Rated PG-13, for the weird ways of houses.
Every House, a Home
By Evan Dicken
“I guess nobody wants haunted houses, anymore.” Derek checked his reflection in one of the Cape Cod’s filmy windows, teasing his hair back to mussy perfection. He glanced back at me. “That was a joke, Natalie.”
I gave him my best approximation of a smile.
He blew out a long puff of air. “Never mind.”
The house wasn’t haunted, which was a shame. A ghost or two would be just the thing to calm it down. The Cape Cod was faceless, without history or meaning. Sandwiched awkwardly on a scrubby half-parcel between two mid-century colonials, it felt out of place and forgotten. A decade ago, the lot had probably been wild, but some developer had come along and crammed a factory home where it had no place being. I even recognized the model: Sea Breeze. There were maybe a hundred in Columbus — same light-blue vinyl siding, same asphalt shingles, same fake shutters, same concrete porch with the same three white-painted pillars. It shouldn’t have had a feel, let alone a personality.
“I just don’t get it.” Derek brushed by me to tug the “Open House, Sunday, 1–4 p.m., PRICE REDUCED” sign from the freshly replanted lawn. “Two bed, two bath, decent schools — a good starter house. It’s these millennials, they’re all about apartments and lofts nowadays.”
“That isn’t it.” I kept my response short, clipped, careful not to get lost in exposition. Instead of relating an article I’d recently read about how millennial housing choices were related to finance rather than preference, I knelt on the lawn, squinting at the row of boxwood bushes in the front bed. Derek’s landscaper had just put them in, along with a layer of red mulch and a couple perennials for accents. Not a bad job, but I could already see the resentment building — leaves beginning to brown, shoots of crabgrass and shepherd’s purse poking through the beds.
Derek came back up the walk to join me. I noticed he kept a good ten feet between us, like he was afraid I might lunge at him. It was hurtful, especially since I’d been working with him for years, but I knew better than to say anything. People think because I have trouble reading emotions that I don’t have any of my own.
I’d never been comfortable around others, or them around me — too many expectations. Every word was a potential pitfall, every exchange fraught. I never knew what would set someone off. Places though, they didn’t expect anything from you except to be.
“Well?” Derek asked after maybe a minute.
“Aren’t you going to . . . ?” He twiddled his fingers at the front door. “ . . .feng shui or whatever.”
Another terrible joke. Another terrible smile. “I’m Korean, not Chinese. And you know that’s not what I do.”
He winced. “At least have a talk with it and figure out — ”
“Can’t talk to houses.”
“Then talk to me.” Derek’s expression might have been sad or angry; I never could tell the difference. “It’s what I’m paying you for.”
“It’s a starter house.” I stood to run my hand along one of the pillars, glossy paint cool and smooth beneath my fingertips. I could feel twenty, maybe thirty years of young families passing through, building equity.
“Two years on the market. Two.” Derek waved a hand at the property. “And three months since the last showing. New lawn, new roof, new kitchen. I’m dying here, Nat.”
“If only.” I pressed my forehead to the front door.
“Nothing.” I stepped inside. The house felt hollow — art prints, fake flowers, couches, chairs, accent rugs not quite hiding the fact the house didn’t need anyone, didn’t want anyone.
“Christ, will you look at that?” Derek pushed by me to scowl at a pile of shattered dishes. All the cupboards were open, their contents spilled onto the kitchen floor. “Goddamn poltergeist. That’s what it is.”
“No such thing.” I flicked the light switch. A dozen recessed bulbs flickered briefly to life only to die with a series of faint pops.
“I just replaced those.” Derek pressed a hand to his forehead. “And before you ask, it’s not the wiring. Hemi was in here all last week. She checked every connection, every lead, every . . . ”
He kept talking, but I wasn’t listening. I’d learned long ago it was unproductive to tell people like Derek to shut up, even when they were obviously babbling, so I just wandered upstairs.
There was nothing. A bathroom, a small closet, a little pull-down ladder leading up to the crawlspace, two bedrooms with canted ceilings, empty of not just furniture but of memories. The house had no bones, no reason to be anything more than a pile of lumber. And yet, I could feel its bitterness in the way the flooring didn’t creak under my feet, the carpet that felt rough rather than inviting, the spreading water stain on the right front wall of the master bedroom.
Usually, cleaning a house was relatively simple — replacing the floor in the room where a child had lost their innocence, a wall punched and patched by an abusive husband, a set of new cabinets instead of the ones that held the vodka that turned mom nasty, a fresh coat of paint on the wall that once held wedding photos of the divorced couple. Bad memories could settle anywhere. Even a few strong ones were enough to sour a home.
And yet somehow, despite barely the lightest dusting of history, this house hated.
Derek was down in the foyer, trying to kick some loose molding back into place.
“I need to stay.” I stepped onto the upstairs balcony.
“In the house.” I went down, careful not to touch the railing I was sure would give way under the slightest pressure. “I need to stay here.”
He made a sad-angry face. “I’m not insured for residents.”
There was no point in replying. So I didn’t.
“Goddamnit,” he said as the molding came loose again. “How long?”
“You can fix this?”
“Is it going to cost me extra?”
“You’re the expert, I suppose,” he said in a way that made me think he meant just the opposite. “Keys are on the kitchen counter. Any longer than a month, and I’m going to start charging rent.”
“No, you won’t.”
Shaking his head, he left. Just like the house, and I, wanted him to.
It takes time for a space to become a place. I’d never quite pinned down at what point during the gradual accretion of events and memories houses became more than the sum of their parts, but I’d put down enough supposed hauntings to have developed a feel for when a place had turned. And the Cape Cod had turned.
Something had happened here; I just needed to find out what.
A pair of deer stared at me from the backyard as I made my breakfast of tea and instant oatmeal. There were no tables in the house, so I went out on the back porch to eat. The deer should’ve run, frightened by the bang of the screen door as it slammed shut behind me, but they only stared, chewing acorns from the big pin oak and watching me in a way that seemed vaguely threatening. Neither had horns, but I didn’t know enough to tell if they were does, fawns, or whatever male deer are called — I couldn’t remember.
There were no pets buried in the yard, no dark secrets hidden in the tiny patch of lawn backed by a wooded ravine. The morning light made stained glass of leaves just beginning to turn, forest smells threaded with hints of frying bacon, toast, eggs from the houses to either side. Somewhere, beyond the woods or maybe in it, a child’s shriek dissolved into laughter.
It was quite pretty, actually.
I’d gotten about two bites of my oatmeal when the deer charged. One second they were flicking their ears, quiet as could be, the next they were bearing down on the porch, heads lowered and hoofs churning the new sod. If I’d run, I probably could’ve made it back to the house, but I just sat there, spoon in hand, staring open-mouthed as they leapt onto the porch.
The bigger one knocked me from my chair and probably would’ve given me a good stomping if I hadn’t managed to roll under the little pressboard table. Hoofs hammered on the table, little flecks of glue-covered wood raining down on me as the top bent and cracked.
I screamed, they screamed. Not that I was afraid — it was more a reaction. The whole thing was too surreal, too sudden for real fear.
One of the deer stamped down close enough to my hand that I could feel the porch flex beneath me. I flinched back as a foreleg broke through the top of the table, the deer’s shrieks turning from furious to terrified as it flailed around. I leaned back to brace my feet against the table legs, then kicked out. Deer and table tipped over the edge. There was a hollow thump as they hit the grass a few feet below, then a wild cracking tearing as the deer fought to kick free.
I scrambled back, expecting the other one to kick at me, but it just stood, watching as I fumbled at the glass sliding door — which was locked, of course. I pulled myself up and turned slowly, hands clenched in tight fists at my sides.
The deer were back in the yard, a ruined table and a smear of bright blood on one of the deer’s front legs the only indication of the attack. They stood silently, muscles trembling as I edged along the porch. Their eyes were strange, like glass gone all filmy and finger-smudged. Just before I slipped around the side of the house, one dipped its head as if to acknowledge our shared confusion; then they turned and leapt back into the trees, crackling down into the ravine to disappear from view.
Bucks. It came to me — male deer are called bucks.
My stomach felt light, my arms and legs loose and shaky like I’d just stepped off a roller coaster. I made my way around front to retrieve the extra key from the fake rock by the front porch. The twin window panes in the front door made me think of the deer’s eyes, the wood frames positively vibrating with tense energy, but whether it was the coiled wariness of a predator or the nervous regard of prey I couldn’t tell. It was like looking into someone’s face, strange constellations of emotion as foreign as the Hangul Mom had taught me as a child.
It was unsettling that I couldn’t read this place, frustrating that it was as closed to me as everyone else, sharing in that secret language of expression and context I never could seem to parse.
“What are you doing, Nat?”
I turned, startled, to see Derek just at the edge of the porch, grinning, although I wasn’t sure why. Dully, I realized I’d been standing there for quite some time, the key held so tight it left a red imprint on the flesh of my fingers when I relaxed.
“Are you okay?” he asked, but didn’t come up onto the porch.
“I’m going downtown to do some research.” I brushed by, tossing him the key. “The table out back is broken.”
“What the hell? You’re supposed to be — ”
I slipped into my car and shut the door, cutting off the last of Derek’s words. He motioned for me to roll down my window, smile becoming strange as I backed out onto the street and drove away. It didn’t matter what else Derek had to say.
We both knew what I was supposed to be doing.
My apartment was on the north side, twenty minutes out of my way along I-270, but worth it for a shower and a change of clothes in a place that didn’t want me gone, didn’t want anything, as a matter-of-fact. I hadn’t put much effort into decoration, purposely so — my apartment’s blankness was the mental equivalent of white noise.
The space had come fully furnished, to which I’d added a few small touches — one of Mom’s watercolor landscapes above the TV, an IKEA bookshelf for my photo albums, and a ratty futon left over from my college apartment. Other tenants painted their walls and doors, but white primer suited me just fine.
Sometimes it was nice not to be anywhere.
A long shower left me feeling, if not exactly calm, then clean, at least. I tossed some clothes into my suitcase, and, on a whim, Mom’s watercolor and a couple albums from the shelf. If I was planning on living in the Cape Cod, I might as well make a show of it.
Like always, I couldn’t resist paging through the travel albums before I packed them away, luxuriating in photos of the London Eye at night, the brightly painted houses of old San Juan, the bronze Tian Tan Buddha on Lantau Island, the way the autumn leaves accented the deep blue tile and cherry wood of Changdeok Palace. It was easy to imagine myself back in London, or Puerto Rico, or Hong Kong, even Korea — although the last had been less of a vacation and more of an obligation — stealing away from distant relatives to go sightseeing, biting my lip as yet another “aunt” introduced me to a friend with a son about my age.
“Why don’t you take Chang-ho, he can show you all the sites?”
“Seongsan? Oh, Na-Yeong, you don’t want to go there, too many tourists.”
But I had wanted to go. As much as other people were like sand in my shoes, the places they lived had the most character. Once, while wandering the hills south of Athens, I’d found a mound that used to be a palace, or a forum, or maybe a battlefield — it was hard to tell — but that was one of the few exceptions. In my experience, people tended to be where people were, and ignoring others had never been hard for me.
It wasn’t until my cell buzzed that I realized I’d spent the better part of an hour with my albums. I picked up the phone to silence it, then saw the call was from Dad and decided to take it.
“Me too,” he said. It was our joke, not a funny one by any means, but we always did seem to call each other at the worst times.
“Season almost done?”
“Almost.” It was late September, the school year in full swing. Not many homes sold in the winter, and most of my clients had already packed it in for the year.
“Flights to Ireland are cheap.” I could hear some rattling in the background — Mom washing plates, her head cocked to listen. It was strange for Dad to call me. “Am I on speaker?”
“No,” he lied. But the rattling stopped. “You might want to think about coming home for a week or so. You remember Ms. Kim’s daughter, Sam? Well, she’s getting married in November and well, since you were so close as girls, I figured you might want to go and then maybe stay for a few — ”
It wasn’t that I wasn’t listening; I was. It was just that I already knew everything he was going to say. It seemed Mom was still mad about Korea, but apparently hadn’t given up trying to get me to settle down with someone, preferably a Korean someone, ignoring the fact she’d moved to Cleveland, Ohio, to marry a doughy German-Irish ESL teacher.
I picked up her watercolor, examining it as Dad rambled about the goings-on in the neighborhood — who had moved where, who was having babies, a new kayak he’d bought. The painting was of a long mountain range picked out in blacks and grays, points of red, yellow, and orange around their base hinting at a forest in full autumn finery, the peaks reflected in the lake below so carefully rendered it was impossible to tell what was water and what was sky.
For a moment, I could almost feel the place.
“Hey Dad, could you put Mom on?”
“Uh, I don’t know if — ”
“We just want to see you, dear. It’s been a while,” he said softly. There was a crackling on the other end, then Mom’s clipped voice. “Na-Yeong, you should really consider — ”
“That painting you gave me. Is it from somewhere? I mean, did you base it on a real place?”
There was silence for a moment. When Mom spoke again, her voice was softer, almost hesitant. “The landscape? Ah, no, just my imagination.”
That was odd. Photos could capture a place in ways that art, filtered through a human agent, just couldn’t. I shouldn’t have been able to feel anything from Mom’s painting. Just like I shouldn’t have been able to feel anything from the Cape Cod.
I thumbed the phone’s screen back to life. “I need to go.”
“But, you haven’t — ”
“We’ll talk later. I promise.” I hung up.
I drove to the Hall of Records downtown. I’d been right about the Cape Cod: a few young families, none staying more than a handful of years. I checked the microfiche archives for reports on the area, but it’d been nothing more than a cow pasture before the developers bought it. For the sake of completeness, I searched the earlier records for any mention, thinking it could been a Wyandot village or the site of some pre-Columbian mound. I found nothing and left the Records Office more than a bit embarrassed once I realized I’d wasted hours trying to discover if the house was situated on an ancient Indian burial ground.
Derek was gone when I got back to the Cape Cod, but the key was back inside the fake rock. I took my stuff inside, moving plastic flowers to make way for my albums and replacing one of the half-dozen framed stock photos with my Mother’s painting. The wall looked much better, if a bit bare. I’d have to see if Mom had any more.
The house didn’t seem upset by the changes, but I decided to give it some space anyway. After checking there were no deer, I went out onto the back porch and sat for a while. The evening was cool, but not uncomfortably so — what Dad always called “sweater weather.” Still leaves framed a sky that went from purple to hazy black, all but the moon and the brightest stars obscured by the diffuse glow of the city.
I sat back, drinking in the cool quiet of the place. For the first time since I’d arrived, the Cape Cod seemed calm. Not because, but rather in spite of me, almost as if it were also enjoying the evening as well.
When I woke up, my albums were on the floor, pages bare and photos spread all over the dining room. There was a quiet wariness in the air, a feeling as if someone were watching me through the big picture window behind the couch. I picked the pictures up, starting at every creak and rustle, even though I was reasonably sure the house wasn’t going to fall in on me. Then I stood at the counter and slowly slotted the photos back into place.
If this was a battle of wills, the house needed to see that it hadn’t rattled me.
A crash from the main room startled me midway through recapitulating my London trip. I’d forgotten about Mom’s painting, but when I rushed in it was still hanging on the wall. The crash I’d heard was the house divesting itself of the rest of Derek’s stock photos.
That made me grin. Whatever the house was, it had good taste, at least.
In the kitchen, my phone rang. I walked over, noticed Heather Paquin’s name on the ID, and let it go to voicemail. Heather was another of my clients, a thin, talkative little woman who prided herself on “communication,” which was another way of saying she refused to email or text despite me having asked her many, many times. Still, she was a decent enough realtor, and paid well, although not as well as Derek.
Heather had recently become the listing agent for a mid-century colonial near Goodale Park in the Short North and was having a hard time finding buyers when other similar houses in the area had practically sold themselves. I smiled at the thought of homes picking their residents. If only. I’d found plenty of places with influence, weight, but none with intention, well, not until the Cape Cod, at least.
I texted Heather my response and headed downtown. My phone buzzed; I let it go to voicemail, listened to the message, then texted her again. It was a testament to her desperation that she actually texted me back — details peppered with a swarm of emoji.
The Short North wasn’t far from downtown, so I swung by Heather’s colonial to find her waiting out front, smiling. Heather was always smiling, but it didn’t mean anything.
She repeated everything she’d already told me on the phone, hands fluttering like startled birds as she showed me around the house. It was old and well lived in, fresh paint and new hardwood floors not quite concealing the deep bones of the place. A lot of laughter in the main room, bright, but frayed around the edges like the pages of a favorite book. Sadness circumscribed the place, melancholy already yellowing the pale trim around the floor and making the rooms seem close and claustrophobic.
“Who died?” I had to go down into the basement to feel it, but the heavy oak floor beams practically ached.
“It’s not a murder house, if that’s what you’re thinking.”
I sighed. Why did realtors always jump straight to ghosts?
Heather gave a little flick of her chin. “The father of the last owner. Cancer, poor thing. Left the house to his daughter, but she lived here for almost eighty years. Passed away in her sleep late while visiting family, but you probably already knew that.”
I hadn’t, but it didn’t matter.
It was easy to find where the father died: on the screened porch out back, in a chair overlooking the garden. Mostly because he was still there.
Some people think I see ghosts. I don’t. It’s more a feeling, like sitting on a park bench just before sunrise on a summer day, basking in the quiet stillness of the place before the crowds come rushing in, and realizing that someone has sat down beside you, or maybe that they’ve been there all along.
It’s not frightening once you understand that ghosts aren’t people any more than the image of an actor is that person. They can affect the world just like a performance can make someone laugh, or cry, but there’s no awareness in it, no intentionality. Only the living can imbue somewhere with meaning, with memory. We can’t help it, in fact.
“It’s a beautiful garden,” I said, palms pressed to the screen. It was late in the season for flowers, but the backyard was still a riot of crocuses carefully bounded by dogwood, maple, and pine. It made me wonder how the back of the Cape Cod would look with a few deep beds, nothing gaudy, maybe some heather or white chrysanthemums to offset the changing leaves.
“I thought so, too,” Heather said. “It’s been a real pain to keep up.”
It came to me then, like a missing page slipping into place. “You need to make the porch a room.”
“It was an addition, at the end. So he could see the garden.” I paced around the porch, trying not to talk too fast. “She missed him, seventy-nine years, and she still missed him, that’s what it is. They were apart, you see. Father and daughter, house and garden, the porch is the bridge. You need to make it part of the home.”
“But.” There was the little chin flick again. “It is.”
“No, it’s still outside.”
“Fine, okay.” Heather’s smile might have been practiced, but even I could see it was fake.
“If you want to sell this house, turn the porch into a room.” I didn’t realize I was standing too close to Heather until she took a quick step back.
“I think I missed a call.” She took out her phone, glanced at it. “It’s a client. Sorry, I’ve got to take this.”
I nodded and walked away. It would be a shame if Heather didn’t change the porch, but I’d done all I could. Still, the melancholy had settled on me, clinging like damp to my skin, my clothes, following me all the way back to the Cape Cod.
My photos were out again, spread over the entire house. It took most of the afternoon to find them all — in cupboards and behind dressers, wedged up under the crown molding or between the toilet seat and cover. I’d just about gotten them all when the windows banged open, letting in a wind that set my photos fluttering like trapped moths.
It was too much.
The Cape Cod just wasn’t worth the commission. I snatched up my suitcase, stuffing my albums and photos into my suitcase along with the few changes of clothes I’d brought. The front door slammed behind me, but I didn’t care. I’d call Derek tomorrow and tell him he was best off leveling the Cape Cod and building something new.
He would never sell it.
This house would never be a home.
It wasn’t until I stepped into my apartment that I realized I’d forgotten Mom’s painting. Cursing, I hopped back into the car and drove back to the Cape Cod. Once this was over, I’d take a long vacation — Ireland, Japan, maybe London again — I certainly had enough money saved up.
My phone buzzed — another call from my parents. I thumbed it silent, then saw I’d missed two others from them.
The Cape Cod was a rough shadow in the dark, squatting on the lot like a sullen child. I hadn’t left the lights on, so I had to stumble across the uneven brickwork and onto the porch. The front door stuck in its frame until I gave it a hard yank. It opened so quickly I almost tumbled off the porch.
Of course, none of the lights worked.
There was a flashlight in my car — one of the many things Mom had harassed me into buying.
The painting was gone.
It got to me in a way I couldn’t quite put into words, so I had a good shout, stomping from room to room as I searched. The house seemed surprised, at first, then it gave my anger right back, glass rattling in the windows, floorboards creaking like a home ten times its age. I shoved furniture around, tipped over bookcases and dressers, even used a kitchen knife to pry off the fake shutters so I could look behind, but Mom’s painting was nowhere.
I didn’t need to look outside to know the deer were back.
At last, I found myself glaring up at the pull-down ladder that led to the crawlspace above the master bedroom. The Cape Cod’s hostility was almost a physical weight, pressing down on me as, teeth gritted, I yanked the ladder down and climbed.
Mom’s painting wasn’t the only thing in the crawlspace. The trembling beam of my flashlight found other things: a faded soccer jersey, a plush lion, a set of crayons, chipped pint glasses cut with various brewery logos, and more — a museum of suburban detritus, carefully arranged and preserved.
I could feel them then, a dozen families, maybe more, each just passing through on their way to a real home. No wonder the house had gone feral.
I sat back, hands pressed into the prickly insulation. I’d gotten it all wrong. The Cape Cod hadn’t been dismantling my albums, it’d been looking at them.
I’d thought of the Cape Cod as a home, when really it was another person sitting on the bench beside me, enjoying the view. I looked at it and saw only how it was different from other houses, how I could make it like them. But it couldn’t be, no more than I could be like everyone else. I took a slow breath, feeling like a hypocrite.
“I’m sorry; I didn’t know.”
I knew what I had to do.
I climbed down, texted Derek, then called Mom back.
“I’ll come up for Sam’s wedding, but I’m not staying,” I said, feeling a strange flutter in my chest. “You and Dad should come to Columbus instead. Stay with me for a week or two.”
“In your apartment? We’d be — ”
“No, I just bought a house.” I glanced around, feeling the Cape Cod tense. “Sorry, I’ve got to go. We’ll talk soon.” I leaned in, adding almost as an afterthought, “love you both.”
Then I went through my albums, slowly, taking time to describe each place in detail — the look, the sounds, the smells, the feel. It took the better part of the night, but nothing interrupted me.
“I have to go to my apartment.” Normally, you couldn’t talk to homes, but I wasn’t sure about this one. “I need to get my things. But I’ll be back soon with more photos.”
The front door closed behind me, wary as a stray dog. It didn’t bother me. I’d get to know the place, eventually.
I had my entire life, after all, and eternity after that.
About the Author
By day, Evan studies old Japanese Maps and crunches data for all manner of medical research at the Ohio State University. By night, he does neither of these things. His short fiction has most recently appeared in: Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Apex Magazine, and Strange Horizons. Feel free to visit him at: evandicken.com.