Time had eaten the house on Pine Avenue.
The house was a two-story affair, narrow where the ranch houses that populated the rest of the neighborhood were comfortably sprawled, sharp where the others were gently sloped, crumbling into ruin beside the neatly trimmed yards that marked the outer edge of its property lines. Set back among the weeds and an infestation of dry rot, the house on Pine existed in a parallel universe, dark and dreary, like the corpse of an old man who hadn’t realized he’d died yet; just sat at the hospital waiting for his number to be called, unaware that he was already a ghost.
The house, of course, was not actually an old man. The house was insane.
Homes weren’t meant to stand empty, decade after forgotten decade. But prosperous, thriving suburbia had parceled the land through with wooden fences, swallowing Pine when a city engineer ran a pen through the insignificant road on the edge of his blueprints. What remained was a strip of street, little more than a driveway-sized cul-de-sac that split the carefully planned block like a crack in a brick wall. A dark, indeterminate brown in any light, the house that stood just inside Orange and Mulberry had a mailbox, but letters rarely found 4279 Pine.
Just as well. There was no one left to return to sender.
Besides, this particular house had been unwelcoming from its inception, choked and constricted by its own floor plan. Then the empty strain of…something it could not quite remember had sent splinters burrowing deep into its skull. When most of Pine Avenue disappeared in the 60s, the house hardly noticed, its attention already twisted blindly inwards.
Forty years later the house physically remained standing, but it had peeled apart at its hinges like an undiagnosed schizophrenic, gone so far around the bend that it was incapable of understanding that something was wrong. Other houses had singular personalities, unique and individual, molded by love and hate and the sheer force of memory, picked up from the families that left and entered and left again only to return, shouting “I’m home!” to the people waiting inside.
Oh there was uniqueness to the house on forgotten Pine. Individuality too, but too much of it; the house was drowning in it. Every room was its own entity. If you were brave enough to break into a house this unwelcoming, and foolhardy enough to press onwards, then you might feel the shift in personality each time you went through a too-narrow door into the room beyond.
Entrance Foyer was private and claustrophobic, intent on keeping outsiders out. Living Room, perhaps to make up for it, was screamingly friendly; stepping between the two was easily the most jarring transition in the house, from sharp dislike into a throbbing welcome so genuine it came across as fake. There were only two other rooms on the first floor: know-it-all Kitchen and that idiot, Den. Whether Den was actually stupid or just content to keep its silence was hard to tell. Den was its own keeper.
Kitchen let Living Room call her what it wanted; she was a listener, patient and calm. Any kindness that had happened in this house had happened here, where people had once gathered for food next to a warm stove. If sunshine ever found the house, it found it through the double-pane of Kitchen’s windows. By 10 in the morning, trees twisted into broken shapes shaded the rest.
Nobody had heard from the upstairs in years. A poky staircase climbed into the darkness onto a second floor, the bedrooms swallowed in silence decades ago.
Most days, Kitchen, Living, Den, and Entrance thought they were a single-story home.
Over the years, even that knowledge had begun to fade. Slowly, quiet and neglect drove even the downstairs to sleep. And so the house may well have finished dying, if a singularly persuasive real estate agent hadn’t finally managed to sell the house to The Family.
Boxes, furniture, voices, children yelling and running and crying and laughing suddenly filled the emptiness, jarring the house to wakefulness. They put clothes in the closets and food in the pantry, slept in the dead upstairs while downstairs the rooms blinked awake, remembering what housing a family felt like.
WELCOME WELCOME WELCOME, throbbed the Living Room. ABOUT TIME. I WAS BEGINNING TO LOSE
“—HOPE,” Dylan interrupted.
Startled, Jon minimized the Word document with the speed of long practice, to stare at the nine-year-old in front of him like he’d never seen him before in his life. “What?” he asked.
Dylan huffed. “DAD. Could you please help me with my math homework?”
Jon shook the name with the ease of long practice, forcing himself out of a writing trance and realizing that he’d simply misheard. He tapped a finger against the side of the laptop in a business-like manner, as though he’d just been waiting for someone to ask for his help.
Sometimes Dylan startled him, for how much he looked like his mother. The brunette had hopelessly feminine features for a boy, with high cheek bones, a delicate chin, and long, dark eyelashes. Whether or not he was aware of how much he looked like a girl was moot; Dylan demanded a buzz cut every couple of weeks, and as far as Jon knew no one had ever made the mistake of referring to the wrecking ball that was his youngest child as a “she.” Jon stopped tapping at the laptop and rubbed a hand along his own dark beard, absently listening to the piano. A C-scale thumped out with precise deliberation from the den. “What’s the problem?”
Dylan sighed heavily, as though he had explained this before. “I don’t get it.”
“You don’t get it?” Jon demanded with mock-shock, dropping both hands to grip the arms of the recliner, which rocked in response. “You don’t get it?” He tilted his head down far enough to see over his aviator-style glasses, mock headmaster. Dylan was smiling a little now, but it had to fight against the frustration drawing a hard line between his eyebrows.
Jon pushed his glasses back into place. “Which part?” he asked, leaning forward in the chair so that he could see the math book in Dylan’s hands. He was pretty sure fifth grade was his cut-off point for math, but Dylan was still only in fourth and, from the looks of the page that his son was revealing with some disgust, Jon could handle the simple fractions.
“Hmm,” he said. “I hated math too, when I was your age.” Still hated it, actually, but no point getting into that. The piano finished out its run, stopped, and didn’t start up again. Jon glanced up at the clock. Seven o’clock exactly. Janet did have an eye for exactness. She played for half an hour every other night, and only half an hour.
“Okay, come up here,” Jon said, moving the laptop onto the lamp stand. It sent several sheets of paper to the floor, but Jon let them lie. It was this same attitude that had left the boxes labeled “Living Room” and “Things/Miscellaneous” stacked but otherwise abandoned along the den wall where he couldn’t see them. It had been three months since they’d moved, and it would be at least another six before guilt and/or Janet got him to empty them. In the meantime he stayed out of the den. It was more the kid’s room anyways.
Dylan jumped onto the arm of the seat, setting off a short-lived but wild bout of rocking as he swung his legs hard, scooting himself into place. Jon made room for him, stabilizing the brown recliner by planting both feet solidly against the ground.
“Dylan!” Janet snapped. “I told you to leave Dad alone tonight!”
Jon looked up to see his daughter standing in the doorway between the living room and the den, eyeing Dylan with an expression that said you know better. She was fourteen years old, had her mother’s ash-blonde hair and serious practicality, but had picked up its brush-bottle consistency, her square jaw, and the glasses resting across her nose from him.
Jon caught Dylan sticking out his tongue at his sister from the corner of his eye. “I asked, and Dad said okay.”
Janet put both hands on her hips, her elbows sharp and knobbly. So far she hadn’t grown out of the family thinness. Her mouth pursed to a thin line, a sure sign that she was about to let her little brother have it.
“He’s right,” Jon broke in, before the argument could get going. “I told him I’d give him a hand with math.”
“Math is my subject,” Janet said. In a way she was right – she really did know math much better than Jon – but then she also had the math person’s tendency to get frustrated when someone else didn’t pick it up quite as easily. “And you said,” here she looked at Dylan again, probably to make sure her brother wouldn’t miss it, before looking back at her father, “that you were going to be busy with the budget tonight.”
Jon flicked his youngest behind the ear when Dylan quietly mumbled “tish-tosh” (family slang for any combination of “whatever,” “I don’t care,” or “shut up, idiot”), then jostled his son’s shoulder with his elbow. “I have homework too.”
It was a habit Jon had gotten into when they moved, keeping track of the money spent and money earned, and then budgeting to make sure that they were on track at the end of every month. Freelancing had become Jon’s trade and, while doable, he had to keep careful track of how much he was earning. Still, it was already a week and a half into October, and he (and Janet) knew he needed to stop putting it off.
Dylan tried to raise an eyebrow at her, and failed. He raised both instead. “Well I needed help.” He looked at the laptop, still sitting open on the lamp stand.
Janet looked at it too, the Excel spread sheet visible on the screen. “Dad was budgeting. He was working on finances,” she emphasized again, as though to make Dylan understand the import of these words.
Dylan glanced at Jon, seemed to realize his dad was ready to thump him a second time if he tried to tish-tosh his sister’s concerns again, and shrugged instead, suggesting not my business.
“Thank you, Janet,” Jon said, “for worrying about my work. But I can take a break when either of you guys need it.”
Janet’s expression fought between worry and irritation. Jon appreciated her responsibility, but sometimes he would have liked her to be just a kid. Dylan grinned at Jon, like they were sharing a joke, and Janet surreptitiously looked closer at the document to see how the finances were. His daughter did have a good eye for numbers; Jon would have her look over them tomorrow, to check his math.
Her brown eyes narrowed slightly at the screen, trying to make something out. “What’s that?”
“The Barton Family finances, as of September and part of October.”
“No, what is that?” she asked, moving forward and pointing to the Microsoft bar.
“That,” he said, suddenly realizing he was busted, “is an avoidance tactic. Good eye.”
Janet managed to look both pleased and irritated. She opened her mouth, thought better of it, then thought better of that. “You promised—”
“Janet,” he said. “The finances will be done tonight.”
The tone brooked no more argument. She looked chagrined, but worried. He was sorry that his daughter felt that she needed to be worried.
“Sorry, kiddo,” Jon said, turning to Dylan. “But I do have work I need to finish. Janet will help you.”
“We can leave,” Janet said. She seemed to think that required further explanation and added, “So we don’t bother you.”
It was probably a good idea – he didn’t want to be working on the finances which meant he’d probably let anything distract him – but only shrugged. “Only if you think you need to.”
“Okay,” she said, immediately (and correctly) reading between the lines. “Let’s go to your room, Dylan.”
Silence settled with an abruptness that caught Jon’s attention. He looked at Janet, then followed her annoyed glance to Dylan, who’d stopped fidgeting. The nine-year-old had his eyes downcast, long eyelashes almost touching his cheeks. From this angle it was hard to tell if the look on his face was sullen or anxious.
“Oh for Pete’s sake,” Janet snapped, irritated. “There’s nothing wrong with your closet.”
Jon continued to look at Dylan, perplexed. “What’s wrong with your closet?”
“Nothing,” Janet said, but she was nearly drowned out by Dylan’s emphatic: “Yes there is!”
“All right,” Jon interjected. He caught Janet’s eyes, giving her the let-your-brother-talk look. “What’s bothering you about it?”
Dylan’s words tumbled into each other, as though to get them out faster. If he was afraid, or just ashamed, Jon didn’t know. “I don’t think my closet likes me.”
Janet rolled her eyes for her father’s benefit, all big-sister, what-did-I-tell-you, but Jon ignored her. “How can you tell?”
Janet couldn’t hold herself in anymore. “It’s a closet.”
“It’s evil,” Dylan shot back at her, then turned to Jon. “I can just tell. Sometimes you can. You know?”
He looked at Jon imploringly. For a moment Jon’s imagination stirred, reminding him of the old fears from his boyhood, but in the next moment the quiet whisper was gone. He used to know how to call up his fears and set them loose, but he couldn’t remember how to be afraid of little-boy things anymore.
Except he thought: a bad guy. That’s what my story needs.
Jon said nothing about that, only looked at Janet. She threw her hands up in the air. “Fine! I’ll humor him!” She glared at Dylan, like it was his fault and not Jon’s that Dad had put his foot down.
“My room,” she said. “Let’s go.” She watched her brother jump off the armchair, holding the math book by one cover. Jon saw Janet wince as the spine crackled a protest, but she said nothing, instead reaching out for Dylan to hand it to her. He obliged her, then bounded up the stairs, grinning with a look that screamed HA HA I WIN.
As much as Jon wanted to go back to the house on Pine (figure out where the closet fit in and to see if he could still follow that faint whistle of his thoughts stealing on quiet train tracks, one into the other) he returned to Excel. Children truly did breed responsibility.
He finished budgeting the house finances too late to do any more writing. Years before he’d written when he felt like it, usually late into the night and on until morning came reluctantly through the windows, but he had to be up early to wake Janet and Dylan in time for school. Necessity meant he’d learned to write during school hours.
Jon wrote himself a note instead – Evil closet, hates why? Boogey Man vibe. Hope would’ve loved the look on Janet’s face when Dylan was explaining – and set the alarm for 6:30.