the flapper era. What I wouldn’t give to have lived the way they did.”
She paused, looking at the house longingly. There was something there, something that told me she, like the house, was old and broken, needing a new coat to hide all the scars even though it would do nothing to remove them. But I refused to see it, to acknowledge it, for I was too excited, too absorbed in my discovery of a living, breathing, house, to notice. Maybe if I did, then I would have seen sooner that what I wanted was bad for us all, and the fire wouldn’t have come again, seventy years of the exact date as the last one.
I shook my head vehemently. “No, it’s not! It’s not wet paint!” I felt the stickiness rubbing between my fingers, and I lathered it in, playing with it as if it were dried clay, or a dry piece that fell away from the house. But it was the house; it came from within its bones.
My mother sighed, her exhaustion shining through her closed curtains. “Did you cut yourself? We’ve been here a total of five minutes and you’ve gone and cut yourself. Please, wash yourself up, and then help me unpack the few belongings we can unpack.”
It wasn’t her fault she was like this. She was just tired and sad; I could see it in her eyes that used to shine brighter than the sun, and the way her body dragged when it used to stand tall rather than poignant. Then father went away. I don’t know why he left, but he promised he’d come back for me.
That’s when we moved away. So far, I thought he would never be able to find us again.
I grabbed my bag and took it inside. There wasn’t much, mostly I had old clothes, enough to keep me warm during bitter, cold months, and enough to let my skin air out when it was hot and muggy, my sweat always dripping in buckets during the humid summer, although I don’t know how humid it will get here. Of course, I also had Mr. Thomas, the raggedly stuffed polar bear my father had given me. It was burnt at the ear, an accident made by my father when my mother and I put him in one of his rages. Still, I loved him, and I couldn’t bear not having him with me.
The lower floor was too spacious for me; there was a room around every corner, some with attached doors that led to more rooms, each empty yet carrying its own history. There was the parlor where Mr. Dansworth waited to meet the lovely Desiree Thompson, a magnificent beauty who had all the men marvelling. Over there was the ballroom where Mr. Dansworth, smitten and enchanted, would dance with Ms. Desiree, spinning her around and around before holding her, one hand steady on her back. In that room was where they dined, Ms. Desiree smiling in her glittering green gown as the men talked of affairs they thought she had no place knowing anything about. Then that one there, in the corner, was the servants quarter where they bustled about, whispering, and giggling like school children about the apparent affection Mr. Dansworth had and the indifference of Ms. Thompson.
Upstairs was where Ms. Thompson went to get away from it all. So, I followed her imaginary steps, the wooden floorboard creaking beneath me. The house sang as I glided up, the voice more hopeful and spritelier than it had been before.
I opened the first door on the left of the landing. It was small, yet perfect with a little shelf hanging across from a neatly made bed.
I frowned. This place was supposed to be unfurnished. I walked over to it, noticing an old, outdated newspaper clipping sitting in the center. The edges curled and were tinged yellow, yet the writing was clear as if it were written today.
“Socialite dies in terrible fire,” the headline read solemnly. “ Ms. Desiree Thompson, 25, renown singer of the Dragonfly Club, died tragically Friday night when the house she was visiting caught fire. The house belonged to Mr. Benjamin Dansworth, owner of the Dragonfly Club and son of the legendary Travis Dansworth. Unfortunately, Mr. Benjamin Dansworth was unavailable to discuss the events, but Mr. Travis Dansworth wholeheartedly believed his son is innocent despite the claims indicating he was responsible for the haze that not only took Ms. Thompson’s life, but that of one of Mr. Dansworth’s workers…”
I let the clipping flutter out of my hands, flying away like a butterfly, and it sailed gently onto the dusty floor. On closer inspection, it was firm but dusty, possessing a kind of sheen only renovated wood had. The house had burned in an act of rage, or so I supposed, and then became reborn from the ashes of innocence. Desiree Thompson was still alive, and much to my surprise the story I had envisioned didn’t stretch far from the truth. I shivered, unnerved by this uncanny premonition.
On the way here I remembered we passed a dilapidated building with an old, disemboweled yellow sign that held onto some of its lettering. If I pieced it together, I know it would spell out ‘The Dragonfly Club’, the place where Desiree Thompson used to sing and dance to make ends meet, waiting for the day she would earn enough to flee this place with the man she loved. Unfortunately, Benjamin Dansworth was too enamored to let her go.
The house. I gasped. The house was telling me her story, singing to me in careful tones of bittersweet sorrow and joy. All she wanted was to be free and to love freely. Now she was asking me if there was anything she could give me.
Before I could answer, I heard a voice call for me: “Baby! Baby, where are you?”
She spoke with such weariness, such sadness, I could hear the soft purr grow louder, the song stronger and jazzier, lifting the foggy haze and adding a spring to my step. I hopped down the stairs merrily, surprising my mother and making her jump and clutch her heart.
“Jesus don’t scare me like that! Listen, it’s going to take us a little time to settle in, but I think you’ll really like the place. We’ll have to make do for now, but I promise everything will be ready to go in no time.” She patted the empty kitchen counter, bare of everything except its bones. Then she gestured for me to follow, and together we emptied what was left in the car, putting what we could in places they belonged. Attached to the roof was a giant mattress, one we expected to share, but as we carried it up the steps, I told her about the room with the neatly made bed.
“I guess they must have forgot about it,” she said simply, too exhausted to put much thought into it. But I knew the house had left it for me. The house knew what I wanted, and what I wanted was a place to myself, a place I didn’t have to share and could be by myself.
I didn’t say anything else because I knew she wouldn’t believe me. Instead, I helped her with the mattress, pushing it along the floor that creaked with each movement. When we were done, she sat on it, her sadness extending more than I realized, sinking deep into paper thin skin and wiry hair that used to shimmer and shine.
“Do you miss him?” I had never asked it before, but it spilled out, and the ink spread everywhere, the black and blue tendrils leaking into the floor. It took a while before she answered. I waited, like a dog waiting for food- they were not going away until they were satisfied.
She let out a heavy sigh. The house sighed with her, joining in with some undisclosed pain. “I miss who he used to be, or who I thought he was, would be.” Fearing too much had been said, she fell over, resting her head flat against the mattress and closing her eyes against whatever it was that was assaulting her. The house hummed, it’s melody morose, reading her mood as its own. “Baby, why don’t you go off and find something for us to eat. There’s a twenty in my purse. It’s been such a long drive and I’m tired. I could use a moment to rest, that’s all.”
“Is that all you want?” I asked, failing to hide the bitterness in my voice. I don’t know why I was bitter, but I was, and she sensed it. She chose, however, to do nothing about it, and instead asked if I could get her a few marshmallows because, as she told me often enough, it helped her kick the habit, a habit formed whenever she was left by herself with thoughts that did nothing but consume her.
The house rumbled. It was trying to speak to me, to tell me something I should know, but I wouldn’t listen. I let my own bitterness deflect my mother’s, and belatedly I realized it came from the blame she placed on him, but I didn’t care. Nor did I care for the house’s own feelings, her own bitterness towards the man who wouldn’t let her go. I only cared about mine because my mother let my father go, even though he didn’t want to, and I didn’t want him to go.
What do you want? Her heavy voice sang sweetly, and I could hear her words pour out and caress my skin, the lullaby luring me to sleep, into a peaceful dream where everything was as it should be.
“I want it to be like it used to be. The three of us. Together,” I whispered to the walls, reaching my fingers up and letting them slide down the smooth surface. One spot was chipped, and my nail caught it, pulling the brown coat away to reveal the diluted red underneath.
Then, I shook my head, breaking the spell, the dream, and ending the lullaby. I had a job to do, and my stomach reminded me she wasn’t the only one who needed a bite to eat. I hopped down the stairs, finding and taking the crumpled bill with me as I skipped out the door, letting it swing softly close behind me.
My new outside world was unfamiliar to me, as I did not know the new neighborhood as well as my old one. I needed time to study the cracks in the sidewalks, the short cuts that took me to Mr. Harris’s candy shop or the old arcade that let me play free if I just smacked it once, twice, at an angle. There used to be a grocery stop on the corner, but here it was a vacant lot growing with tumbleweeds and dandelion. Around Ms. Susan’s rowhouse, which also served as her personal floral shop in which she favored me a nice peony every time I paid a visit, I could make my way to the fenced in public pool sitting in between two derelict buildings that used to be something more but became converted in a squatters pub. Here there weren’t any rowhouses; in fact, each house kept to itself, leaving a great distance between neighbors either out of shyness or fear. A fear of what, I didn’t know, but it made it harder to get to know the area.
If I was back to before the move, I would have passed the better elementary school with its brand-new playground as well as its adversary- my school, the one that could barely afford a pack of gum let alone swings that weren’t rusted and slides that weren’t loose and threatening to collapse. I would have snuck along towards the laundromat, where I knew my father liked to spend his time, loitering outside, and shaking hands with people I didn’t know, and usually never saw more than once, with the exception of Finster, a ragged man with a coughing problem which my father tried to help but it seemed it only grew worse. Now I have to rely on whispers, whispers floating down from the darkening skies and the heavy clouds swirling around in a giant, fluffy ball.
I went left, my feet gliding down street by street, never stopping except to let cars pass by. They didn’t care for a half crown child on the verge of adolescence meandering by herself. They had their own problems to attend to.
Rising above a busted tin can roof was a yellow a purple sign, the inside was illuminated but long since burned out. My feet made their way towards it while my lips puckered in and out, picking up a hum reflecting a tune I didn’t recognize.
Oh, baby, please don’t go without me
I pray on bended knee,
Please don’t go without me
Oh baby, oh baby, don’t you see?
You’re the only love for me
Over and over, I hummed the same words, words I imagined Ms. Desiree Thompson sang as she stood on the stage in a glimmering black gown, her voice deep and sultry, resonating profoundly with each guest. But those eyes, those mesmerizing sea green eyes glossy as glass twinkled for one man and one man only. It wasn’t for the smitten and overly zealous Mr. Dansworth, but for the man who snuck out in and, risking a hiding so he could hear her sing, slipping her a piece of his unfinished poetry so she could fill in the rest, a secret language shared between their souls.
I stopped. In front of me was the Dragonfly Lounge, or what was left of it. Empty and full of mold, the beams fallen and split. No one dared fix it or bury it into the ground. A smokey cloud filled with dread circled around it, pushing anyone who came near off with a sense of fear. I felt that fear and hurried on my way.
There was a convenience store two blocks over and attached to the side as an after thought was a small bistro ran by two people: a pimpled face middle aged man with a soft face and even softer belly, and an elderly woman with fluffy, white hair tied up in a messy bun. The man ran back and forth, spitting incoherent garble at the woman who sat cross legged on a folded chair reading a magazine.
“Excuse me,” my stomach lurched and grumbled, and I tried to be polite as my mother always prodded me to be, but I was impatient, needing the lion to be fed. “Can I get two sandwiches to go?”
“What kind?” the woman didn’t look up; instead, she took a tic tac and threw it in her mouth, smacking her old, wrinkly lips that jutted to the side.
“Ham and cheese, and, uh…”
“Sorry, we’re fresh out of ‘uh’s’. May I interest you in an ‘erm’ for the indecisive? That’s a specialty- cauliflower on beef, which you think makes no sense, but there’s a little secret that makes it an unexpected delight.”
“What’s the secret?” Just like that, I was doing it again, but I couldn’t help it; my mind saw what it wanted to see, and it was seeing a story forming from broken pages. This lonely old woman, going on fifteen years without her husband, spent her days making sandwiches from the pieces of him left behind. Add some extra sage because the man loved to plant it- God only knows why, she said. Put some light mayonnaise in between a lightly cooked steak because he was a lightweight who could never handle a load bigger than him. Slice the cheese into thin, white stripes to match the lines on the same goddamn flannel he wore every day.
Somehow, the old woman had read her thought, flipping carelessly through the picture book with an amused smile. “Why aren’t you quite imaginative,” she chuckled. “And you are half right. The secret is eating it with the thing you love the most. Which is why I don’t eat it that often, not even with my god forsaken grandson back there. Okay, I’ll make an exception when he’s got me in a good mood, and he isn’t off getting arrested or getting some girl knocked up and claiming it’s not his. Now tell me, who are you? I know just about everybody in these parts, and I’ve never seen you before, girly.”
“They call me Baby,” I shrugged, trying to play it cool like my father always did whenever he was meeting up with someone. His shoulders were relaxed, but tall and straight, exuding confidence and pride in who he was. I tried to imitate him, leaning into the side of the Bistro but stumbling over a pothole.
“Okay, Baby, well they call me Miss Gayle,” her smile was crooked but amused, and she was missing two teeth on the top row. “You must have just moved here. Where did you come from?”
“We came from a town just like this, except on the other side of the world,” I said frankly, then pointed a finger behind me. “We moved right on into that big old house with the frayed paint and the walls that sing.”
“Singing walls, eh?” a dark look passed over Miss Gayle’s wrinkly old face, and the white of her eyes disappeared behind two black opals staring into the distance, into the past. “So, you’ll to be living in a place that’s cursed.”
“Cursed?” Intrigue pushed all thoughts of hunger aside, and now I clamored for the story to satiate my needs.
“Oh, yes, cursed, from what happened there was cruel, born from an all-consuming greed. I’d like to think it’s the universes doing, punishing those who were cruel, extending it to whoever steps into that house. Miss Desiree Thompson didn’t deserve what happened to her. So yes, I’d say cursed.”
“Wait… Desiree Thompson is a real person?” I asked, disbelief spreading across my face. The news clipping. My dreams. All of it real.
“As real as the flesh we wear,” Miss Gayle grinned, but it was infected with a deep-rooted sadness. “I knew Desiree when I was a little girl- well, knew of her; we all did, anyone that had two working ears. She could sing sweeter than a canary, simultaneously possessing a lustrous throttle which lowered her voice to an almost seductive level. And boy, was that Mr. Dansworth seduced, although she didn’t mean to. We all knew who she had eyes for; he made it so obvious, appearing at her side even when Mr. Dansworth was speaking to her. Oh, my family knew Mr. Dansworth alright, intimately so, and he was a nasty piece of work when he wanted to be which was when he didn’t get his way. Oh, Desiree, she cursed him for what he did to her love, taking that wooden knife carved with two lovers beneath a war-torn sky and plunging it into his soulful throat, forever silencing him. Cursed as the flames engulfed her body but not her soul. And Mr. Dansworth was forever alone afterwards, forever unable to leave his house.”
The sandwiches came, but I didn’t grab them quite yet. “What happened to Mr. Dansworth?”
Miss Gayle took her time, coughing once, twice, clearing her throat of its dryness. “He had been growing particularly frail with madness, and I…we… his family tried to talk some sense into him, to get him to move away from that ugly house, but he wouldn’t listen. Next thing I remember hearing was the house caught fire, with him still inside. It burned to the ground and remained that way until someone decided the property was too good to waste and rebuilt it. But for years it remained vacant, no one daring to go inside, for they say you can hear her sing, and the singing was unnerving.”
There was a long silence, and I let her words play like a music box, singing and dancing, only stopping when I shut the lid, and I didn’t shut it. Around and around, the ballerina twirled as the music played, spinning a story intertwined with love and pain. Her face came to me, sweet and smiling, the dimples highlighting her purity.
I shook my head, snapping the lid shut. Then I fetched the bill and slid it to Miss Gayle.
“This one is on me,” she said sighing a deep sigh, the kind that extracted a long since buried sadness. “I’m afraid there’s only bad luck waiting for you.”
I thanked her, pocketing the bill into my corduroy pants as I took the sandwiches, giving mine a ferocious bite before I walked away. The hunger was back, subdued and retained but now released, and I was ravishing. Each crunch was savory, even the lettuce which I always thought was bland and too watery. I made my way back to the house, to Desiree, and suddenly the thought of my return transformed the meat in my mouth into little gray granules rubbing like sand. No, like ash.
An old, tattered soccer ball tearing at the seams rolled into my path, and I tripped, falling across the sidewalk, and losing the sandwiches to a rogue dog with no collar, no home to return to. Perhaps Miss Gayle was right; bad luck was coming my way. A small boy with an arrogant face trotted towards me, a look of annoyance pinching his narrow cheeks even narrower.
“What did you have to go and do that for?” his voice reminded me of my father’s whenever I did something wrong, or worse whenever my mother did. Yet I still loved him, my heart doing whatever it could to fix the mistakes and make him look at me with adoration again.
The boy’s voice was sharp and grating, but instead of cowering under the table and planning ways to make it go softer, I stood, brushing aside the small drop of blood oozing from a cut, and made myself tall. “I didn’t do anything. Why did you and go get in my way? You should apologize.”
“Excuse me?” his eyes widened, astonished. Clearly, he wasn’t used to taking orders, only giving them.
“You heard me.”
“Ha! If you think I’m going to listen to some sissy…”
Wham! I punched him in the face. He stumbled backward, off balanced, landing into the street. A car swerved, and the driver cursed at us, throwing us the bird.
I leave the boy sitting there, staring up at me shell shocked. You could have killed him, a voice reprimanded me, but it was faint, barely audible. I ignored it and kept walking. So much for making friends. It wasn’t something I was good at, anyway, preferring the company of my father, or if he wasn’t around, then Mr. Thomas. For some reason, not my mother. Never my mother.
The house was quiet when I returned, too much so. No humming, no singing; the house was silent. There wasn’t even the sound of movement, although I expected her to still be asleep, resting a soul burnt out and tired from years running from something she shouldn’t have. What I didn’t expect was the set of keys laying on the kitchen counter. They weren’t there when I left; she always kept everything close to her, even the small pocketknife I’ve only seen her take out when she needed to fix something- sometimes a splinter from when I ran around barefoot after explicitly told not to, or when the heel of her boots broke, and she decided to cut the other one to match.
These keys weren’t hers. There was a little silver keychain and dangling at the end was a silver polar bear head, the one that matched Mr. Thomas when he took me to the zoo on one of his good days.
I reached for it, hoping to feel the silver and the memory of that special day; it had been hot and sticky, and yet the air smelled so sweet, liked buttered popcorn and caramel. As I wrapped my hand around it, the keys melt, and the puddle transformed into blood.
I stifled a scream, and only a wheeze sputtered out of me. Slowly, I made my way towards the stairs. Up, up, up, I took each step one at a time, the wood creaking once more under my weight. Then I heard it. A song, but not from the house’s lips. No, this was a different song struck my different chords, a somber, regretful chord carried in a man’s layered voice.
Oh darling, I’ve been a dreaming
Of us birds that met
Under a clear blue sky
Oh, darling, oh darling
I’ve been a dreaming, a dreaming
Of us birds flying
Under a clear blue sky
Oh darling, flying
Our hearts together, never dying
Oh darling, oh darling
I’ve been a dreaming, a dreaming
When I entered the room I saw him stroking her hair as he cradled her petite body in his arms. He was exactly as I remembered the last time I saw him: tall and broad, his salt and pepper hair trimmed short above two pointed ears. The only difference was a fresh scar above his unique set of mismatched eyes, one blood shot red from the scar made from the slash of a blade.
In my mother’s hand was the said blade, the blade of the pocketknife she always carried.
He rose his head at the sound of my footsteps, and for a split second a flicker of darkness washed over him, twisting those soft lips that used to kiss me on the forehead into a cruel line I didn’t recognize. “Oh, Baby, don’t cry. I’m here now and everything is going to be alright.”
Somehow, I knew the words he whispered were corrupted, spinning once more lies I should have realized he told more than once. It surprised me, for it never before seemed like lies to a child’s small little eyes, but perhaps I was born blind, unable to see what was plainly in front of me. There on my hands I felt the blood of his melted keys. It wasn’t his blood, though. It was mine.
I stared, frozen at my mother’s motionless body. Her drawn face slackened, and her usually tight lips were blue. “It was an accident,” he said, but my heart was still bleeding into my hand. “She wasn’t too happy to see me even though I’ve told her before I’d come for her, for you, for us. But you’re happy, right, Baby? We can finally be together again.”
My eyes glide to the pocketknife, the wooden handle etched with two lovers dancing beneath a war-torn sky, the sun and lighting clashing together. Her extra appendage failed to keep her away from the visceral danger, the danger I brought because it was all I ever wanted.
“You’ll be safe will me, Baby, I promise,” I didn’t believe a word he said; he didn’t move away to hold me, to hug me, to do the things I once craved when he first left, when we first left. My father wasn’t my father. Stuck behind a pair of foggy goggles pressed too tightly against my cheeks, I finally take them off and behold the monster for the first time.
Beneath my feet, the house purred. Desiree Thompson was speaking to me. “This was what we wanted,” her silky voice reverberated up my spine, and suddenly I felt a pull, a tug, from somewhere that wasn’t me. The house purred, louder and stronger, and it took me in her arms. “And what we got in return was disappointment.”
The house pushed me forward, and there was nothing I could do to resist. The phantom was inside me, pulling my strings like a puppet master, and I let her. I didn’t want to resist. I didn’t want to stay near the monster.
A startling flash of light nearly blinded me, and I blink rapidly, trying to clear it away but instead it took the shape of another face. A white face. A clean face. A face writhing in anger.
He was screaming through bespectacled eyes, his fist raised high above me. His screams were muffled, my ears either stuffed with wax or overwhelmed by the additional sound of a chainsaw. Your songs were for me, for me! No one else is supposed to have them! I could read his lips, fill in the blanks as Mr. Dansworth fist came down, and I, or rather Desiree, flinched in fear.
Then there was fire. He lit a match, and it dropped to the floor, the flames whooshing overhead. I screamed, but nothing came out. I writhed, and Desiree writhed, her body slowly consumed. Was it all a dream or was it happening as I saw it? My head throbbed. I couldn’t cut my imagination away from reality, and I screamed with her voice, or she screamed with mine.
“Oh Baby,” he brought me back, and I swerved towards him, my eyes locked on hers the entire time. I was never his baby, I was only a possession, just like she was, and the idea it took me so long would have weighed heavily on me if it wasn’t for the numbness spreading through my body. “Don’t you want me as much as I want you?”
Was it Mr. Dansworth speaking, or was it my father? There eyes were vastly different except for the conceited pride flickering in their pupils.
The house began to shake and thrash, a furious crescendo building into a shrilling chorus. My mouth opened wide, and I belted out notes that didn’t belong to me. “I want to be free from monsters!” we sang as one, a harmonious chord striking out from the walls and down into the man crouching before us.
I picked up my mother’s knife dangling loosely from her hand and plunged the jagged blade straight into his heart.
My father gasped, Mr. Dansworth gasped, and their eyes widened in surprise before they went blank, draining of whatever color they once possessed. He fell onto the mattress, still clinging to my mother’s own corpse.
I removed the blade roughly, my hand stiff and callous and somehow impeccably clean. The numbness infected everything, draining everything inside of me down a dark, endless chasm. I was an empty shell, moving listlessly out into the hall, now one of the specters that forever haunt this place.
Desiree herself had gone quiet, the walls still and silent. I neither heard or felt her voice beside me, and when I went to touch the walls, the plaster was dry, with no sticky or tearful residue dripping down the flat surface. It was truly, irrevocably empty, the silence creating a spacious vacuum of solitude.
Yet I felt her invisible eyes follow me down the stairs, follow my cold heart which lacked any beat or rhythm. She watched me walk through the doors and out onto the small porch, my back resting against the wooden panels. Breathe, she whispered, Remember to breathe. You are still alive.
But was I? I did not feel those things that make one so alive, and I know I once did, but I cut them as surely as a lumberjack cut through a log. There was no bubbling ecstasy, no energetic enthusiasm at the sight of an ice cream truck driving by, or an innocent curiosity propelling me to explore empty castles and playsets, the whimsical creativity of producing fantastical stories. Every bit of me that made me alive was gone.
The hazy sun hovered above for what seemed like an eternity, and finally it sighed with me, releasing its breath, and sinking below the neighboring houses suddenly inching a few yards back. I wished I could tell them there was nothing to be afraid of, but I no longer have anything to say. My voice was gone, lost with my heart out in a sea made of others who were also taken. I don’t care to get them back, either. After all, it wasn’t something I was ever really good at anyway.
I sit on the porch, watching the darkness swallow the sky, the puffy clouds of smoke rolling in and staying there. Baby, baby, where are you? I don’t know whose voice it was calling, but I felt the house thrum beneath my feet, and it woke me, pushing me up to stand on what surely must be stilts. Slowly, I reentered the house, gliding to each and every room except for the one upstairs, the one that waited for me.
I didn’t remember how it happened. My mind gradually fell away, hiding in the closet and refusing to come out. But there it was, reflecting in my empty eyes. Flames. Bright orange and red and yellow licked the floor, the kitchen, the ceiling. It grew and it grew, gnawing away at the bones keeping the house together.
The flames made their way towards me, and only then did I move up the stairs, the wood moaning as it disintegrated, returning to the blood-stained room. The house sung a bittersweet tune meant to comfort when there was no comfort to be had. Higher and higher the flames rose, and the warmth sunk its teeth into my cold, numb skin, yet still I didn’t thaw. My mother and father laid side by side, my father unable to keep his grip on her any longer, and a small wedge of space formed in between. I slid in, falling straight onto my back, letting their skin touch mine as the mattress embraced me.
Together. Finally, we were together again. That was all I ever desired, all I ever wanted: to be a perfect family inside a perfect shape with unbroken walls and a glowing candle to keep us warm.
Instead, we will burn, burn, burn. I think of Miss Gayle sitting alone at her store with nothing but that good for nothing grandson and her memories of her uncle, Mr. Dansworth. I was sure as I was sure that my hand had five fingers that was how she knew him. “It’s okay, Miss Gayle, I know I was meant to burn. I was already cursed, way before I came here.” The house hummed, agreeing with me. She, too, she was cursed, and it was okay so long as she could take all the monsters with her.
She switched her song, changing the melody to something that must have been one of her favorites, something she already sung to be before, but now I was ready to truly listen. Beneath its happiness was a yearning love, one that already blossomed and bloom but was waiting to be picked up and carried away.
Oh baby, please don’t go without me
I pray on bended knee
Please don’t go without me
Oh baby, oh baby, don’t you see
You’re the only love for me