by Jen Michalski
One day the family put their things in boxes. They wrote parts of House on them: LIVING ROOM. BEDROOM. KITCHEN. House felt confused. They took mirrors and frames and clothes hooks off the walls. House felt naked. They carried the furniture and beds and put them into the garage. House felt empty. They vacuumed and scrubbed and dusted. House felt clean, at least. A sign was placed out front with a phone number atop. Strangers came and touched the counters, knocked on the walls. They marveled, from the window, at Mountain. They remarked on the wainscoting in the dining room, the sunny bedrooms. House felt a little proud.
Then, the family took their things out of garage, put them into a truck, and drove away. House felt sad. The family was the only family House had known; when House had finished growing, the last drywall hammered into place, the last wall painted, husband and wife moved in, followed by boy and the girl, who soon became teenagers. Mother dusted the cobwebs from House’s corners, and daughter scrubbed the shower. Father cleaned the gutters every fall, and son mowed the lawn. House felt maintained.
And every night, while the family tossed and turned and snored and dreamed, their bodies were warm little hearts inside House’s body. House felt alive.
After family left, men came and pulled up the carpets. They replaced them with wood flooring. Then, they tore out the kitchen cabinets and the appliances. New countertops, white and gleaming, appeared, along with new appliances, steel and cold. The walls were repainted. The men left, and no one returned. The sun moved through House’s empty rooms, still smelling of new paint. And then dark came. House felt alone.
After a week, a new family moved in. House was excited. Now there were voices and footsteps and the smells of things. The breeze returned through the open windows. At night, the rooms burned with lights. House felt hopeful.
But new family wasn’t home much. They rarely ate together, and mother didn’t cook. Take-out containers and pizza boxes littered the counter, and brother and sister, when they were home, rarely left their rooms. They played music on their earbuds and stared into their phones. The father traveled a lot. No one cleaned the gutters, and House leaked a little in the corner of the bathroom ceiling. The television was on too much.
House missed her old family. But maybe, if the new family understood how House liked things, it wouldn’t be so bad. Adjustment. House had heard the word on one of the daytime talk shows mother left running on the television all day but didn’t actually sit down to watch. They were all adjusting. And then, things would return to the way House liked. House hoped.
But House wanted to move things along. Family awoke that morning to a message on the living room wall: I MISS BREAKFAST.
The mother yelled at the son. Then, she yelled at the daughter. Then she yelled at the husband. Then they all yelled at each other. Then mother left soap and a bucket in the living room and told whoever did it to clean it up. When no one cleaned it up, the next day the mother did it herself.
House left another note. When the family awoke the next morning, it was again on the living room wall: I AM HOUSE. HELLO.
‘It’s not funny,’ the mother said to the son, and then the daughter. And then to the husband over the phone. ‘I know they don’t want to be here, and I don’t want to be here, either. But they’ve got to stop it.’
House did not leave another note. If they did not want to be here, well, House didn’t want them there, either. If only her old family could move back. But House did not know how to make it happen.
House got the idea one night while the daughter watched YouTube videos: haunted castles. Haunted asylums. Haunted houses. Maybe House could scare them away.
Apparently, direct contact was not the way to be heard. Creaking floorboards. Opening and slamming doors. Shadowy figures. These scared people away. So, when the family went to bed that night, House rattled the windows and slammed doors. It flicked lights on and off.
‘The realtor never said anything about this.’ The mother paced back and forth in the kitchen, holding a container of yogurt, talking on the phone. ‘I mean, shouldn’t they mention something like that.’
A sign again was placed out front with a phone number atop. Maybe House’s old family would return. House felt happy.
For months, no one came. Maybe years. House felt despondent. Teenagers mostly, stood in front of House, whispering.
‘It was an axe murder,’ one said.
‘No, it was a demon, like in Paranormal Activity,’ said another.
‘I think it’s staring at us,’ the third said, before they all scattered. ‘Run!’
Then, the groups began to show up. Always at dusk, vans of serious men with goatees and baseball caps, women with hoodies, names like C.A.S.P.E.R. and F.R.I.T.E. and GhostSeekers. They broke in through the back door and set up strange devices and waited. And when House opened and closed doors and sent shadows across the walls, they recorded the sounds of House and took pictures of the insides of House and tested the temperature of the air of House and they played back all the metrics and uploaded them to something called the Internet. And although House was loved, by the groups of young men and women who came every night to visit, House felt misunderstood.
‘We haven’t had any EMF readings for months,’ one of the bearded men complained. ‘Nothing on the voice recordings. It’s like the activity’s gone silent.’
‘Maybe Steve cleansed it for good,’ one of the women, who wore a crucifix and always carried a vial of holy water, added. She’d brought in the psychic a few weeks before, who told the others a young girl had died in the basement. This made House angry, because it wasn’t true. But when House showed anger at the young people with the electronics, it only made them more excited. And then House made the grave error of trying to communicate directly: PLEASE TELL FAMILY I MISS THEM. The message on the living room wall only increased the number of people visiting every night, until eventually the police came and padlocked the back door and put up a NO TRESPASSING SIGN. And when the researchers returned, slipping in months later, in the middle of the night, House kept her eyes closed and her mouth shut. She stayed quiet, night after night after night. And finally, they left. House was relieved.
House’s gutters became more clogged, the seals of her windows cracked, and her yard became overgrown with weeds. House felt old. When a young couple came to look at the house, it had been a few years. House wasn’t exactly thrilled.
‘It’s supposedly haunted,’ the realtor explained as the couple knocked on House’s walls, ran their fingers along the outdated kitchen counters. ‘But the thrill seekers have mostly disappeared.’
‘We don’t care about that stuff.’ The young woman shook her head. She wrapped her arms around herself and stared at the ceiling. ‘We care about its bones.’
‘It seems to have good ones.’ The young man put his arm around the young woman. House was mildly amused.
The young couple stripped out the floors and repainted the walls. They bought new appliances and built bookshelves. House was cautious. They were not the family who House had loved all those years. Although House didn’t remember as much about them as she used to, she remembered the important things.
‘It’ll take a bit of time,’ the young man said to the young woman in bed. ‘They have personalities, just like people. You have to win them over.’
Adjustment. It didn’t mean returning to normal. It meant accepting a different normal, like when the young woman painted the walls pale green and House wished she didn’t. But the woman also planted a vegetable garden in the back yard, which House loved.
There were other surprises. Like the day the man played drums in the basement. It felt like rain to House, but on the inside of her. A loud, thundering, quenching shower. House laughed. She was old now, but there were new things still. She remembered that word they’d said over and over as they toured the house the first time: potential. She liked the sound of it. House was learning.
Jen Michalski is the author of three novels, The Summer She Was Under Water, The Tide King (both Black Lawrence Press), and You’ll Be Fine (NineStar Press, forthcoming), a couplet of novellas, Could You Be With Her Now (Dzanc Books), and three collections of fiction. She is the editor in chief of the online lit weekly jmww (@jmwwjournal). Find her @MichalskiJen