Untitled Short Story
By Tania MacWilliam
The house inhaled the day the Angelo family moved in. It held its breath, keeping its occupants captive for the next four months.
Moving day was sunny, but the air was unusually crisp, even for autumn. Frank and Mary Angelo had two little girls, Rebecca – five and Eloise – eight weeks old. The family was relieved to be moving into a larger space. This would be where they would create new memories, and forget the horrible ones of their past.
The Angelos explored their new home, a two-story duplex sitting under the city bridge. Its wooden shingles, painted powder blue to match the sky, were old, but they would stand up against the coming winter. A white dilapidated balcony crowned the front of the house. It wouldn’t be safe enough to make use of, but its crooked smile added character to the old house’s facade.
The back side of the Angelo’s flat offered a magnificent view of the harbour. Sail boats moved along leisurely, while speed boats zipped along the glasslike surface of the sea. A row of docked Navy ships made the view less than perfect, but when the sky turned black they would disappear against the back drop of city lights.
In the fenced back yard, a cherry tree leaned, as if embarrassed by its petal barren branches. Beyond the fence grew more fruit; plums and raspberries, mostly. The yard was separated by a clothes line, which was shared by the couple renting the bottom half of the duplex. Butted up against the foundation was a small garden, also to be shared. The Angelos sat on the grass, making plans for what they would grow in their new garden.
The house looked down on them through its glass eyes, squinting against the sun. Friend or foe? It thought. How curious its new prisoners were.
The front porch was used frequently by the tenants, John and Joan Stevens. They were a nice couple; quiet, and except for sharing a clothesline, they kept to themselves. The pair worked from home but you would never know they were there unless you saw Joan sitting on the porch, which she did often. John was a writer and his creative process dictated that no one be in the house when inspiration hit. Joan was happy to sit on the porch and do crossword puzzles, but when the first snow had fallen it was unbearable to stay outside for any length of time.
It was when Mary saw her neighbour shivering on a cold December afternoon that she offered her a cup of tea for the first time.
The walls of the house were not very well insulated. Sound traveled between the beams as if pairs of ears were mounted on each of them. The Stevens could hear their upstairs neighbour’s kettle whistle, and their dish water splash, so when the house screamed out, it was hard to ignore. For two months the rumbles from above were never discussed between husband and wife. Heavy rolling thumps down the staircase, paired with deathly moments of silence, were tuned out. As long as the children were not harmed, they would not to get involved, decided the neighbours.
Joan kept an eye on the children during their weekly tea time. The women would share a pot of tea over light conversation before retreating to their separate corners of the house. Rebecca always sent Joan home with a new drawing. Today’s was of their house. The windows had blue eyes drawn over them and the porch was turned into a crooked smile. Yes, she was certain the children were fine.
The Stevens’ conscience may have been clear, but the house refused its downstairs occupants a restful night’s sleep. Each night, it kept them awake with its moans and groans of insistence. The little girl, however, had grown used to the bumps in the night. She slept near the front of the house, away from the roaring that came from where her parents slept. Although not soundproof, it was quieter. She shared her room with her baby sister. Her mother had said that being with her big sister helped the baby to sleep soundly. The truth was, her mother felt better knowing her angels were far away from the evil that lived in the back rooms. The little girl used to fear that her bedroom door would fall off the hinges from the incessant banging, but the house kept the children safe against the beastly force. It wasn’t until she smuggled a kitchen knife, and hid it under her pillow, that Rebecca felt safe. If any demons entered her room she would be able to protect herself, and her baby sister.
Rebecca’s bed was pushed up against the wall. Each night she faced the wall and compulsively tore away pieces of wallpaper, like peeling skin after a sun burn. The wallpaper was printed with an old style sailor’s navigation map. She never got in trouble for this minor destruction. Each night, pieces of yellowed wallpaper lay scattered on the floor between the bed and the wall. Each morning the evidence was gone. There was an unspoken understanding of why the wall had lost half of its skin. With her fingertips, she traced trails which led tiny ships toward the New World. Calmed by this repetitive action, she drifted to sleep, clutching the knife under her pillow. The last image in her mind: A map of the world.
Mary lingered on the porch after her husband left for another evening on the nightshift. She just needed some air before she went back in the cage. The sidewalk in front of the house had about a foot of snow which was blowing around in the squalling wind. Joan was sitting in her chair on the porch, shivering, again. She never knocked on Mary’s door asking to be let in for a cup of tea, so Mary often checked the porch on bitterly cold days. This time Joan declined. Mary nodded her head, slightly disappointed, then turned to walk away. Joan grasped Mary’s arm, turning her toward her so they were face-to-face. She tilted Mary’s chin up to inspect her newly blackened eye. Mary turned her head away, ashamed. Joan reached in her pocket and took out a folded piece of paper. She opened Mary’s hand and placed the paper in her palm. Joan smiled gently, then without a word, returned to sit in her chair where she continued to work on her crossword puzzle. Mary hurried to open the door to her sky blue prison. Once safely locked away, she leaned against the door and unfolded the piece of paper. Inside was a telephone number and instructions. Her hands shook. She scanned it briefly then quickly tucked it away in her blouse.
Supper was not prepared to Frank’s liking the next night. He was overly critical and insisted on perfection — his version of it at least. It was not unusual for something to be done correctly one day then be completely unacceptable the next. What would happen next was announced with a bellow from hell. The house shook with fury, as if enduring the power of an earthquake.
Frank stood abruptly, overturning the kitchen table, emptying the bowls of their contents. He grabbed a hold of his wife’s hair and dragged her into the living room, leaving Rebecca huddled on the floor to quiet the crying baby. The windows rattled against the howling winter wind. A chill seeped between the cracks of the wooden window frames. Perhaps that was why Rebecca could not stop shivering. Thunder echoed through the house, muffling her mother’s cries. A symphony of sound and light began; the perfect accompaniment to the scene playing out down the hall. Lightning filled the room like a lighted stage, dancing back and forth with the thunder claps. One, two, three, CLAP. The storm was getting closer. The house stood firmly against the unnatural force.
Rebecca bravely left Eloise’s side to check on her mother. She poked her head around the corner. What she saw did not surprise her. She had seen this production many times before. A chair was being brought down upon her mother’s head with such force that it broke on impact. Her mother’s ear was bleeding while she lay motionless on the carpet. Rebecca crawled across the floor to her room to retrieve the knife she had hidden beneath her pillow. She quickly hid the weapon behind her back as her father passed her on his way out to another shift of night work. Hearing the front door slam shut, Rebecca ran to the living room and kneeled beside her mother, knife held firmly behind her back. Mary was awakened by tears dripping on her face. She sat up slowly and embraced her daughter. Feeling the cold steel against her back, she grabbed her daughter’s hand and pulled it between them. She looked at her daughter with an unspoken question in her eyes, but she did not need the answer. Rebecca held on tightly to her mother and whispered that she would kill her father when he returned. Mary knew the time had come. She pried the knife from her daughter’s clutches and sweetly kissed her forehead. She held her hand and walked calmly to the kitchen. She placed the knife back in the drawer, then bent down to pick up the now sleeping baby. She gathered her children close to her. They gave her the strength she would need to do what must be done. Together they went to the storage place beneath the stairs to retrieve the small piece of luggage which the mysterious paper had instructed her to hide.
With children and luggage in tow, she made her way to the telephone. Stengthened by the fire in her daughter’s eyes, Mary slipped her hand into her blouse and took out the paper hidden within. With hands shaking, she picked up the phone. Her fingers trembled as she spun the wheel. With each rotation she was closer to escaping the horror in the house. Mary spoke a combination of meaningless words into the receiver followed by the family’s address. A plan was now set in motion. The family’s fate had been forever changed. The house quieted.
Mother and children were bundled in their winter coats and were waiting patiently inside the front entrance of their prison when a horn honked. With a clap of thunder the house exhaled and expelled its prisoners. They made their way to the taxicab, not daring to look back. They were free at last.
The house watched the family through its glass eyes one last time, but it was difficult to see through the rain.