The Disappearing House,
by Sarah Hofmann
She moved into the house because it seemed impossible to fix it enough to sell it. It was her grandparents’ house, and had stood empty since they died because no one wanted it. Then she graduated college and needed a place to live, and the house was free, so she took it. She came with the boy, who had also graduated, who thought that he loved the girl enough to live in a little house on the outskirts of town with a mossy sidewalk and a reluctant lock on the front door.
They lived there long enough for the girl to start to care about the house, something that the boy didn’t want her to do, because caring meant commitment, implying an extended stay, and that was too much for him to bear. He had aspirations, he would tell her, and he thought his location was the limiting factor.
“I think we should repaint the shutters,” she said one morning.
“I’m tired of the color.” She stood looking out the kitchen window. She couldn’t actually see the shutters from there, but the faded blue still permeated her brain.
“That’s not a reason.”
“How much reason do you need for such a pointless thing?”
“If it’s pointless, then why do it?”
That was the argument that caused their downfall. They had been losing momentum already, and were aware of it, but this was the moment that homeostasis failed and it became too hard to continue the conversation. The boy left, peeling his things away from the mass of the house, and in the following weeks the girl pushed her objects around to fill in the empty spaces in the closet, the kitchen, the bathroom counter. At night, all she could feel was the empty side of the bed, but that began to be normal although she missed the companionship. She stopped cooking full meals since there was no one there to expect them, opting instead for things that only required the removal of cellophane wrappers. She wondered how the boy was, if he still had aspirations and if the problem was really the house, or if it was her, or if it mattered. That was in the spring.
In the summer, the sun beat down on the house and dried everything up, though dew gathered on the grass each night. When the girl went out after dark to check the mail – there was rarely any mail – the pavement was still warm on her bare feet. She rarely ventured past the driveway nowadays; her work was on her computer, which allowed her to stay in the house. Graphic Designer, her website said, above a grinning picture hardly recognizable as the person that now sat on the couch in a colorless t-shirt, clicking listlessly on the laptop. She sent completed files out into the pixeled void, and the void answered by way of bank deposits and email pings signaling the arrival of another clumsily-worded request. She liked it this way, liked disappearing, believing that the rest of the world was out of reach and the distance between them insurmountable. She wondered if this was how astronauts and adventurers felt in their solitude, though in this case it was the rest of the world that was having the adventure while she awaited news of its progress.
The girl’s mother, who also communicated from afar, had expressed concern over this development. Come visit, she said. I can’t – you come visit me, the girl sent back. They never reached a conclusion. The only reason to leave anymore was to buy groceries; that was done seldom and at night, when the only other customers were as furtive as she was, and the fluorescent lights overhead looked just like the computer screen that illuminated her living room late into the night. Even under the cover of darkness, a cold fist remained clenched around her stomach until she made it back.
When she wasn’t at the screen, she maundered around the house, picking up objects, standing at windows, staring at the ceiling or wall and willing it to respond. Sometime she stared at her grandparents’ fading photos instead. They, at least, had had each other when they lived there, had the sounds of another person brushing their teeth or watching the news to mark the passage of time. She was alone. This made her want to leave and let the monotony inside the house become someone else’s problem, but didn’t know where she would go. Whenever she stepped outside, the magnetic pull of the house demanded her return.
The grass got overgrown, because mowing was something you had to do in the daytime, but it wasn’t the sort of neighborhood where people noticed her property’s desuetude. To one side of her house was a family with four children, and their lives were too full to care about the length of the neighbor’s grass. On the other side was a copse of trees that hid the next house from view. The owner of the house across the street, like her, was never seen.
The boy had seen her once, when their mail got switched – the classic cause of meeting one’s neighbors. The occupant was an old woman with a clouded eye that told him, unprompted, she’d lived in the house for forty-three years and that the mailmen really shouldn’t be confused at this point. When he relayed the story, the girl imagined him in the conversation, smiling politely and saying something noncommittal to the woman before carefully picking his way back across her front lawn. She’s a hoarder, he’d said, flatly, as though announcing that milk had gone sour. The old woman wasn’t really a hoarder, the girl thought as she gazed out the window, just someone that couldn’t be bothered to throw things away. Her front lawn was partially buried: it had an assortment of objects and past furniture on it, set in rows that suggested it had been laid down piece by piece over a period of time, like plots in a graveyard. As time had passed, the fabric and upholstery had rotted off the carcasses, the remnants hanging off their wooden skeletons as grass began tentatively poking up through the slats.
The girl wondered now if this woman had also been left behind by someone with aspirations, unsure of how to move forward without anyone pulling her by the hand. If she couldn’t do what everyone else seemed able to do. Like her. At some point after thinking this, the girl drew the curtains shut and left them there, not wanting anyone to catch a glimpse of her and wonder why she couldn’t leave. She began to lay in bed at night, pondering the same thing.
The house became her only companion, shielding her from whatever torments the outside world held. When her phone wouldn’t charge one day she had let it die, seeing it as a welcome release from her mother’s correspondence: What do you do all day? What are your old classmates doing now? You never told me why he left you. The silence in the house grew. Sometimes outdoor sounds came through, muffled – humming A/C units or car engines or barking dogs – but inside, every sound the girl made echoed enormously. So she tried to stop making noise. Her world had collapsed inward, shrinking to include only the house and the bit of the outdoors visible from the windows. The front door, once hard to open but now nearly impossible, seemed intent on holding the girl captive. Whenever she caught her reflection in the bathroom mirror, she averted her eyes so she wouldn’t be caught looking at her own pallid stare.
One night, rain came and took the hot weather with it. She sat listening in the dark, and imagined liquifying, dripping out of the gutter into the garden where the stiff gray tangles once had flowers. Maybe she would nourish them, and they would bloom again.
The next morning, something was happening outside. Flurries of voices, movement. Slowly, she pulled a curtain back. A huddle of people stood on the sidewalk in the cold gloom, breaths lingering in the air. The object of interest was the house across the street – the old woman’s house. The girl stood at the window, waiting to see something and hating that she had become the kind of person that peered through curtains, collecting moments from other lives to fill up the space in hers. An ambulance was parked in the driveway, but its lights were off. A minute later, two men carried out a long, black bag on a stretcher and load it into the back of the ambulance.
Through the window, the girl felt the dull, secondhand horror of the crowd. She withdrew from the window, feeling only the pounding in her empty chest. The curtain stayed open, and throughout the day the girl kept catching sight of the neighbor’s house, now dark. The two windows on the second floor stared back. She thought maybe the house was having a laugh with hers, laughing at their inhabitants who were so afraid of the world that they let their homes eat them up instead.
She understood now why the boy had left. He had seen the danger, and thought, better the house claims one person than two. This house, with the white plastic siding now speckled green and gray with mildew, would hold her in forever, Rapunzel in her dank, carpeted tower.
She was trying to leave now, but each time she laid a hand on the doorknob, she seemed unable to turn it, sure that crossing the threshold was every bit as dangerous as staying inside.
She was unmoored, left without a safe place to exist in. She was being digested in the belly of the whale because she was afraid of drowning in the ocean outside. It was after realizing this analogy, and after several minutes spent pacing the house frantically, that the thought crossed her mind. She stopped in the kitchen, having noticed the stack of mail accumulated on it. A memory of her mother warning about fire hazards crossed her mind, and she was reminded that a fire had eventually rescued Pinocchio from the whale. She resumed pacing, but on another pass through the kitchen, she diverted from her path enough to turn the burner dial, furtively, as though the house would notice her movement if it were too bold.
The fire alarm never went off. Batteries had been written on the most recent shopping list, which she’d never completed. But soon the kitchen was brilliantly lit, alive, crackling, and bits of the house were turning black and crumbling into themselves. The smoke swirled across the ceilings, creeping lower when it ran out of room. The girl’s eyes burned and the air she inhaled was useless, hot and sharp. The wall of heat was pushing her away from the heart of the house. She couldn’t see where she was going, or which door she was fumbling to open, until it swung away and she fell forward onto a wet ground. It was snowing. She was outside, dragging air into her burnt lungs as smoke escaped through the door behind her.
She stumbled across the street and into one of the dead neighbor’s abandoned chairs, letting the snow soak through her flannel robe as she watched the house’s final moments. She couldn’t tell if the roaring came from the fire itself, or if it was the house groaning as it burned from within. Smoke poured upwards, rolling into black clouds, and the house’s plastic siding curled in, cringing away from the heat. Flames reached through the windows and disappeared into the sky.
“Hey, hey! Are you alright?” She lurches back into the present as though being startled awake after a dream, and takes in the cold air and bright light with new clarity. The father of the neighbor children is running across the street, shouting at her, shoes left untied in his haste. “Is that your house?” He is gesturing frantically at the flames. Sirens scream in the distance; the world is coming to rescue her.