Bourbon Penn 25

That House

by Simon Strantzas

Maybe it starts like this.

There is a house in Newton, down Oak Lane, that’s been vacant almost twenty years. Its slanted wooden shutters have been nailed closed and its cracked windows boarded over so it looks like a face without eyes or a mouth. Marta and I drove past it only once, and only by accident, on our way to the hospital while Marta sobbed and bled and told me it felt like a shard of jagged glass was sliding into her stomach. What I’m trying to say is it was a bad house, and I have bad memories of it. It is not a place you ever want to live near. Maybe that’s why there are so many FOR SALE signs on the leached brown lawns of its neighbors. And why those worn plywood signs are just as old.

But what is a house, really? Just some lengths of wood, some pipes, some wires. A few stacks of shingles and bricks. A house is just a thing, put together like you’d put together a story, one layer building upon the one before it. It’s another thing someone has made, and it has no thoughts or feelings. It has no intention. A house is not malignant or evil. It just is. I knew there was no reason to avoid the one on Oak Lane, that any story I’d made up about it was my own imagination projected on it like a film on a blank screen.

And yet…

Meeting Marta for the first time was like a story, too. She and I took the same English literature class at Winston College—or, wait, maybe it was a philosophy class. I guess it doesn’t matter. Either way, I noticed her and her heavy square glasses on her square freckled face. I never said anything to her and I doubt she knew who I was, but on my way back to school a few weeks into the semester I recognized her on the side of the road, leaning over a stalled seafoam blue car. I pulled over and offered my help. I knew nothing about cars, especially seafoam blue cars, but I lifted the hood and pretended with all I had. She shot me a look over those glasses that warned me I’d better stop talking, so I hastily offered her a ride back to campus instead.

We married just out of school and with her burgeoning pharmaceutical career and my focus on my first novel there wasn’t time for us to do much else. Even our honeymoon was just a short trip to a cabin rented for the weekend. Things were tight but we managed to squirrel enough away that when Marta’s inevitable promotion moved us across the country, with her bump in salary and some luck, our realtor was able to find us a house in Newton we could afford. Neither of us knew about Oak Lane then—how could we?—and no one mentioned it or its history until we’d already signed away the last of our savings. Not that it would have made a difference to me. Marta, though, wasn’t happy, especially not in her condition, but I knew enough to let her process her feelings on her own.

As new homeowners we suffered through all the indignities you’d expect. There were windows that needed replacing, locks that needed changing. Marta spent the month racing to plant a new garden before she couldn’t move any longer, while I spent it fixing leaking gutters and patching the fences between chapters. Having invested all our money into our first home, there wasn’t enough left to replace everything, so we had to make do with the appliances abandoned by the previous owners. That meant living longer than we wanted with a humming refrigerator missing its crisper and a washing machine that lost my sports socks on a regular basis. We both laughed about the socks for a while, but after the hospital neither of us found much funny. I did try to repair the washer, but it was too old, and the part I needed was impossible to get. Without that missing piece, the thing was never going to work right.

Yes, I know you’re waiting to hear about that house. I’ll get there.

It took me a year to realize my latest novel was a failure. I’d been writing about a woman who’d gained her independence after a long life of being held back and denied everything she’d ever wanted. A woman who found her freedom when the world around her was overrun by weird underground cannibals. She fought to escape them, too, meeting people on her way to a fabled city on the coast. She carried with her only one thing, the most important thing: a green thatch blanket, a memento from her childhood, and the oasis it represented. I was initially pleased with the story and my progress through it, but as I wrote, the number of obstacles in front of her grew larger and I couldn’t see how she’d escape them. It wasn’t a sensation I enjoyed. My strength as a writer has always been seeing how things should end, but the novel was a cloudy block of ice I couldn’t peek or chisel through. Maybe it was the constant wailing interruption of our neighbors’ squiggly children, or maybe it was the hole in my life they circled with pink sidewalk chalk. Regardless, I found myself overwhelmed by all the pages I hadn’t written, so I did the only thing I could. I quit. No more novel. It was an overwhelming relief, but I was too ashamed to tell Marta. So I continued my routine when she was at home, and continued doing nothing at all when she wasn’t. Those hours of nothingness grew longer and more frequent as Marta spent less and less time with me.

To fill the hours, I took walks. Not far at first—to the end of the street and back; maybe around the block—but far enough that I was able to break the spirals of depression that licked at my thoughts after being inside for so long. As I passed the discarded neon skipping ropes and half-inflated utility balls scattered on verdant lawns, I found myself uncomfortably checking the doorway of each house I saw. But if there were any cherub faces there studying me, thankfully they remained out of sight.

I did encounter at least one elderly man on the sidewalks, his legs bowed and his cane as thin and crooked as his arms. Slightly hunched, he looked out at me from under his overgrown eyebrows as though he wanted nothing to do with me, and yet as I got nearer he was the first to speak.

He asked if I was the writer who’d moved into the area, which surprised me until he mentioned our realtor. Then he welcomed us to the neighbourhood and suggested, if I was looking for some ideas, I could do worse than visit Oak Lane.

Even without knowing the name of the street I knew immediately where he was sending me. I knew because I’d never forgotten it. How could I? It was where I lost Marta the first time. But part of me asked: why not? Why not see the house again? Despite my painful memories, maybe the old man was right and I’d find something inspiring there. Suddenly, my moribund novel no longer felt so moribund. When I left the old man, I was convinced that house might be the solution to my problems.

But that’s how it is with nightmares. They fool you because you don’t see them coming. They start as hopeful dreams and only later do things shift—maybe imperceptibly, maybe all at once—and what was once bright and reassuring becomes terrifying and confused.

This is how I ended up on the stoop of that boarded-up house, trying to peer through the paint-chipped door’s tiny inset window. If it had been one of my novels, something might have spooked me when I got there. Maybe an old melted face flickering out of view behind an errant curtain. Or maybe the frail knotted hand of a crone grabbing my shoulder, making me leap. But neither of these things happened, and the only ghost around was of what Marta and I had lost—which wasn’t so much frightening as sad. In fact, nothing about the dilapidated house lived up to my memory. Like I said: It was just a house, just a thing, and even worse, it was just boring. Perturbed I’d traveled so far to be disappointed, I turned around and headed back home.

And as far as I know nothing tried to stop me.

I didn’t give the house much thought after that. Marta continued traveling to and from work while I stayed cooped up underneath an unusually heavy blanket of snow. She seemed less enamoured with the commute by the day, often returning long after the sun had set and the temperature had dipped below freezing. On those days, even my love wasn’t enough to forestall the anger and irritation about her job, about our transit system, about the weather. About everything except what she was really mad about. I quickly learned to give her any space she needed, and by the time she was calm I’d find her in our spare-bedroom-turned-office, sitting on her swivel chair and staring at the wall we had to paint over again shortly after moving in. You could still see, if you squinted and the overhead lamp was positioned right, the faint outline of a large old tree, and the animals of the Hundred Acre Wood that had once been stenciled around its foot.

Marta was perpetually unhappy and nothing I did helped. She was caught in a debilitating wallow of pain, multiplied by the poor timing of her promotion and how it separated her from everyone she loved. I tried to reassure her the two weren’t related, but she couldn’t hear me through her heartache. Or didn’t want to. She was trapped in her own nightmare and I couldn’t reach her. At least there was money enough to keep our heads above water as I silently struggled between novels, but that money came at a price. It ground her down. Some nights, she wouldn’t sleep, tossing fitfully in bed, her legs twitching madly. I snored through the worst of it, but I knew she’d suffered when she appeared in the morning like an apparition, copper hair plastered and purple eyes swollen, clutching herself as though afraid she’d disappear. I’d brew her a coffee, which seemed to bring color back to her face, settle the tangle of bird’s nests in her hair.

It soon grew hard for me to track Marta’s comings and goings. She seemed to both be home all the time and yet never there. The winter daylight was simultaneously overbright and non-existent as I lived in some between-state, in the gutter between pages, my thoughts constantly muddled. When Marta asked how the novel was going, I told her I felt all right. When she asked about my health, I told her my characters seemed stuck. Did she find my words reassuring? Did I? I was adrift and utterly alone, unsupported, staring out the window for long periods of time at the mounting snow, Marta behind me drowning so noisily I no longer heard her.

“Marta, we can’t not talk about it anymore,” I said, my heart pounding as I gathered my nerve, fought off everything I worried might go wrong. “Something is missing.”

I felt a great weight lift from me as I admitted the truth. Maybe now that the wound had been exposed to air it would finally begin to heal.

I looked up from my wringing fingers for Marta’s reaction, but she was no longer there beside me.

• • •

Maybe it actually starts here, with a knock on the front door. It shook me from my stupor, and as I descended our narrow staircase I wondered if it was Marta coming home. The reflection from the snow cast some sort of unearthly light through the frosted windows, and I felt as though I still wasn’t awake. I reached the door then hesitated before opening it, not knowing what to expect. I was surprised to find my hand squeezed tight around my fountain pen, a reflexive need to anchor myself to something familiar. It took a moment to relax the muscles. Still, my trembling hand continued to throb.

A shadow moved outside, fractured by the geometrical glass. I heard something like an infant’s grating squeal as I yanked the door open to catch my tormentor. But there was no one there. Just a small box with a courier’s mark on brown paper and a set of boot prints that trailed off through the snow.

I carried the delivery inside. The first thing I looked for was a name or return address but there was neither. I rested the box on the table and inspected it from multiple angles. It was wrapped in butcher’s paper, tied down with tape and string. As the package warmed, I detected a damp odor coming from it. I want to say I was desperate to see what was inside, but I wasn’t. I wanted nothing to do with it. If Marta had been there, she would have saved me by snatching it away and tossing it into the snow.

But she wasn’t there. And I didn’t have the strength to do it alone.

It took me three hours to screw up the courage to open the box—three hours where I paced and gave the package sideways glances. Three hours where I climbed up and down the stairs trying to be both as far away from it and as close to it as possible. Three hours where I stared through the living room window at the winter snow turning to dark slush. Three hours where I thought I could resist it, and then realized with a prickling cold that I couldn’t. Three hours for me to give in.

It seems like such a long time, but really it’s no time at all.

What I found under that wrinkled butcher’s paper was a shoe box from a store named Fleischmann’s I barely remembered from my childhood. The box was made of old cardboard colored brown and white, its bottom half a series of cross-hatched diamonds. Each corner had been worn to the white, and the box was topped with a buckled lid whose split edges had been taped back together. I looked around the room but there was no one to stop me, so I held my breath and lifted the lid. It was easy and mundane and I don’t know why either of those things surprised me.

Inside the box were photos. Maybe hundreds; I didn’t count because I was too confused. I’d never seen any of them before, and yet they were all of Marta, all taken at different ages—one from near when I met her, standing on a blurry lawn at dusk, holding a sparkler in one hand as she bent sideways, laughing. She was all pale, crooked legs back then, dressed in a yellow striped shirt and denim shorts. And another from when she was a child, too many teeth in her tiny square head, blowing a series of bubbles from a neon green wand. It was strange, but stranger still in each of these photos, like the backdrop of summer, was the looming brick edifice of that house on Oak Lane. That cursed house.

I took the photos out one at a time and examined them. The older snapshots already had a sickly yellow patina, but I couldn’t reconcile their age—and the age of Marta in them—with the Marta I knew. She had never been to the house on Oak Lane. She hadn’t even seen it before that terrible night. There was no way she could have; we both grew up across the country from Newton. And yet here Marta was in photo after photo, living a life I never knew, an impossible life, in and around that house that was the start of everything wrong that had since happened to us.

I couldn’t believe any of it, even though in my hands I held the proof.

But how? How was I holding proof?

That’s when I first wondered if I was trapped in a story. Just like maybe you’re trapped reading one now.

As I dug in the box further, I uncovered fewer snapshots of the young Marta and more of the one I recognized, the beautiful one I’d married. But there was something wrong with her, something I felt before I noticed. I lifted each photo closer to my face, tried to convince myself that maybe I was wrong, that this was never my Marta. But I knew it was. I’d bought her one of the mohair sweaters she wore over her swelling body, and the opal pendant that pointed down at what I wanted so badly and yet didn’t want to admit. This latter Marta was fully pregnant, and she appeared again, lying disheveled in a pale green hospital bed, hugging a swaddled bundle close to her chest and looking both exhausted and serene.

I shook equally with despair and rage. That never happened. I knew that didn’t happen.

But I hated myself for not being sure.

I’m sure now. I mean, I think I am. Wouldn’t I remember something that would so irreparably change me?

Ask yourself, knowing what I knew then, what would you have done? Would you have gone right to that house? Trudged through the snow immediately to see with your own eyes if Marta was there? Pounded on the door and demanded answers? You might have, but I didn’t. Not because I was afraid she might not be there. And not because I was afraid she might. Those seem like good reasons, but like every story they’re lies, and I swore this time I’d write down the truth no matter how hard. I didn’t go because there was something else I needed to do. I don’t expect it to make sense to anyone; it doesn’t even make sense to me. But I was as sure about it then as I was about anything.

Instead of going anywhere, I left the photos behind and went upstairs. I sat behind my desk and from the left-hand drawer of my old chestnut desk I found a pad of yellowed foolscap and a black ballpoint pen with our realtor’s name on it. Then without putting thought into it I wrote down the first words that occurred to me. I’m not sure where they came from.

I wrote: “There is a house in Newton, down Oak Lane, that’s been vacant almost twenty years. Its slanted wooden shutters have been nailed closed and its cracked windows boarded over so it looks like a face without eyes or a mouth. Marta and I drove past it only once, and only by accident, on our way to the hospital while Marta sobbed and bled and told me it felt like a shard of jagged glass was sliding into her stomach. What I’m trying to say is it was a bad house, and I have bad memories of it. It is not a place you ever want to live near. Maybe that’s why there are so many FOR SALE signs on the leached brown lawns of its neighbours. And why those worn plywood signs are just as old.”

• • •

And I kept writing, a novel slowly bleeding into existence as I found each new word. I wrote about another Marta, an imaginary Marta, trapped inside her box. A Marta now with a secret. Her keepsake green thatch blanket rolled and tied in a bundle. She could no longer remember when the blanket had been given to her, or by whom, and sometimes she forgot its importance. Like a collapsing balloon it withered from her thoughts the longer she lived inside the box. Even when the box grew colder, she didn’t warm herself with the blanket. Even when the hard floor of the box hurt her aging bones, she forgot to lie on the blanket. And as the box grew smaller the blanket faded, dissolving until it was only a shadow and the walls of the box were so narrow she could touch each side with bent arms. And soon it was as though there was no box at all. Just a shivering, forgetting Marta, crushed to death by walls she no longer saw.

I looked up and realized I was dusted with snow. The window was cracked, letting in gusts of frigid air, and I hadn’t felt it. Nor had I noticed how scarred and cramped my hands had become, or how I was seated in my own filth. How long had I been writing? Why didn’t I know?

I felt myself spiraling toward something, my pen dragging circles over the page, yet it didn’t find the center because the center wasn’t there. It had gone with everything else I held important, moved a few blocks away to that house, that vacant house on Oak Lane.

And that’s when the ice cracked and I knew what was going to happen. How it was all going to end.

I don’t know what happened next. My memories are difficult to piece together. I know I tried to stand, but after so long seated behind my desk my legs were too weak and I collapsed. I don’t remember hitting the ground but I remember falling and I remember it taking too long, the world turning upside down. And when it righted itself, I was walking through crunching snow drifts.

I didn’t know how long I’d been out there. Maybe hours, maybe days. I was unnerved to find I wasn’t wearing a coat and even more unnerved I couldn’t feel my pale fingers. I struggled to remember what happened but couldn’t. The only two things I knew for certain were that I was headed toward Oak Lane and that something was wrong. Something was definitely wrong.

No, it would be okay. I would be okay. I’d get to that house and find Marta and we’d get our lives back despite everything we’d suffered. I wanted to believe it because it was an easy story to believe; it gave me everything I wanted. But the truth is stories are nothing like life. Life doesn’t follow plans and it doesn’t make sense. Life just is—a mess of tangled plot threads that will never be tied off and that have no greater meaning.

Drifts of hardened snow masked where that house was. At least, where Oak Lane should have been. Because when I finally arrived, I didn’t see anything but the liminal grey light diffusing through winter’s haze.

A shadow flew past, startling me. It was squat and wobbling, darting around the frozen drifts, and its squeal was as unsettling as it was familiar. Red and white, scarf trailing behind, it moved with purpose, dragging along a small sled. And on the sled was another bundle, though I couldn’t tell what was wrapped in those blankets.

Even when it sat up and looked my way just before disappearing behind a slanted fence.

Then, from out of a snow squall, that house—the center of all my worst thoughts, my darkest nightmares. I stamped my feet as much from worry as to keep them from freezing. It was that house, but it was different. As though it had imperceptibly contorted itself to evade detection, but I could see through its disguise, and maybe it could see through mine. I don’t know. Maybe it already knew what I was only just suspecting: that we’d both been abandoned.

It was possible. Ask yourself: What does an abandoned house even look like? You must have an idea. You’ve seen them in movies and read about them in books. Don’t they all look the same? Cobwebs hanging from the ceiling, bare furniture either broken or close to it? There might be graffiti on the walls or empty beer bottles scattered on the floor because abandoned houses are not abandoned for long. People who need them always find them. And, if they don’t, the animals do. Not every house is loved, but every house is lived in.

Was the house on Oak Lane any different? Was it anything more than a thing?

I don’t remember how I got inside. I was just there, the door behind me open, the otherworldly glow of reflected daylight spilling into the torn-up foyer. Or maybe it was just my eyes, blinded with spots as they struggled to adjust to the interior dim. Breath slipped from my panting lungs as I waited for my vision to clear, dreading what I was going to find in the dark.

Because there was something wrong with that house. I had to stop denying the truth.

That dread was there the first time, when Marta and I drove past. When I was filled with panic, unable to think. Steering recklessly around corners, lost in the maze of Newton’s suburban streets. Marta wailing in the seat beside me, her joggers soaked with blood. Me coming apart. I still don’t know how we ended up on Oak Lane but Marta’s wince as she looked out at the house told me we were in danger. I spun the car around and put my foot to the floor, hoping to escape. But maybe I was too late. Maybe it already had her. If that was true, I never saw it. I was too busy to understand what was happening. Too busy to save her, to … to save a lot of things, I guess. Too busy and too late.

The darkness of that house overwhelmed the reflected light from the snow. I could see the shadows snaking out, spreading into the world outside, wanting to consume everything I loved. I had to remind myself that it wasn’t real, that it was just my story-addled brain looking for an explanation. The house was only a thing, and a leaching, suffocating darkness was too strange for the real world. A world already filled with horrors too painful to think about, mundane horrors we try hard to forget. Those horrors are much worse than the ones you find in stories.

Even in my stories.

Even in the one I’m writing for you now.

I wanted Marta to be in that house. I wanted her to be there because if she wasn’t I didn’t know where else to look. Where else could she be? I wanted it to be true so badly I didn’t think about the broken furniture or spray-painted walls. I didn’t think about the smell, like an old stable, or the way the air felt slippery and off-putting. Just let her be there, I prayed. Just this once, let me get what I need.

I saw something dart across the landing to the second floor. I tried to call out to Marta, but my voice sputtered. My tongue, an inert piece of flesh that refused to do more than a cluck.

That’s when the squeal returned, the squeal that had been haunting me. Was someone dragging something heavy across the ceiling? It was so hard to be sure in the dark, in the cold. Ahead of me, the staircase. At the top, only shadows. I couldn’t see anything else. Then that squeal again. Was it a cry for help? Was it human at all?

I should have waited. Instead, I ran toward it.

I don’t remember what I was thinking as I rushed up the stairs. So much of this story is missing, my friable memory crumbling away, leaving behind large holes I can’t refill. I remember Marta, remember the way she looked at me. At the beginning. And the way she wouldn’t at the end. I remember how much of our future we had planned but not what happened to those plans, nor what we did instead. I remember each novel I started but I can’t remember anymore how they ended. The past is a pale ghost lingering behind me, amorphous if I don’t think about it, transient if I do. All I can say for sure is I climbed those stairs because that piercing squeal is one of the few things I can’t forget, even now, because of what it brought me.

What I couldn’t see until I reached the second floor was the tear in the roof, as though something wrong had fallen in or something worse had pushed itself out. Dim winter light broke through in a solid beam—the light, and the frigid cold—illuminating the path in front of me in a way. What I saw there didn’t make sense. It still doesn’t. Frozen to the warped floorboards were hundreds of small dark shapes I thought at first were rats. Instead the frozen mounds were something much weirder and even more unsettling.


Dark sports socks.

They looked as though they’d been dropped, wet, through the hole above me, freezing in place where they landed. I looked up and saw nothing but snowflakes slowly descending through the pillar of light.

There were socks everywhere. You can’t make that up. No one would believe you.

I shouldn’t have to write out what happened next. I should be able to stop here because there’s not much left to tell. But I can’t do that, can I? Because even the truth is a story, and if there’s one thing a story needs it’s an ending, if only so there’s a sense of closure, a suggestion that bad things happen for reasons, that nothing occurs by random chance. That’s the beauty of a story, especially a horror story. There are reasons, and no one has to suffer life without one. No one has to arbitrarily lose what they love most. That’s why I write them—the stories, the novels—because for that time between covers everything in the world makes sense. And if you can’t have that then what’s the point?

The squeal again. It echoed toward me from the dark, and I forgot the socks and dashed down the hall, screaming Marta’s name. I didn’t know what I’d find, and what I found at the very end was an unlocked room. I burst through the door, still calling my wife’s name, only to have it die on my lips.

There was a shape I couldn’t make out. A shape that wasn’t moving. A shape as cold as the room around it. I inched closer, the squeal’s phantom ringing in my ears, and saw it was seated on a rickety bare bedframe, facing the boarded-over window. I remember my back hugging the wall as I cautiously navigated around the bed, exponential dread bottoming me out until I could barely keep myself together, trying for a better look at what was seated there.

Do you really need me to keep going? Wouldn’t it be a better story if I just stopped here and let you guess what happened next even though you probably already know? It’s a great place for an ending: rejected man searching for meaning finds his salvation or doom. Lost someone looking for escape finds something more. I’ve written variations of it so many times I’m practically an expert. I’ve repeatedly lived it. Yet you’d think I’d know better. That I’d see it coming and wouldn’t make the same mistakes. But I don’t know better because nobody does. Nobody makes the choice. How can anyone be expected to foresee the dangers awaiting them?

Especially in the dark?

Especially in that house?

What was I supposed to do? Turn around and go back to my old life?

Is that really an answer?

Is that really an ending?

No, it’s not. It’s failure. And no one wants to read about failure any more than they want to be a failure. I know you don’t, and I don’t want you to. So, there was no choice at all. I walked around that bed because I had to. Because that was all that was left.

And what did I find there, cradled in the dark? I found you. And I’d been waiting for you for so long. I can’t ever remember how long. It’s like a cloud in my brain: fuzzy and vague. Like this story, I guess. And, believe me, this is a story just like any other. It’s mostly made up. Do you think Newton is a real place? Newton. New-Ton. New town. It makes me wonder if I was even trying.

I stared at you, cradled in the dark, and wondered if it was too late to go back. To choose a different plot, a different ending. But life isn’t really story, no matter what I told you, and that’s why stories are better than life. Their mysteries can be always be rewritten. No decisions can’t be undecided.

I remember you squealed again, and it sounded less like screaming and more like you wanting to be held. So I reached out for you. As I did, I heard a sound on the stairs at the other end of the hall. Of something climbing slowly toward us.

Maybe it ends like this, with me finding my answer. With you finding the truth. One happy family, the crack mended, the missing pieces found. It would be nice: the perfect ending to a perfect story. So maybe it does end like this, just this once.

Or maybe it doesn’t.

Simon Strantzas is the author of five collections of short stories, including Nothing is Everything (Undertow Publications, 2018) and Burnt Black Suns (Hippocampus Press, 2014), as well as editor of Aickman’s Heirs, Shadows Edge, and guest editor of The Year’s Best Weird Fiction, Vol. 3. He co-founded and is the Associate Editor of the irregular non-fiction journal, Thinking Horror, and is a columnist for Weird Horror magazine. Collectively, he’s been a finalist for four Shirley Jackson Awards, two British Fantasy Awards, and the World Fantasy Award. His stories have been reprinted in Best New Horror, The Best Horror of the Year, The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & Horror, and elsewhere. He lives with his wife in Toronto, Canada.