Ass o’clock in the morning and it’s black out. Black black, the kind of black you only get in these miserable, middle-of-nowhere places. No, “middle-of-nowhere” is too generous; this is past that, right at the line where nowhere becomes miles of uncharted forest thick with months of snow and screaming with wolves and whatever other ungodly feral things make noise when everything decent in the world is asleep.
It’s one of those animals that drags me awake, yowling from the forest’s edge, shrieking at me like I owe it money or stepped on its child. I lurch out of bed but when my feet hit the floorboards there’s no howling, no sound, nothing. Like it was never even there. Fuck this wolf. Fuck this whole entire place. The floor is freezing, just one long ice rink from here to the carpet in the hall. The house doesn’t have central heating—of course it doesn’t—there’s only a woodstove in the living room, and fuck if I know how to use a woodstove. I got it working with the logs I found out back but it choked and died twenty minutes later and by then I’d already cocooned myself in these quilts that still reek of mothballs.
As you may have surmised, I don’t own this house. Strictly speaking, no one does. It belonged to my Aunt Norma, bless her, before she fell and broke her hip and the handyman found her weeks later, quite dead in her floral-print nightgown, frozen to the upstairs hallway. The hallway right outside this door.
I try not to think about that.
I pull my feet off the floor and tuck them back under Norma’s smelly quilts. My phone’s beside my pillow, half-charged, and there’s a push notification on the otherwise darkened screen. I begin to swipe it away, but it’s a Grindr message from someone called hungdaddy.
Well. It might be cold, and I might be tired, but who am I to reject the advances of a hung daddy? I tap on his faceless profile.
>hey dick pig
He’s called me by my profile name. How personal. How touching.
As soon as I’ve read the greeting, a picture appears in the chat. It’s a grainy, colorless photo of a naked man seated on a stool. His head is cropped out of the frame, but the rest of his mountainous body is visible, from the hairy shoulders down to his muscled legs, spread open. His cock hangs over the edge of the stool, halfway hard, lolling to one side with its own weight.
One of the man’s hands rests on his thick, furred thigh. The other is raised and extends out of the picture, reaching for something just out of view. I double tap on the image, zoom in. The resolution is godawful—this pic could only have been taken on a flip phone—but even through the pixilation, the intensity of his grip is obvious. His muscles are knotted and his skin pulls so tight that the hollow of his elbow has become a deep, blurry pit. I don’t know what’s in that hand but, whatever it is, it’s being crushed. Punished.
I am, predictably, quite hard now.
Hey, I type, one-handed, what’s up.
>I am always awake
The reply appears immediately but I don’t question the speed. I’ve slid back into bed and unbuttoned the jeans I went to sleep in.
Yeaj? I write, not really caring about spelling because, at this stage, we both know where this conversation is going. What’s got you up daddy
Another image appears in the chat, instantly. It’s actually not a different picture at all, I realize, but the same one taken from a different angle. This time, it’s as if the photographer is sprawled on their back, lying between the man’s feet. Most of his body is out of focus—his cock and balls are a blur, the coarse hair curling across his stomach reduced to shadow—but I don’t really care because I’m halfway to coming and already feel the need for sleep eclipsing my horniness.
Fuuuuuck, I type, moving this interaction right along, plz destry me with that dick
There is, for the first time in the conversation, a pause. And then:
>You crave destruction?
I scroll back up to the first pic. I sure do.
Yessir. Wreck my hole.
>You want to be destroyed. Wrecked. Annihilated.
I stop jacking myself but keep my hand on my dick. hungdaddy’s dirty talk needs some work, but I’ll give him a pass. Twenty more seconds of this Dom Daddy shtick and I’ll be cleaning myself up, ghosting him, and getting to sleep. The natural order of the gay universe.
Yeah, I type. I want you to pin me down and make me beg.
hungdaddy’s last message comes through in one giant text block, like he’s composed the whole thing already and has been waiting to send it:
>I will destroy you. I will destroy every part of you. I will destroy until there is nothing left in you but your desire for nothingness and I will destroy even that. I will destroy you. I will destroy
And it just fucking ends like that, mid-sentence. Jesus.
I back out of the chat and return to hungdaddy’s profile. Before I block him, I take a screenshot of the profile image:
15 miles away
When I block him, his image disappears from the grid of nearby profiles. I shut off my phone.
That’s quite enough Grindr for tonight, thanks.
The exposed skin between my thighs has gone clammy and I’m aware of how cold I am, how cold this whole damned house is at night. I pull my pants back up, tuck my erection away.
For a moment, the house is dead and it’s just me and the sound of my own post-masturbatory breathing. I tell myself to ignore the phone screen right beside my pillow, to just close my eyes. There’s so much left to do tomorrow, and I need to clear out of here before the realtor arrives in the afternoon. I need to sleep.
But then the howling starts up again. This time, it’s not just one wolf but a pack of them seething through the forest, shrieking at the cold.
A goddamned symphony the whole night long.
• • • •
In the morning I find myself at the kitchen table, drinking a finger of Scotch out of a coffee mug, staring absentmindedly at The Crack.
The Crack was the sole topic of Norma’s correspondence with the rest of the family through the last years of her life. It’s a jagged line that runs the height of the wall separating the kitchen from the dining room. It’s so thin it looks like it’s been drawn on with a pencil.
The Crack started worming its way into Norma’s calls maybe three years ago; she would make the occasional reference to the house falling down around her, but then play this off as tongue-in-cheek melodrama. As her calls grew more frequent, though, the levity left her voice.
“You must do something about it,” she would warble into the landline. “It hasn’t stopped growing. Good Lord in Heaven, just look at it. It’s like the Panama Canal. You wouldn’t know this, since you never visit, but this wall—” she’d suck in her breath here, pause for effect—” is a load-bearing wall.”
The monthly guilt trips became intolerable, so I paid a handyman in her vicinity to trek out to the house and assess the situation. He confirmed that there was no issue, that The Dreaded Crack was little more than the house shifting and resettling after an especially brutal winter.
That’s when I started letting Norma’s calls go to voicemail.
I know, I know—I’m making her sound petulant and demanding. It’s unfair of me. We can’t judge the dead only by the final, paranoid moments of their life. In truth, there were many things I admired about my aunt. She was a vintage eccentric. She spoke in an accent shared by no one else in my family, a half-baked homage to Katharine Hepburn that lapsed back toward her Gravesend roots more often than she probably realized. She was also the first adult in my family I came out to and goddamn if I don’t remember the look that ignited in her eye as she pulled me close and said: “I always suspected that you were so, my dear. Let me tell you about cousin Alexander. He was the same way as you, and you wouldn’t believe where he took me that summer we visited Berlin—”
Unfortunately, I was the only one who knew this side of my aunt. The rest of my family thought that Norma, in her dotage, was losing touch with reality. They made her perform the necessary rituals: go see this doctor, Auntie; go get these tests done; then go talk to this lawyer and you know, while you’re at it, why don’t you draw up a will?
That was what they really cared about—making sure her fortune made it into the right hands when she died. Their hands. Because that’s my family for you. Vultures, the lot of them. Hungry fucking vultures bearing down on the old woman before she’d passed, trying to suffocate her with the weight of their lousy vulture bodies.
My family couldn’t understand that Norma was never in touch with reality. She’d been fleeing it for decades, first by entombing herself in this remote Colonial, and then by filling it with curiosities and hidden secrets, building a labyrinth in which reality, that persistent bastard, could never find her.
It’s morning but somehow still only half-light outside. As I hunch over the dining room table, considering my Scotch, my breath leaves my mouth in steamy wisps. They taunt me. I found a fur-collared coat and an old Cossack hat in Norma’s bedroom, but no amount of animal fur seems to keep the chill away.
Norma used to say that when you’re this far north winter tilts the land away from the sun and toward an in-between place. She told me this when I was very young, and I still remember the way she angled her teacup as she described the tilting world, how the brown liquid spilled from the brim and pooled in the saucer. I asked her what we were in between, and how we could get back, but she only brought the saucer to her lips, sucked it dry, and then ran her tongue around the bottom of the cup.
I was a little older when I realized she probably wasn’t drinking tea.
I uncork the Lagavulin and splash a sensible pour into my emptied mug. Here’s to you, Auntie Norma. Here’s to your fully-stocked cabinet of mediocre whiskey. Here’s to the secret you buried in this house.
My phone buzzes in my pocket, just once. I don’t remember having turned it on after the Grindr conversation, but I must have at some point in the night. The cold kept me from really falling asleep; I was up in fits and starts, bleary and pissed-off.
There’s a single notification on the screen. My mouth sours when I see the sender’s name.
I open hungdaddy’s latest message. He must have created a new account to find me again. This happens, sometimes, with guys who can’t take a hint. It’s annoying, but fixable: if you block and ignore them enough times they do, eventually, disappear.
>where did you go
What a fucking creep. I swipe back to hungdaddy’s profile and am reaching my thumb toward the almighty block button when I notice that the profile has changed. The name and picture are the same, but his distance no longer reads fifteen miles. It’s now one mile.
Aunt Norma doesn’t have neighbors. In fact, I was a little surprised that there was someone on Grindr who was only fifteen miles away. The nearest city—and I use the word “city” quite loosely here—is a snowbound hamlet with a train station and a Kinko’s some sixty miles south. Fifteen miles would put hungdaddy squarely in the middle of no-man’s-land. One mile puts him within walking distance.
I click on the chat bubble out of habit, before I’ve considered whether or not I should. I move my thumb to close the app, but then I see what he’s written. I stare at the screen long enough that it goes dark.
>i can tell you where to look
My eyes keep sliding over those words, again, again, again. And then it hits me like an ice cube sucked down my windpipe. I am being catfished. The only way hungdaddy could know that I am looking for something is if he knows there is something worth looking for. And the only way he could know that is if he was privy to Norma’s will.
The opening of Norma’s will was the closest my family has ever come to holding a reunion. The extended viper’s nest of Caldwells shuffled into that lawyer’s office, all of them dour and pale in their funereal getups, looking like characters in an Edward Gorey sketch. When the lawyer announced that Norma had left her entire estate to a nearby private school, most of them left in an entitled rage. But I stayed for the whole reading, for the line at the very end when Norma addressed me directly:
“To Edwin: I cherish all those childhood summers you spent in my house, all those marvelous secrets that passed between us. How I wish there was still one more to share. I would have left you the house but, alas, it is falling into ruin and would only have been a burden in its old age.”
To those unfamiliar with Norma, that might just seem like a slightly passive aggressive parting message. But I knew her too well not to see the references buried in those words. Norma worked in riddles; in her mind, it was almost gauche to say exactly what she meant. One line played itself over and over for me: “How I wish there was still one more to share.” Between this and the references to the house, one thing became clear to me that afternoon: Norma left something in this house for me to find. Knowing her, it would be something so valued it couldn’t be discussed openly.
Unfortunately, I wasn’t the only one who stayed for the end of the reading. My siblings are relentless and hungry, and it seems one of them wants what Norma left me. This plan—trying to spook me out of the house using a hookup app—it’s original, I’ll give them that. It’s probably my youngest brother, Barty. He’s a twisted little shit. Or no—maybe it’s Violet. Fucking Violet. She’s the only one who would know my taste in men.
This realization is, in its own way, a comfort. hungdaddy now has a face, and it is the face of one of my ne’er-do-well relatives skulking in the forest, sending grainy dick pics and cryptic sexual advances. This is something I can deal with. I am, after all, well-practiced at enraging my family.
I throw back the dregs of the Lagavulin, set my cup down, and get up from the table. Norma’s house key is with the realtor. But the spare key—the one she hid in the hollow of that dead oak out back—that one is safely in my pocket.
I inventory the downstairs, checking the locks on the windows and trying all the doorknobs. Most of the windows, blessedly, were painted shut years ago, but this house has so many goddamned doors—the front door, and the back porch’s screen door; the basement door and the hatch on the root cellar; the small, warped door in the pantry that opens into the woodshed; and, finally, the door in the library’s outside-facing wall that never opens. Since I spent yesterday creeping through every crawlspace, turning out every dresser, and peering under all of the carpets, I make an efficient survey of the house. The doors are locked up tight.
Breathless from all of this jogging, I settle into the library’s ratty loveseat and take out my phone. hungdaddy—it feels perverse to refer to a family member this way, but they brought this on themselves—has not sent any additional messages. I type out a response, delete it, and start again:
You gonna tell me where to look? or would you rather come and show me. I know you’re not used to the cold.
>you must open the door under the stairs
He’s as prompt as ever. The house doesn’t have all that many staircases—there are stairs in the front hall, leading to the second floor; there’re the ones going to the cellar; and, if we’re being pedantic about things, I suppose there’s also the attic’s pull-down ladder. In the past twenty-four hours, I have been up and down these staircases so many times I have the squeal of each tread memorized.
The staircases don’t have doors, I reply.
At this point, the whole cat-and-mouse charade is starting to feel pretty fucking ridiculous. Whichever one of my grifting relatives is behind hungdaddy, they are cold and miserable outside, making themselves suffer just to frighten me. The whole thing is petty and obnoxious and—you know what? They should know better if they think I’m going to let them in when they decide to give up the ruse. They should know that no one in the family, not even Violet, is pettier than I am.
I’m drafting another pithy response when a third picture comes through. This was taken with the same camera as hungdaddy’s others—it’s all staticky, washed-out sepia—but it’s not an image of a person. It’s the inside of the house. The photographer took this standing in the front hall that extends into the dining room. The stairs to the second floor run up one of the walls in the entryway, and the photographer has focused on that bare, triangular piece of the wall underneath the stairs.
So, hungdaddy has been here before. This isn’t surprising; most of Norma’s relatives came here after the funeral for an afternoon of backbiting and store-bought crudité. There would have been ample time to take pictures. In fact, I’d be surprised if Barty hadn’t slunk around, making an inventory of Auntie’s valuables while the rest of us nibbled our baby carrots.
No, the surprise in this photo is that there is a door under the stairs. It’s difficult to make out, at first. The wall is decorated with rectangular moldings, and the doorframe has been camouflaged to look like one of them. It’s painted the same hideous taupe as every other wall in this house, and it doesn’t seem to have a knob, but it’s there alright. Clear as day. How could I have missed this?
As I haul myself up from the couch and debate how to shimmy this door open, one more detail in the photo catches me. I wouldn’t have noticed it at all if I hadn’t zoomed in a bit, and even now I’m not entirely sure what I’m looking at. The picture is taken at a slight angle, so it captures not only the wall but also the length of the narrow front hallway. A corner of the dining room is visible at the very end of the hall, and most of this corner is taken up by the lower half of Norma’s farmhouse table. There’s an object sitting at the edge of the table—a pixelated, shadowy thing.
I bring the phone’s screen closer and closer to my face. It’s just about touching my nose when I realize that I’m looking at the coffee cup sitting right where I left it twenty minutes ago.
• • • •
I close Grindr and stand very still. My heart’s bolting against my chest like a hunted rabbit and all I can think is that if I stand very still whoever is in this house won’t hear me, won’t know where I am. This thought is so stupid it hurts—I have, after all, spent the morning slamming every door I could find—but I can’t even think about moving right now. The clock ticking on the mantle across the room is so fucking loud. I want to tell it to shut up, to just shut up for one minute because it’s covering the creaking sounds of the intruder crawling across the floorboards, the shuddering of the camera lens as it captures things I can’t see until they’re shown to me.
I allow myself a breath. It’s unbearably loud, sucking all that air in, but I need to think this through. When I was a child, I used to keep a jewelry collection. Specifically, a collection of my mother’s jewelry. I would sneak into her room while she napped and pilfer one earring from her nightstand. She would think she’d lost an earring, so she’d toss its now-worthless mate. After rifling through the trash, I would end up with both earrings and my mother was none the wiser. It was a perfect system, right up until Barty and Violet found my stash. My beloved siblings didn’t go to our mother with the evidence of my crimes; that wouldn’t have been cruel enough. Instead, over the course of the next four years, they slowly re-gifted all of the earrings back to my mother. Every Christmas, every birthday, every Mother’s Day, I watched as my months of meticulously-planned larceny were slowly undone, and my siblings were praised for their discerning taste.
Our dear mother—so wealthy, so oblivious—never caught the grift.
I’ve had enough of Barty and Violet. We are not children anymore, and I won’t play their goddamned games. I pull the Cossack hat tight around my ears and take a step forward. The squeak of my boot is a small rebellion.
First things first: I delete Grindr. After thirty-six hours my phone’s battery is nearly gone, and it’s not like I’m going to get any useful information out of hungdaddy.
I stride back through the dining room—telling myself with every boot-squeak that I’m in control here, that I’m choosing to let them know I’m not afraid—and I come to the front hall. This room connects all three floors and so, when I speak, I know that whoever is inside can hear me:
“I think we both know what’s going on here,” I call, hating how my voice cracks halfway through the sentence. “So come on out, and we can talk about this like adults.”
Now, of course, the house goes entirely quiet. I can’t even hear the clock in the living room anymore, and this makes me wonder about all of the other hidden noises I’m missing. Maybe hungdaddy is pacing the length of the attic, but it’s too far away for me to hear the weight of his footfalls. Maybe he’s hiding behind the brocade curtains in the drawing room, giggling to himself as he drafts another message. Or maybe he’s—
My gaze snaps over to that horrible, taupe door under the stairs. There it is, as advertised. Even before I’ve stepped across the room, I see where the door’s hinges disrupt the clean lines of the moldings; I see how the grain of the wood breaks from the wall’s smooth plaster.
“What are you gonna do when I open this?”
I run my finger across the door’s face, over the place where a handle should be. I don’t know it for a fact until I say it out loud, but there it is, for everyone to know—I am going to open this door.
“You gonna lock me in and steal Norma’s shit for yourself? What’s the plan, friend? What do you want with me?”
A wind swells outside, kicking up pinpricks of ice that rasp against the windows. The house settles back to silence.
Now that I know I want to open this door, there’s no turning back. The question is: how do I open it without playing into hungdaddy’s chicanery?
Last night, when I went to the woodshed for kindling, I saw a mallet on the workbench out there. I jog through the pantry, brace myself against the bite of winter that greets me in the uninsulated shed, and carry that mallet back inside. Its wooden shaft is so fucking cold in my hands, but it’s a good kind of cold—a frigid, heavy reminder that I am in control of what I do next.
I smack the butt of the mallet against the upper right-hand corner and the door judders in its frame. It opens more easily than it should, coming just far enough out from the wall that I can press my numb fingertips against its width and prize it open. The hinges squeal with disuse and I hate them for it. All of that unnecessary sound.
The space beneath the stairs is a closet. I almost laugh at the sheer mundanity of it—the line of hats and coats hanging from hooks; a collection of furs draped across the back wall, including a mink stole with little weasely feet and black marbles for eyes.
I turn my phone’s flashlight into the dusty interior before I step over the threshold. It’s a tiny closet, barely enough room to stand up in. I rifle through Aunt Norma’s old coats, slipping my hands into their pockets. Everything smells, powerfully, of mothballs.
I don’t know what hungdaddy expected I would find in here, but it’s all pretty disappointing as far as secret rooms go. The coats are threadbare, their pockets empty; even the mink stole is too washed-out and mangy to be worth anything.
The phone vibrates in my hand and the movement is so unwelcome that it goes clattering to the ground. Even though it’s frigid in here, my palms are sweaty. As I bend down and grope for my traitorous phone, bits of grainy refuse stick to my hands.
I’m still crouched in the darkness when the screen lights up, right in front of me, and I see the push notification. My chest tightens.
I know—I know—I deleted that app not half an hour ago.
“This isn’t funny anymore,” I say through the open door to the empty hall. I consider, for a moment, tacking “Barty” or “Violet” onto the end of that sentence. I don’t, though, because neither of them is in this house with me. I would feel a lot better if they were.
I open the app that shouldn’t be there.
It occurs to me, as I sit on the mouldering floorboards and stare out into the hall, that I don’t have to look up. I can get up, right now, and walk out the front door. My car is still out there. The battery probably died during the night, but that’s not what’s keeping me here. I can walk if I have to. I’ve hitchhiked before. The only reasonable thing to do is to get off of this property and go south, back to a place where I understand how the world works.
But I don’t. Here’s the thing I haven’t told you, but maybe you’ve known it all along: there’s a want inside me I don’t understand. Why does a child steal something as useless as an earring? I used to think it was for the thrill of theft itself, and for the pleasure of possessing something beautiful. But maybe I craved what would have come if my siblings hadn’t interfered; maybe I wanted the retribution I would have faced when my mother learned that I had breached the trust between us. I don’t know. I can’t name that hunger; I only know that I turn my flashlight back on and shine it into the gloom over my head.
There’s a latch built into the ceiling. An iron ring just big enough that I can slide two fingers through it and pull. At first it resists me, sealed into place by untold years of neglect, but I’m no longer interested in playing nice with the house. I’m in an act-now-regret-later sort of mood, so I just haul against the ring with everything I have, one foot braced against Norma’s coats, pinning the dead weasel to the wall. The hatch in the ceiling comes unstuck and the musk of trapped air that gusts into my face is overwhelming.
I stare, for a long second, at the passage now opened above me. I am in a secret closet. The staircase is directly overhead. This passageway, and wherever it leads, cannot be here.
An unexpected emotion twists in my chest—if I didn’t know myself any better, I might say it was yearning. I’ve spent the past day and a half in this empty house, sleeping in Norma’s old quilts, drinking whiskey out of cups last touched by her lips, and this is now the closest I’ve felt to her. This impossible place could have only belonged to my aunt, and, of everyone in the family, it could only have been shared with me. I stand on my tiptoes and peer into the hole.
The passage is built into the slope of the ceiling, so I can turn my phone’s flashlight down its long throat. As it turns out, though, I don’t need to. There’s already a light at the far end. It’s not daylight. It’s the yellowed glow of an incandescent bulb.
It seems that I am expected.
• • • •
I pocket my phone and shimmy myself upward. Once I’m inside, flat on my stomach, I find that the passage isn’t all that long. That dim, steady glow is coming from a room some ten feet ahead; from this angle, I can make out its oaken floorboards.
I start the crawl forward, my breaths coming shallow and quick. The hole absolutely reeks of mildew, so I turn my face into the coat’s fur collar, huffing in the stale scent of Norma’s interred wardrobe. The light in the room beyond doesn’t seem to reach into the passage, but I don’t need to see where I am to know where I’m going. I try not to focus on the bits of mold and fiberglass amassing under my fingernails; I’m so close to the impossible room, now; so close to what Norma has kept hidden from the vultures.
I shove myself out of the passage, twisting to get free of its narrow, grimy embrace, and push into the room beyond. As I catch my breath—clear my lungs of that fetid stench—I lay on my back and take stock. The room appears to be an attic, even though I know I’m nowhere near the roof. The walls, lined with exposed beams, slant toward one another as they might under one of the house’s gables. From what I can see, the room has no windows; only bare bulbs strung between the beams, casting a dim, unwavering light.
I’ve been here before. This thought possesses me even though I know it can’t be true. The passage to this room hasn’t been opened in years—decades, probably—so why does it feel so familiar?
As I start to roll myself onto my stomach, following the lines of the beams from the ceiling down the floor, it comes to me. It’s not that I’ve been here before. It’s that I’ve seen this room before. In fact, I’ve seen it from this very angle. I hadn’t really paid attention to that second pic hungdaddy had sent, mostly because the man’s glorious dick was out of focus. But the wall behind him was in focus, and it’s that wall opposite me now, framed by the two beams joined at the ceiling. I’m in the place where the photos were taken.
The phone buzzes, but this time I already have it in hand. I knew he would message me right at this moment. I may not understand what he is, or what he wants, but I’m starting to know the way he thinks, and this excites me more than I could have anticipated.
hungdaddy has sent two messages, and the app informs me that one of them is a photo.
The message comes first:
>you must pass through the opening
The picture that follows doesn’t immediately clarify things. The photographer has foregrounded half of hungdaddy’s face and, even though it’s blurry, I can’t help but study him. He’s bald with a full, coarse beard, the kind of beard that leaves marks after it has made use of the softest parts of your body. He’s staring directly into the camera, and I read him so clearly. He looks into the lens with a want so naked, so forceful, it might be mistaken for rage. But it’s not anger, not exactly. I know how that intensity will translate through his touch; I know what his fingers will feel like around my throat; I know how his grip will tighten when he presses his girth through me and how my mouth will open not with the need to breathe, but with the need to taste the sweat raining from his face.
I’ve gotten so hard I can feel my pulse in my dick. I want to unbutton my pants and jerk off right here, in the cold, damp musk of this room as he watches me, but hungdaddy resends the message.
>you must pass through the opening
A small, useless whimper wells in my throat, the sound a dog makes when denied attention. I know what he wants me to do next, but I don’t want to do it. I don’t want to look at the rest of the picture.
I force myself to break his gaze, to study the part of the photo that’s in focus. It’s the wall again. The resolution isn’t great, but even so I can see the line running across its surface, top to bottom. It’s unbroken and jagged, pencil-thin.
I look across the room. The deeper I go into this house, the more twisted its interiors become. Even though I’m not on the second floor, I’m looking at the roof’s gables; and even though I’m nowhere near the kitchen’s infamous, load-bearing wall, I’m looking at The Crack.
How can I possib—
I start this thought, but can’t finish it. My fingers are so cold and the pressure of my erection against my jeans is a needy, unbearable thing. I delete the words and start again, but hungdaddy replies before I can hit send. He shows me what I already know:
>you will do what you have to do, pig.
I still don’t know what he wants from me, but I don’t have to. It is enough to feel the heft of his desire make a place for itself inside me.
I start to crawl.
At first, The Crack is so distant. Barely visible, a hairline shadow bisecting the wall. I put one hand forward, and feel the room shift. No, not the room—something has changed within me. It’s like hungdaddy has sewn balloons into all those minute spaces between my joints and when I move forward he purses his lips, sucks a breath into that hairy drum of his chest, and blows. This description isn’t right because it sounds like I’m experiencing something painful. But this isn’t pain the way you know it. The change is slow.
The room fisheyes as I move forward, the beams in the periphery of my vision bending into convexity. The far wall only grows nearer and nearer; it approaches even in those times when I am not moving my body. I do, at one point, hang my head to see if I am moving myself. I couldn’t quite see my legs—they were so far away, still at the far end of the room—but I did see a dark stain on my crotch. I must have come.
When I reach The Crack, in the future, I see that it has changed. I was wrong this whole time, wrong about so many things. Auntie was telling the truth. This is like looking into the Panama Canal, like standing at the edge of some bottomless fissure splitting the earth. I am nothing in its presence, I am dwindling into meaninglessness.
As I stretch through the opening, I am so wracked with sensation that it is almost impossible to separate one feeling, one thought, from the rest of the flood. But, in that instant before I am gone, I realize what the house has given me: the force of desire has razed all uncertainty from inside me. It leaves an emptiness, a newness, that never stops growing. I couldn’t stop it even if I wanted to, even if I could want anything at all.
• • • •
Betsy Mortimer-Scott pulls up to the house at half past four.
In her twenty-three years in real estate, Betsy has closed more sales than she can rightly recall. She’s sold split-levels to newlyweds, tracts of land to wolf-eyed developers, and oceanfront monstrosities to the unimaginably wealthy. In all this time, Betsy has never, not once, told a prospective buyer that a house has “good bones.” It is a morbid metaphor. The buyer should never think of the house as a living thing, waiting to be resuscitated by fresh drywall and a gallon of paint. No—a property is a starched canvas, a blank page. The right language is important in making the sale.
Betsy reminds herself of this as she steps out of the car, planting her booted feet in the undisturbed layer of snow. If there has ever been a half-living house, a house with bones awaiting reanimation, it is this one. The old Colonial sulks at the forest’s edge, its siding the same color as the trees that surround it, its windows so lightless she can’t properly tell if the glass is still there.
Betsy slings her purse over her shoulder and locks the car doors. As she walks toward the front porch, she corrects herself—she’ll never sell this place if she lets such thoughts color her perspective. For the right buyer, this house will be charming. A storied New England gothic. Better yet: a secluded woodland fantasy. Woodstoves crackling through the winter. Mulled cider simmering in the kitchen, holly wreaths on every door. Betsy takes the porch stairs two at a time. The right framing is starting to come together. Somewhere in Boston, there’s a middle-aged couple dying to move to the country and this place practically has their name stenciled on the mailbox.
Betsy pauses when she comes to the front door. It is open. Not wide open, but ajar. This is not unusual, given the circumstances: the last person to come here was probably a lawyer’s lackey, someone too preoccupied to double check that they’d locked it behind themselves. Betsy has had only fleeting contact with the family, but even from those brief interactions she knows that they’re not the type to personally attend to the old woman’s belongings. They had no real connection to her, no genuine interest in anything other than the will.
“Hello?” Betsy calls as she pulls the door open. “Is there anyone here?”
A spray of snow has swept inside. The house is so cold that the ice sticks to the welcome mat and the hardwood floor. Betsy brushes this away with her boots as she enters; the last thing an old house needs is excess moisture on the floorboards.
As Besty turns to close the door, she sees the lace curtains in the drawing room billow, touched by wind. The windows, she finds, are all open. Not just those in the drawing room, but the windows in the dining room and the kitchen and the living room. She could have sworn that the owner had painted these shut years ago, but she must be confusing this with another property.
“Hello?” Betsy repeats after she has closed all the windows and returned to the front hall. She doesn’t know why she asks a second time. This house is empty. There is no one here and it feels, in this moment, like no one has ever been here. All those screenless windows and open doors. All those bannisters rimed with ice. This, perhaps, is what concerns her most about convincing someone to buy the place. It’s this feeling that if she keeps standing in this hallway, she will become part of the house’s vast absence.
Betsy hikes her purse up higher on her shoulder. Enough of this. She decides she will come back later in the week. The contractor is free on Thursday, and she could use his help in drying all the floors and getting the furnace working again. No point in working alone if she doesn’t have to.
On her way out, Betsy closes the closet door under the stairs. She remembers to lock the front door as she goes.
“You do have good bones,” she says out loud. It’s silly to talk to a house, but there’s reassurance in the weight of her own voice, in remembering that she is here and that there’s work ahead. “I’ll find a family to love you,” she adds, “the way you ought to be loved.”
Betsy Mortimer-Scott cranks the heat up in her car and wastes no time getting back on the road into town. The sun sets early this far north. As she drives, the bare trees lining the road cast shadows that reach across the pavement, a tunnel of interlocking fingers.
The sun falls away. Betsy flicks her headlights on. Every shadow is erased.