“Our houses are such unwieldy property that we are often imprisoned rather than housed in them.”
“People make one happy, not houses? I do not think so. Houses are more to be trusted than people.”
— Elizabeth Aston
Kay wakes from a naive sleep, filled with technicolor rainbows and poppy fields and cinnamon swirls. With her lids shut tight, her mind’s eye desperately grasping the vestiges of that innocent dream world, she rolls over and reaches for the strong arm of her husband. Decorated by a silver bracelet from which a dozen charms dangle, her hand finds only air, then the sheet, then the pillow.
Faced with such an unexpected and unpleasant reality, Kay reluctantly pries open her eyelids. Her hand has not deceived her. She sits up.
Her unlined brow furrows, putting on a show of confusion with one particularly deep crease starring as frustration. The cast is quickly booted off the stage in favor of a chorus of crinkling around her eyes, the audience of her mind favoring amusement instead.
Maybe John’s bringing me breakfast in bed!, she thinks. Butterfly wings beat her stomach. She lies back down, feigning sleep lest she ruin her own surprise. The minutes pass. They choose captains and pick teams. They engage in a rousing game of kickball. They take their balls and go home. And still Kay waits.
Giddy anticipation fades to a light slumber. Finally, her stomach, having run out of patience before her brain, announces its complaint with an annoyed grumble. It cues the original cast, and the deep crease takes center stage on her forehead for its encore performance. She sits up again. Her eyes catch the absence of light emanating from her alarm clock. She stands, berating the clock with her stare. Her eyes catch another anomaly. A black plug sits idly on the wooden floor, daydreaming of an electrifying union long since past. Kay picks it up. The plug hopes for, longs for, aches for its rendezvous with the socket. Always the hopeless romantic, Kay gently inserts the prongs into the only place they’ve ever felt truly alive.
But the spark is gone. The clock remains stubbornly unmoved by the plug’s overtures. Still crouched, eyes fixed on the failed relationship in front of her, Kay calls out.
The house answers, but, having no vocal cords, goes unheard. Kay, always a pillar of modesty if no longer one of chastity, rises and pulls on the pastel pink terry cloth robe she’d discarded onto the chair beside the closet before sliding into bed last night.
“Johnny!” she calls again, the deep line on her forehead now making a cameo appearance in the tone of her voice.
The house tries again to tell her. She only hears the creak of the boards under her feet. She does not understand their language.
She plods down the stairs, her bare feet slapping against the wood.
“Johnny?” she calls again. The vertical blinds sway, shaking their heads sadly.
Kay wanders into the kitchen, the lines around her mouth spidering into a show of perplexion. Her eyes grasp a stark white rectangle where only a deep cherry should be. She retrieves the paper from the dining room table . Embers of teenager-in-love passion burn deep into her skin, and, despite being well out of her teens, she swoons at the sight of John’s handwriting.
She starts with dessert, savoring his signature and its preface proclaiming “all my love.” The paper scratches against her skin, scoffing at the words. Kay ignores it. She instead digs into the decadent appetizer: “My dearest Kay.”
The industrial gray light fixture above her head sighs. Sleek and masculine, hanging from exposed rafters, it was the only bit of decorating John had been allowed. The light fixture was ashamed of its heritage.
By the time Kay finishes the introduction and the finale, she is nearly too full to consider the main course itself. Out of politeness, she nibbles at John’s explanation that he’d been called away while the stars still twinkled in the sky.
Kay does not think much of it. She never had. He’s a doctor, and these nighttime excursions are to be expected. At least that’s what television and movies and John himself had always told her, and she had no reason to doubt those gods.
The spring back in her step, she springs back up to their bedroom. She has grand plans for her day, and she wants to look good whilst accomplishing them. And, more importantly, she wants to seduce her husband when he returns home. The electricity can wait. She has other circuits to ignite.
As the water rushes to the shower from the depths, it makes an inquiry to the pipes. The pipes hiss a bitter reply. The water resolves to make Kay feel beautiful even if–and perhaps because–her husband so often fails to do so.
As the water rushes over her, conspiring with the soap, Kay admires her own glistening skin.
“There’s no way he’ll be able to resist me tonight,” she says aloud. The tiled wall hears the rest of her thought, though she does not voice it: “… again.”
While Kay half-reminisces and half-fantasizes about tender caresses from her husband, the components of the house they share hold court. Collectively, the house decides it can take no more. A plan had been set in motion by the circuit breaker. The house would see it through to its end.
Back in her robe and still damp from the shower, Kay begins laying out her clothes. A casual but flattering green dress, with buttons undone only enough to hint at indecency–and then only from the right angle–would be her bait. It had worked before.
She removes it from the hanger as gently as she imagines John removing her bra tonight. A smile plays on her lips, and a mischievous twinkle glints in her matching green eyes. She continues her fantasy, laying the green dress on the bed in the manner she hopes to be once the green dress has served its purpose.
Next, she considers her lingerie. She browses the catalog in her mind and settles on her favorite–and the one that had proven to be John’s in the past. She imagines her friends at church discovering she owns something so blatantly sexual and petitioning on the spot for her excommunication. A giggle escapes her, and she is not sorry for it.
She moves to the dresser she shares with John. The top two drawers are dedicated to her unmentionables; the bottom two house John’s, and the drawers are embarrassed by just how unmentionable they are.
Kay tugs on the brass handle of the second drawer. It does not open. She and the drawer engage in an epic battle of tug and war for a full three minutes before she falls to the floor in defeat and the drawer, in its glorious moment of victory, remains shut.
“It must be jammed,” she says aloud. If that’s what you choose to believe…, the drawer thinks smugly.
She sighs and moves to John’s first drawer. It offers its own challenge.
“You, too?” she asks, incredulous. Its staunch resistance against her second tug confirms its stance on the issue.
Desperate, she moves to the bottom drawer. Always a dreamer, the drawer imagines Kay as a young King Arthur, and it styles itself as a bejeweled, destiny-laced sword. Accordingly, it slides out at her touch.
“At least someone’s on my side,” Kay notes. The exasperated tone in her voice does not go unnoticed by the drawers, who sit indignantly in their grooves.
She pulls out John’s bottom drawer ’til it teeters dangerously on its precipice. She feels at the bottom of the drawer on top, unintentionally shuffling John’s boxers around, disturbing evidence never meant to be uncovered.
The dresser shudders as Kay’s charm bracelet catches on a piece of lace. The dresser remembers watching John as he debated keeping the artifact now clinging to Kay’s wrist.
“What could it hurt?” he’d whispered. “She’ll never find them, and, if she does, I can play it off as a gift for her or something.”
The dresser remembers his wicked smile as he believed his own justification. It had watched as he’d tucked the black lace thong into the least-worn pair of boxers he owned. The dresser had cringed as John had made it an accomplice by shoving the boxers into the back corner of the bottom drawer and covering them with several other pairs. In the dresser’s mind, the memory evokes the notion of a dog covering its shit with dirt.
The dresser feels sick with pity as Kay’s arm emerges from its belly, wearing another woman’s underwear as a new charm on her bracelet.
At first, a glimpse of amusement plays the lines around her eyes before they snap in shock at the realization that this lace garment is not hers. She picks it off delicately, holding as little of the offensive lace as possible between her thumb and forefinger.
Her own blood applies a rouge to her cheeks, and her brain feels like a head of cabbage on St. Patrick’s Day. Her breath becomes deliberate as her autonomic reflexes cease to function properly. She tosses the underwear onto the regretful dresser and runs out of the bedroom.
She is suddenly overcome with a primal, urgent need for fresh air. The house, however good its intentions, is stifling her. She arrives at the back door.
“There’s more you need to see,” it tells her.
She grunts in frustration at the door’s refusal to cooperate.
“Please!” she yells. The door stands its ground.
She runs again, feet battering the floor, this time down the path to the front door. She does not realize it is in cahoots with the back door.
Desperate, drawing rickety breaths, she runs into John’s office to the window overlooking the garden. She rips open the shades, nearly pulling them off the rods, much to their chagrin.
“Don’t shoot the messenger!” they insist.
At the sight of the boards haphazardly nailed across the window, the thong is momentarily forgotten. Kay’s stomach turns over in her abdominal cavity. The rouge retreats in favor of a seasick olive green. She fingers the lock on the window clumsily.
Against he protests of the pane, the lock replies, “What can it hurt?” It unlatches at Kay’s touch.
“Hope deferred makes the heart sick,” the pane replies.
“This is no time to get Biblical,” the lock snorts.
The pane shudders in agreement as Kay tries to force open the frame holding it. “You’re right. That time was long ago.”
Kay grabs the phone on John’s desk and punches John’s number into its face. Her ear is greeted with silence. She drops the phone to the floor. Being dead, it doesn’t mind much.
Kay stumbles back from the boarded window, suddenly afraid it might attack her. Despite the boards’ pleas that they’re only trying to help, she flees from them.
Her journey takes her to every window in the house. Each one proves complicit in the plot. Each drapery steps aside, every blind rolls up, each painted eyelid lifts to reveal a wooden eye staring back at her.
By the time she reaches the last window, Kay is no longer running. She is resigned to her role, though she is uncertain as to what it might be. She begins to believe she might be dreaming. Yes, she must be dreaming. That explains everything, she thinks. John is surely sleeping beside her, his arm draped over her abdomen. The sun must still be sleeping, and her house is once again a gentle cocoon and not a fortress in which she is the proverbial trapped princess. Most important, there is no incriminating lace thong in her husband’s underwear drawer.
“I should get dressed,” she says, no longer caring to keep her thoughts inside her mind. “Who knows how long this dream will last?”
She returns to the scene of the crime. The thong remains, taunting her, but the dresser is on her side once again, it seems. She opens her drawer and pulls out a satin bra and underwear. Their shiny, pale blue looks positively Puritan compared to the lace phantasm on her dresser. She no longer fears excommunication. Determined to ignore it, she turns away from the underwear and walks to the bathroom. The house sighs sadly, but it is unsurprised.
The terry cloth robe once again discarded on the chair, Kay now stands in front of the mirror in what she’d once viewed as her most powerful tool of seduction: her birthday suit. Where once her eyes took her on a greatest hits tour, they now push her through a haunted house.
An old scar turns into a mad scientist flinging colored noodles disguised as brains. A wrinkle, barely visible, becomes moving eyes in a classical painting. The extra insulation on her thighs turns into a chainsaw-wielding psychopath bent on tearing her apart.
She makes it out of the haunted house alive, but not unscathed. Tears wet her cheeks as she pulls on the satin underwear. The mirror tries to tell her she’s beautiful, but it is clumsy, and its compliments only serve to point out the contrast to what Kay has just seen with her own eyes.
Kay pulls on the green dress. She forgoes shoes. She grabs the thong from the dresser, no longer bothering to touch as little of it as possible. The house begins to fear its plan may have unintended consequences.
As she passes by the boarded widows, shafts of light stream through the cracks, trying to impart hope. Kay is unfazed by them.
She sits in the executive leather chair in John’s office. She drops the lace underwear onto the desk blotter calendar. They engage in a staring contest.
“This isn’t my fault,” the underwear tells her.
“It’s not my fault,” Kay retorts.
Kay rests her head on her crossed arms, and her crossed arms rest on John’s desk. Her bracelet begins excavating her forehead. It finds nothing, but its ditches remain when Kay lifts her head from the desk some time later. Anger casts rarely-seen shadows on her face.
“I want to wake up!” she screams. She doesn’t listen to the house, who gently tries to inform her that she is, indeed, already awake. Instead, she pounds her fist on the desk.
The drawer to her right rattles a whisper in her direction. It is open only a centimeter, but the invitation is definitive and obvious. Kay pulls it open, and, ignoring any sense of foreplay, she thrusts her hand straight to the back and fumbles for she knows not what. Tired of her groping and just wanting to get back to sleep, the drawer offers up a crumpled piece of paper. A bitter smile forges new paths on Kay’s face. She takes the ball of dead tree with her as she exits the office.
At the dining room table, Kay flattens the paper and lays it beside the note left for her. She looks up at the exposed rafters she once thought beautiful and rustic. They now strike her as painfully practical.
Her eyes travel down to the two sheets of paper. Long-lost cousins? No, twins separated at birth, perhaps. One clean, unblemished and pure; the other roughly-handled, smudged and used. This time, she starts at the beginning.
“My dearest Kay,” one reads. “My dearest Jane,” declares the other.
She skips to the end. They are signed with the same lie.
The body no longer matters to her, but she offers each a glance. One is an excuse for being gone; the other is an excuse for being unable to leave. Kay’s eyes once again travel upward.
“I’ve got to wake up,” she whispers. The house reads her thoughts and weeps for her.
Hours later, John cheerfully walks up the path to the front door wearing traces of lipstick and perfume–among other things–that only a forensic scientist could detect. He is always careful. The house knows this, too. It has seen him plan, seen him carry out, and occasionally been forced to drive the getaway car in his crimes. But no longer.
John opens the door. It whines a smarmy hello. He steps inside. The floor boards creak their I-told-you-so’s. He notices that all the window shades are drawn and that light is streaming into the house. He thinks it strange but pushes it out of his mind in favor of more pleasurable thoughts. The air conditioner kicks on, scolding him. He turns the corner into the dining room.
The rope is pleased to be in service once again, having long sat in the cellar unused. John’s eyes slide from the rafter down the length of the rope to the makeshift necklace under his wife’s chin. His eyes dart to the two letters below her bare feet. She sways gently above them in a morbid but strangely enchanting dance. John declines to join her and instead falls to his knees. The house stands still, but John’s world spins. The house screams at him, accuses him, blames him, sentences him. But he hears nothing except his own agony as it escapes from his lungs, travels up his windpipe, and sweeps over his vocal cords, finally entering the world as a pinched, vibrato-filled wail.
© 2008 Elizabeth Ditty