by Amanda Weber
I cannot shift my gaze from the slowly melting bowl of rocky road ice cream on the dining room table. A small and persistent sense in the back of my mind tells me that I have something more important to attend to—perhaps assisting my mother in preparing dinner, or unpacking the luggage still clutched in my hands, or even a study of that new, frankly rather disturbing portrait of a weeping clown hanging now just beyond the table. But something about the abandoned mounds, slouching resignedly into thick, muddy puddles veined with sticky marshmallows, feels remarkably, inexplicably poignant.
“Maggie. You’re not supposed to be here,” says my mother.
I turn to face her, where she is chopping scallions at the kitchen island, head down, surrounded by a veritable rainbow of vegetables and meats and grains. Couscous and pancetta, collards and chard. I have no idea what she’s cooking, but the pot boiling thickly on the stove doesn’t smell like any dish of hers I’ve tried.
“What’d you say?” I ask, forcing a perplexed smile. I don’t want to seem indignant—after all I’ve only just arrived home—but I’m tired and have noticed a knot in my trapezius, perhaps from sleeping awkwardly on a plane, and so the edge in my voice, though muted, is still perceptible.
My mother glances up, her glasses slipping down her nose. “I said I thought you weren’t supposed to be here until later.”
Ah. In my sore-shouldered pique, I misheard.
“Yeah, plane must’ve made good time.” One hand massaging the pain in my neck, I wave my other hand toward the melting ice cream on the table. “Whose ice cream is that?”
My mother shrugs. “Probably your brother’s.” I want to ask why he just left a perfectly good bowl of ice cream, and also when she started letting us eat dessert before supper, but she is already waving her hand in the direction of the stairs. “Why don’t you go put your bags down, get settled in a bit before we eat.”
The living room coffee table, squat pine stained with nail polish and finger paints, is covered with half-empty glasses of water. Not messy exactly—they are, after all, arranged in neat lines like cylindrical soldiers— but strangely cluttered for my habitually spotless family home. Harry, my thirteen-year-old brother, is draped over the couch like a tossed blanket, half-sitting, half laying, legs akimbo, listening to “Lollipop” from his phone speakers. I feel as though I have been hurled back to 2009.
“Hey, Harr. What are you doing?” I ask.
He sniffs loudly and rubs his nose with the back of his hand. “This is such a banger.”
“It’s good to see-“ I start to say, but he hushes me.
“Just go put your stuff away. I’m trying to appreciate this song,” he admonishes. I’m taken aback. I didn’t think this was a song designed to be focused upon and thus appreciated. During college, I’d been put onto the keening, grainy, coffee-grit tones of indie music, and thought myself hip. Now, I am struck by paranoia that I, still in my twenties, have fallen hopelessly behind the times. I make a note to add “Lollipop” to my playlist.
On the landing of the stairs, I get lost.
There are only three doors, straight ahead, to my left, to my right. They used to be standard oak doors, light brown wood whorled precisely the same way, old gold doorknobs placed with care. Now, each door is distinct. The right door is cherry wood, deep and dark as a sleeping sea, the left is patchily painted indigo with small and scattered silver stars, and the one straight ahead is cheap white wood, the same material as a dresser one might find nestled in an infinite display aisle in a Swedish furniture store. My childhood room used to be through the door to the right, but it daunts me now, that even, stern wood.
I go through the door in front of me and find a room like a cell in a monastery—the bed made with cleanly pressed white sheets and a single pillow, the desk clean of dust but also of possessions, the dresser drawers all open and aching of emptiness. I shiver as I place my bags on the bed; the window, which looks out over a bare, black-branched silver maple, is cracked open, exhaling the warmth and scents of cooking and inhaling winds that smell of snow and the salt now caked into the roads.
I burrow into myself as I try to roll the window closed, but the lever won’t budge. I heave my entire body weight onto it for several minutes, to no avail. Opening the closet, I find a single faded red quilt, folded into a neat cube, which I spread across the bed.
At the sound of a soft noise like a sneeze outside the door, I open it, but there is no one on the landing. More than willing to wait for dinner in the warmth of the living room, I trot down the stairs, just to find my mother in an empty kitchen, scrubbing dishes in the sink. When she hears me, she turns with a frown.
“Get in a little nap?” she asks. “Leftovers in the fridge—you might want to reheat them, by now they’re a bit cold.”
At twenty-three years old with a forty-hour-a-week job and a life waiting for me across the country, spending so much time in my childhood home feels unnatural, to say the least. It seems that my childhood home would agree. Mother has always said that I take things too personally, but I swear that the house doesn’t want me here. The window in the room in which I work and sleep still won’t close, all of my showers have been bone-rattlingly cold, and strange things have started happening in the background of my Zoom meetings—vacuums roaring to life when no one is cleaning, birds somehow making their way into the house through closed windows and wheeling in dizzy circles through the room, closed doors opening and then slamming shut. I don’t believe in ghosts, but I am beginning to believe in petty homes.
I shouldn’t be here—I certainly would prefer to be back in my well-insulated, warm, and uneventful apartment in Davis. But my father is very ill. A cancer has been growing in his lungs, hoarding the breath from his throat and stealing him from his home. Now all the rooms in which my family once ate, studied, laughed, and lived sorely feel his absence.
While my particular skill set is of little real help to Mother and Harry, they said that my presence would be enough. I personally am of the opinion that blood, while thicker than some water, is not necessarily denser than that holiest water in the cooler at work, so even I can’t quite explain what made me request a month of remote work and a plane ticket to Ankeny, Iowa, but here I am. If only the house could be so understanding.
I woke up this morning with a half-used glass of water balanced perfectly on my forehead. I tried to reach up to get it but upset its neatly placed pivot point and spilled the remaining water all over my face and the front of my shirt. Glancing around me, I noticed three more glasses on the desk, and two stashed away in the closet. One particularly stout glass was even tucked in one of the half-open dresser drawers.
During an early-morning call with my boyfriend, Darren, who is still struggling to understand my sabbatical from normal adult life, Harry knocks on the door and then pokes his head in without waiting for a response. He has a beard now, and the baby fat has evanesced from his cheekbones. I struggle to place when he could have gotten so much older.
“Mom’s looking for you, Maggie,” he says with the disinterest of a mandatory messenger. His eyes roll around the room and never quite land on me.
“Can it wait? I’m on a call with Darren,” I say.
Harry’s eyebrows shoot up into his newly shaggy hairline. “Darren? Is that your boyfriend? Damn, Maggie, that’s a dumb-ass name.”
My mouth falls open in disbelief, and now the door is closing behind him before I can say anything at all.
My mother asks me to hang up the Christmas lights. It is the twenty-seventh of December. Standing at the bottom of the porch steps with a knot of green wires and white bulbs, I notice for the first time the peeling of the white paint on the walls.
The house appears to be struggling to host a new inhabitant—even on the inside the doors seem to wheeze open and shut now. In fact, every sound seems amplified, the hacking cough as the heater comes to life and then the long, slow rattle of its hot, wet breath through the water lines. Sometimes, I pat the wall, which seems to cringe away from my touch a bit, like a nervy cat, and I whisper encouragements which the house only seems to resent.
Now, I roll up my sleeves in preparation to festively dress the eaves. A window clatters open and shut upstairs in protest of what is to come. I shrug in response.
“Take it up with my mom,” I shout, and then get to work propping the ladder against the gutter over the porch.
As I’m attaching lights to the porch roof with the staple gun, one boot braced against the gutter and the other against a second floor exterior wall, the gutter gives way. With a stomach churning lurch, I am sliding down the shingles. Fortunately, my wrist catches in a knot of lights and I have enough time and purchase to scramble back up onto the porch roof.
The ladder gone and the second floor window tightly closed, I resign myself to yelling for help. After five-minutes’-worth of plaintive cries go unanswered, I find myself looking to the heavens—or more precisely, to the attic window, which is just slightly cracked and seemingly large enough for even my broad shoulders to fit through.
As I gain my bearings and begin clambering up the roof, I swear the house laughs. “Go to hell,” I mutter under my breath.
The window opens easily enough, and I am able to force my way through, though my landing is less than graceful. Dusting myself off and rising to my feet, I find myself face to face with a strange man and let out an undignified little shriek.
“Excuse me, ma’am, do you live here?” the man, who I now notice is wearing a repairman’s uniform and a name tag emblazoned with Joe Ryan, a fake name if I ever heard one, says.
“Yes,” I say, continuing to rub at my dust-grayed jeans. “Maggie Herald, nice to meet you.”
“Okay.” The impulse to ask about why I entered my own home through the attic window crosses his face but, with the admirable patience and grace of a long-time service worker, he schools his expression back to neutrality. “I’m just taking a look at the furnace up here, your mom mentioned that you all were thinking about having it moved down to the basement. Not a bad idea, these older homes tended to place heating up here at construction, but it’s just not optimal—hazards usually outweigh the benefits. Putting together a quote.”
“Great, okay—well, I’ll… get out of your way. Let me know if you need anything.” I don’t know why I offer, if I ever knew anything about the house, any knowledge has certainly degraded in my mind in the five years I’ve spent away.
“Thanks,” he says, then seems to experience an epiphany as to how I’ve come to fall through the attic window.
“College student?” he asks.
I shake my head. “Graduate—my dad’s sick.”
Joe Ryan scratches his neatly thinning hair and clears his throat riotously. “Ah, well, I hope he gets well soon.”
Behind him, the furnace sobs to life.
There is a leak in a pipe over my parents’ closet. The water which escapes is unrefined. The hardness was once worn down by the rock salt my father used to purchase at the hardware store. It has been months since a hardware store trip, since the water ran soft. Now, all that evidences our once-plentiful stores of salt are crystals in the grout between the basement tiles.
The leaking water drips through the cracks in the panes of the attic’s wood floor, right over all of my father’s starched white shirts. He has no use for them presently, interned in the hospital, and so the dripping water soaks through the pressed cloth and into the carpet, leaving great, spongy circles of hard tears.
I wake up in the middle of the night—I would specify which night, but I can no longer tell how long I’ve been home—to the sound of the voice of my father, coming through the slightly cracked window, and the urgent, hyperventilating squeal of air through dusty vents. I am out of bed in an instant, and at the window. Leaning forward, the sill is cold against my fingertips. And there he is, clad in hospital gown, up to his ankles in snow, head thrown back to look at the stars. I am reminded of the clear summer nights when, as a small child, I would sit on the yard with him and he would point out the constellations in his lilting professorial voice.
I run to pack my bags. I will greet my father and then, my obligations here fulfilled, I will leave this place—much to the relief, I am sure, of the house. But my clothes are all gone from the dresser; there is nothing there but little stones of the kind that collect amongst the roots of the silver maple in the front yard. I sigh, and fill my bags with handfuls of stones.
Running downstairs, I find that the front door has been replaced by a great silver mirror. Standing before it and staring at myself, I pluck a stone from the bag. When I toss it, the mirror does not break; instead, my reflection ripples like disturbed water in a perfectly still pond, oscillating between my face and my face five years younger. I see myself leaving, and I see myself when I last left, a different version of me entirely.
I throw another stone and this one shatters the mirror. I walk over the shards and into the yard. My father turns to face me; when he smiles, the moonlight gleams off his teeth.
“Hey, Mags,” he says. My ribs ache with relief to hear him.
“I’m so glad to see you,” I say.
He hugs me tight. I wonder how he has stayed so warm, nothing to shield him from the winter air but a paper gown.
“You’re all better,” I marvel. The snow crunches as I step back and heft my bag back up onto my shoulder, but makes no sound as he shifts his weight.
He shrugs. “Better is relative.” Waving at my bags, he asks, “Leaving so soon?”
“There ain’t room in this town for the both of us,” I reply, and he laughs.
“Well, then, just one more thing before you go?” he requests. “Run into the kitchen and get me a glass of water?”
I have time to spare while waiting on my Uber, so I walk back inside, back over the shards of the mirror.
In the kitchen, my mother is chopping scallions and a bowl of ice cream melts on the table. “Maggie. You’re not supposed to be here.”
Amanda Weber (she/her) is a recent English and computer science graduate from Grinnell College. Like most aspiring writers, she is passionate about stories and the words used to tell them. At any given moment, you can find her in pursuit of good food, a runner’s high, weird roadside attractions, or a song to play on loop for three days straight and then never listen to again.