Home

by Steve Mitchell

Old House by Cello Calcagno

Old House by Cello Calcagno

She opens her eyes.

She’d squeezed them closed, waiting for the voices to pass her by. As if closing them might allow her to disappear. It was a ritual she’d believed in when she was younger, but now she’s nearly eleven and has lost her faith.

She’s wedged between the chest freezer and the cinder block wall of the basement in her own house. The block cool at her back. The freezer’s compressor oozing a syrupy warmth into her face. It clicks on and off at irregular intervals, the motor rattling to life. Startling her each time.

There’ s barely room to breathe. Her knees pressed to the rear of the machine, chest pressed to her knees, back to the wall. Grime and furred dust coats the floor beneath her, sticky on the skin. Clumping to her hands as she pushes further into the corner. Her heartbeat skitters along her damp and gritty palms. She tilts her head upward toward the open air. She can’t hear anyone moving now.

But she doesn’t trust the silence. She decides, even with her heart shuddering, to wait.

And in a moment, footsteps, attempting quiet. They pad to the front of the freezer, stop, then move further into the depths of the basement. They shift boxes along a near wall, scudding them out along the floor. There are whispers.

The cardboard scrapes roughly over the cement, first in one direction then the other. The footsteps move to a far wall. She hears murmuring, someone calling. It might be her name. She curls her toes in her sneakers, tenses her palms into the block at her back.

She had learned to cope with fear. When she was younger and she lay in her bed. Her father had allowed her to sleep with the light on for quite a while but, finally one night, he’d turned the light off and lay in the bed beside her.

He’d spoken softly, guiding her to trace her breathing until it slowed. To feel the blanket warm upon her skin, the bed solid beneath her, the doll soft in her hand. To find a center. At first, it had been impossible to follow his voice but then, something in the timbre and constancy of it allowed her shoulders to ease and then her mind to follow his suggestions without the delay of thinking. Until she’d fallen asleep.

He’d done this for three successive nights. Lying on the bed beside her, most of his body overhanging the narrow mattress. His lips near her ear, his arm at her side. Close, but not touching. He’d led her away from her fear and into her body.

On the fourth night, after he’d said goodnight, he switched off the light and shut the door. She’d pressed her eyes closed and felt calmed. But the fear was familiar. It had a taste she could roll on her tongue there in the dark. Testing it, savoring it.

The fear was erratic. Abandoning her for days or weeks then returning in an instant. It was familiar enough that at times she longed for it. At times she smiled in the moments of its first touch, before its full terror overtook her.

As soon as she’d been old enough to recognize it, she’d lain rigid in horror. Or screamed. And her father would come, turn on the light and comfort her back to sleep. After a while, he allowed her to sleep with the light on.

What happened when she opened her eyes, then and now on the fourth night, was this. The walls of her room began to waver, first in the corners and just on the edge of her vision. She saw them as something liquid. As she watched, the walls lost their shape around her. Then she began to see through them. Not into the hallway or the room bordering her own. Into another place. She peered through one life and into the fine structures of another.

And then she would scream. And her father would come. But not on the fourth night. On the fourth night, she floated upon her leveling breath. The well of the bed beneath her. The lingering scent of her Dad.

The walls began to s himm er. She watched the room around her shift, growing larger, more spacious. The veil of the world slipped. She felt she could begin to see all of the shadow forces and they weren’t there to harm her. She was still frightened. But she could watch without screaming.

The space behind the freezer grows tighter. She waits, whispering softly to herself to keep from moving, to keep from pushing herself toward the opening or crying out. She scrapes the back of her hand along the block for the pain of it, the jagged sensation rising into her arm.

Maybe twenty feet away: the thunder of running and shouts. She turns her head toward the opening and peers into the darkened slit of the room. They’d found Abigail. She hears the screams, off to the left near the basement stairs. She hears them struggle.

A fine thread of fear spins into her stomach. Angular and icy. Tingling to the tips of her fingers. Calming her somehow. Exciting her.

She closes her eyes. She is no longer folded within the space behind the freezer. It might as well have vanished. She’s imagining, now, the chalk circle in the center of the basement floor which is home. She can’t see it. She feels it in her chest and her stomach, a new warmth within the thrill and terror.

Abigail is laughing now. And Alex and Ben. They’d already caught Lucy and Bill. And Sandy. Mariel is the last one.

She opens her eyes. I know she opens her eyes. The wall presses against my body, the damp-earth scent of the basement fills my nostrils.

The sky is gray outside the window and I’m nearly naked in the cold. Flushed and damp. I can feel the wind whipping up through the rough floor of the meditation hut  to catch at my skin. I can feel the wind, I can see the window. But I’m crouched behind the freezer, the block cool at my scraped knuckles. That’s where I’m present. Picturing the chalk boundary etched upon the basement floor.

I scrape my knuckles against the block until the skin curls off in fine strands. I squint toward the narrow opening between freezer and block into the darkness of the basement.

“Are you cold, Mariel?” Will asks me from the floor. His fingers stroke the top of my hand, flat upon the boards. My elbow holding me upright and close to the window. His skin is warm against mine and I feel the weight of his body behind the caress. “A little,” I tell him.

“Why don’t you come down here.”

“I’m fine. I like the window right now.”

“Sometimes,” he confesses, not for the first time, “you really confuse me.”

I turn to him, away from the window of the hut, away from the block wall and the basement. He’s lying askew upon the rough floor. His shirt unbuttoned and twisted around him, his pants at his ankles. His eyes are blue and clear and he’s watching me because it’s something he likes to do.

“Do you want a world without mystery?” I ask him. And he laughs.

His laugh changes the space around me for a moment. I feel it close and taut along my skin. And for just a moment I consider that I could stay and the entire world might focus into a single shape and he would hold me.

His laugh changes the way I think for a moment. I consider arranging my furniture around it into the shape of a nice warm room at the center of an inviting house. I could choose the wallpaper and the curtains to match the texture of his laugh. I could find the colors to mimic the quality of his caress.

His laugh is a different place to settle. Like a stone at the bottom of a fast moving stream. A location I might share, resting until the final closing of my eyes. His laugh is a surprise, a door bursting open in a gust of wind.

Or the flush of my first meeting with Antonia Beck. It had been here in the meditation hut, but it had been spring then, two years ago, and the air was heavy and green. My decision to move to a spiritual community, to Monmouth in particular, had been a strategy for upending my life, for completing a first draft and beginning the second with a flourish. I expected it to draw me further into myself in a complex series of exchanges with invisible beings, but the apocalypse, when it comes, is always simple. And quiet.

It’s a shift in the light. Nothing more.

I’d read Antonia Beck’s books; I was sincerely drawn to her teaching and the idea of devoting myself to a spiritual practice. I imagined it to be an anonymous and unassuming enterprise, so I was nervous when I met her. I was sent, like every Prospective, down a winding path through the trees to arrive at the small raised hut in the center of a wide circular wall of stacked stones. I was reminded of Hansel and Gretel.

But, once in side the meditation hut, there was no hungry witch, only Antonia, seated on a cushion near a window, waiting for me. I babbled and she was quiet. She must have spoken that day but I can’t remember a word. I remember her stillness. Her patience. Her eyes. It wasn’t what I expected.

I expected to work in the gardens, with the animals. I expected to hum God’s frequency. I imagined myself melting away. I counted on a form of silence and hoped for a revelation which might order the whole of the cosmos around me. I was merely following my frontier strategy of devising safe locations within the light, then moving away again, into a deeper darkness. Focusing my center down to a dense, golden star.

I never imagined Antonia and I would simply become friends, not teacher and supplicating student, but friends who talked about movies and language and the embarrassments of our own humanity. I never imagined we would take up residence within each other, readily, hungrily.

When Antonia abandoned Monmouth nine months later without a word to anyone, I understood. I found her note pinned to my screen door early that morning. The rest is up to you, it said. And that’s all it said.

I’d initiated this relationship with Will from the vacant ache of Antonia’s absence. From an urgency which spasmed through my lower body, rising then into my face in a heavy steam. I’d wanted a lever to wrench me from my stable orbit at Monmouth and hurtle me outward into the void. This need had drawn me toward him, pushed me to speak, and laid me open all at once.

But I had nothing to talk to him about. Nothing to tell him.

I watch him sometimes, when he’s working with the animals or reading in his room. He seems easy with his secrets. Delicate and watchful. He moves as if he has nothing to hide. I watch him now, sprawled on the floor around me, his eyes on my face, my breast, my hand. He touches me as if he knows me, but he doesn’t.

Antonia knows me. She simply saw me. Fully. And the reflection was enough to burn the image deep into bone.

I blink and I can see us, sitting in the back yard of her house. Barefoot in the damp grass even in the rain. The dark bowl of the sky above us. We sat in old lawn chairs, twirling bottles of Rolling Rock between our fingers by the neck. We talked, over the course of a summer and a fall. About everything. As if we were inventing and naming a world.

It wasn’t a string of revelations between us. It was a silence and an occasional glance. It was in the way we watched the night around us, noticing every rustle in the grass and balancing star. Never pointing these things out. Assuming the other was listening, watching, just as intently.

It was a way of talking which built worlds and thoughts and feelings while the grass cooled and dampened between our toes. It was something we made together which burned above us, just outside our reach.

The field before us would be wide and dark, the oaks and locusts rising as shadows acres away. There were no houses close by and the nearest city was sixty miles away. In the summer, the staccato rhythms of the fireflies. In the fall, the low rumble and crash of the cows and the quickening rattle of the leaves. Antonia would sometimes sit with her head thrown back along the aluminum rim of her lawn chair. One hand open on the plastic armrest, the other dangling her bottle above the grass.

I betrayed the rest of the world with Antonia Beck. Betrayed everything we agree the world to be. Every rule of logic and physics, every shared ethic.

I betrayed my past. I surrendered fragments of a future. I could see myself doing it; I turned each one between my fingers then let them go. I gave up a certain vision of myself. I gave it all over to a crystalline loneliness.

On those nights, we re-imagined each other. Simply by talking far into ourselves. It was a tacit agreement, never spoken. We touched only occasionally, accidentally. We shaped our world. On those nights I visited places I couldn’t easily return from. On those nights, Antonia released me into doubt and I freed her, somehow, from Monmouth.

And in the morning, in the light and shuffle of the day, we held our secrets close, tender against our skin. As if we were sheltering a fragile creature, a wet butterfly, a frightened bird. In the mornings, we smiled our secrets between us; each with our own work, each in our own world.

There’s so much I can’t tell Will, so much I don’t talk about. There is one thing I could say but I don’t. I could say: I know the imprint of touch, I know the mark it leaves.

The window is still there. The window has not changed. Nor has the gray screen of the low sky. Will strokes my hand and I let him, my eyes on the distance, goose bumps rising along my arms.

He draws me down toward him. My cool breasts resting upon his cool chest until a warmth begins to form again between us. I kiss him. We make love again. My body gasps in the motion and joy of it. I’m happy to be with him. Happy to be making love, to be warm where our skins meet and cool where the winter air brushes me.

Later, we dress. Standing up, tugging our limbs into our clothes. Facing each other. Shuddering in the cold, now that our bodies have separated. Staring at each other until we laugh.

Seated outside on the wooden steps, I pull on my sneakers. It’s deep fall and the leaves have filled the raked space around the hut. The low surrounding rock wall holds them in rattling pools. The cows have already passed. Entering their winter lethargy early, they’ve meandered toward the far side of the property, one following the other.

Will is straightening cushions inside. I can hear him through the open door at my back. He pulls the door closed and stands on the top step behind me. The wind begins to pick up as the light fails, the cold seeps up from the earth. He descends the stairs past me. He stands at the bottom, looking up.

I scrape the back of my hand along the rough step beneath me, the grain of the wood rasping into my fingers and arm. She scrapes her hand along the coarse block beside her. She is turned now in the opening between the freezer and the wall. Turned into the open darkness of the basement.

He draws me toward him to stand. He straightens my bomber jacket around me and zips it up. He takes my reddened hand and kisses the knuckles. He doesn’t let my hand go.

We walk away from the hut, our secrets tender and untold between us. An alternate history we do not address. We hold hands until we reach the wall. Like teenagers in the parking lot of the spring dance, unsure whether to be proud or embarrassed.

On the fourth night, Mariel had lain in her bed and the walls had dissolved and the bed had floated free and her body had burned off and the world had spun a whirlwind around her. Before, she had always screamed for her Dad.

Now she could find his voice within her, winding its way around a tiny pinprick of light. A light which did not move, but shimmered and burned bright. She felt him close. Closer even than he had been, lying upon the bed beside her.

The frame of the room fell away into the darkness and she did not scream, though her breath caught in her throat and her pulse doubled. Before, this change had always terrified her but now it seemed beautiful. Solid and true. Not a nightmare at all.

They’re all looking for her. Stationed throughout the clutter of the basement. They’re all calling her name from different locations. But she only has to avoid Alex and Ben.

She would scramble from behind the freezer, make the six feet to the corner wall, then turn left. The chalk circle would be twenty feet straight ahead. The basement was crowded with boxes and junk. She’d have to ease past the garden equipment and appliances. Once she made the turn, she’d have to watch the stairs. They were dangerously close to the circle and Alex or Ben might be hiding there.

Her hands cupped upon the concrete floor, she draws herself to her knees behind the freezer. Her limbs unfold into the open darkness. Her knees are stiff from the cramped space and tremble as she stands. She grasps the edge of the freezer to steady herself.

Sandy is calling her name close and to the right, laughing as she calls. Mariel slides toward the corner wall, more stable now. Her eyes flicker over the room in the near dark, articulating shadows.

She eases past an old lawnmower, close to the wall, without falling over it. Tennis rackets hang from the ceiling. A garden hose is coiled high at her side. Sandy is coming up close to her right, her voice growing nearer. Mariel peers toward Sandy’s voice, hoping to judge the distance.

Alex rounds the corner, five feet away, Sandy at his side. He stares blankly at Mariel for an instant. Their eyes meet and his face lights into a grin.

She bursts from the corner and into the long stretch toward the circle. The area is open, appliances and bicycles lining the walls. She can see Abigail standing near the circle, her back turned, watching the stairs to the right.

“She’s here!” Alex shouts, at her heels, “I’ve got her!”

Abigail turns, her hands coming up before her in surprise. When she sees Mariel, she leaps into the air. Laughing, clapping her hands, cheering her forward.

Her body arches in a surge, her legs bearing her forward and up. Her breath is hot and hard against her teeth. Her legs extend to their full length. The basement, the house, vanishes. She can hear the voices rising around her. The rustle and pant of Alex at her back. There’s only the distance between her and the circle.

She laughs in the exhilaration, the release. Her body taking a new shape. Her breath emptying her lungs and thrusting her forward. Alex galloping behind, his arm extended to tag her. Abigail clapping near the stairs. Ben descending the steps in a panic, knowing he’s too late.

The leaves crunch and scatter beneath our feet and we don’t say a word, even when we reach the stone wall. Reflexively, Will’s hand slides from mine as he steps over. For some reason, I stop.

I hear Will turn back to me from the other side of the wall. I hadn’t realized my eyes were closed until the sound of him. I open my eyes. I raise them to him. Then he knows I’m leaving. And I know he’s staying.

She tears through the basement. The old toys and broken bicycles, the washer and dryer, blurring past. The other kids are all laughing now, cheering dramatically. It’s come down to just her and Alex.

Her lungs are bursting, her legs ache. Alex’s breath is close at her back. She can sense his hand near. He grabs her shirt, spinning her around. Sweating, laughing. Running past her, unable to stop. But she’s already inside the circle.

I step over the wall into the border of trees, blinking into the light between branches. I step away from a place I knew as a child. A place my father helped me to discover. A place I lose and find. Again and again.

 

Steve Mitchell‘s story “Above the Rooftop” was named a 2010 Notable Story in StorySouth’s Million Writers Award competition. His short story collection, Death to Everyone but Us, will be available from Press 53 in the Spring of 2012. He is currently completing a novel, Body of Trust. He is always available at: www.thisisstevemitchell.com.