"This house" by Thomas Stewart
I walk through the trees until I find a clearing. There, just at the edge of the woods, I find this house. It sits silent, still, patiently waiting for me to come.
In the back of my mind, I can hear it calling to me. It croons softly: "Come on. You've traveled far haven't ya? Why don't ya take a load off?" Of course, this is my head fucking with me, right? There's no way I could actually be hearing the house...
Yet, I hear it again. This time, I notice it sounds a bit lighter than before, less matured, in a sense. Infantile.
"Won't you come over and play?" it says now. I swallow hard and look around. Every aspect, it feels like to me, of this house feels... off. Wrong. Like I really need to be turning tail in the other direction and booking it the hell out of there, but I don't. Something keeps my feet planted firm where they are.
"Come on in, hon. It's suppertime. Trust me, you're gonna LOVE it!" Suddenly, the combined aromas of roast beef and baked macaroni and cheese with homemade biscuits and gravy invade my nostrils. It's been so long now since I've had these-- not since I was much, much younger in fact-- and it smells so good, so I begin slowly trudging to the front porch.
The closer I get to this house, the stronger the aroma becomes, thus, the more my mouth waters. "Yeah, you like how that smells, don't ya?" I'm at the foot of the steps leading up the porch now. "Just come on in an' have a seat."
I take my first step up toward the porch. For some reason, my leg shakes as I do. I'm barely holding myself together as I step toward the door and reach for the knob. The entire world appears to be shaking.
What am I doing here, I wonder. Who's speaking to me and where from? More than this, though, what the hell are they talking about when they say "Like how that smells"? Like how what smells?
No sooner than this idea comes into my head, a foul miasma of rotting meat assaults my nose. It's what I can only compare to what the smell of a maggoty carcass that's been baked in the sun for four or five days would be like. It's the stench of a dead animal-- no, ten dead animals, all packed into one room, piled on top of one another.
It's unbearable and it isn't long before I'm on my knees gagging. "Aw, what's the matter? Somethin' got yer nose?" Following this is a maniacal chuckle that rattles through my body like it was the beans in a pair of maracas. "Well?" I hear the voice goad me, "You gonna come inside or are ya just gonna stand 'ere n' let all this good food get cold."
The deeper, gruffer voice then tells me, "Your maw worked mighty damn hard to whip up a good meal. You better come on in, boy." Something about the way he spoke, particularly the way he says "boy", sounds familiar to me. Damningly so, in fact.
I can't place it, but the voice itself, the tone and vernacular, all stroke some chord with me. It keeps me frozen in place. It's as if... As if I know who it is that's speaking, yet...
"You hard o' hearin' or something, boy?" The voice barks at me. "I just told you to git yer ass in the house, NOW!" My legs tremble now. His gruff voice reverberates throughout my entire body. I want, more than anything else in the world right now to leave, but something, something hidden, unseen, prevents me from moving from this spot on the porch.
Coming from further deep inside the house, I hear the stomping of what I imagine to be a herd of rhinos coming toward the front door. This just about breaks me from entropy until I hear the small girl's voice again. "Why won't you come play with me?"
It's so small and anxious. So vulnerable. So pitiful. A lead weight pulls my rapid beating heart from my chest to my stomach. "Do you not like me?"
Now, I want to wrap my arms around this small child, despite having never seen her. I still can't see her, yet I feel horrible now for her. I shake my head again, clutching my temples. I have to stop listening to them. I have to get out of here, away from this house and--
"Aw, now look, you done made her cry. You just can't help yourself but to be an asshole, can ya?"
"He's always been like that, ain't he?"
My heart freezes again. This interaction sends my mind further into a tailspin. The way the older, yet still soft voice says "always"-- as though they must know me somehow. But... But how? Who, perhaps what, even are these people?
From the inside of the house again, I can hear the sound of a small child wailing. It's not loud or earsplitting like you imagine, like when you tell your child in the grocery store they can't have the candy on display or a new toy, but instead it's quiet, pathetic. Again, I can't help but feel, deep down, like I've heard this exact crying before. How or where, I do not know, but I knew I had.
My hand raises, shaking profusely. Of its own volition, not mine, it grasps the knob of the door. My brain shrieks at my hand, begging, pleading to not open the door. It doesn't obey, though, and the front door opens with a creaking so loud I hear it echo throughout the surrounding woodland. "Well lookie there," greets the gruff voice, "The old boy finally decided to come on in."
The little girl's voice asks "Does this mean you'll play with me now?" I notice the babyish gasp of excitement in her voice. Just like her wailing, something about this question feels too familiar. I've seen this place before, been here before, but how? When?
Why can't I remember anything? Should I? No... No, none of this is real, okay? Just... Just take a deep breath and remember that. None of this shit's real!
I take a single step past the threshold of the front door. The second it lands, the door slams itself shut behind me."Well, since you're here now, why don't ya tell us how you've been? Ain't heard from ya in a while."
I look around me, surveying the scene of the apparent "living room". I hesitate to call it that because it barely even resembles one. There's no furniture, unless an empty lampshade counts. The floors, too, are pockmarked with gaping holes in places, some of which are revealed to have entire boards missing. When I try to look down into the holes, all I'm met with is bottomless, fathomless darkness. I halfway believe that if I were to shout into one of them, my voice would echo through them for eternity.
I look a bit closer then and notice plumes of smoke coming from them. Then I look around the rest of the room and I notice now the entire room is like this, clouded in smoke. I cannot breathe and suddenly, darkness clouds my vision completely. I'm still conscious, able to hear and feel the world around me. I hear the popping and crackling of flames.
"Gettin' hot in here, ain' it?" remarks the gruff voice again. "MmMM! Smell that, boy? Mama's cookin' somethin' GOOD tonight!" The temperature in the room increases exponentially. What starts as a simple blistering feeling quickly turns into searing pain. I can feel my flesh starting to peel from my bones. Everywhere around me that I touch, extreme pain shoots through my hands.
I cannot see and all I can feel is pain until eventually, tactile perception abandons me as well. The only thing I can do is hear as the crackling becomes louder around me. Along with this, I hear the sounds of wood splitting coming from above me. I realize this means the roof is about to give and come down right on top of me. I try to make myself move, to bring my hands up to shield my face, except that I can't for lack of sense of feel.
My mind screams about a thousand prayers to every God from every possible religion, begging for a way out of this when suddenly I realize that I can see again. I look around the room, which now looks different now. Much newer now.
Replacing the dank, chipped walls now are brand new ones with fresh coats of paint. The floors, too, are brand new, even sporting a glossy, burnished finish. There was furniture now, a couch, a rocking chair, a lamp-- one that actually works, and even a small love seat and an ottoman. The room smells now of the fresh paint.
I stand up, halfway surprised to find that my skin is still very much intact and that I am okay, and scan the area. Sunlight beams through the window, making everything appear that much brighter. This confuses me as, last I'd checked, it was night when I first came into the house. I take a step forward, impacting this time with a solid sound instead of the unsteady creaking I'd made before.
I look around, hoping to see the family or whoever's voices I was hearing earlier. No one's here, though. I take a nervous, shaking step forward. "H-Hello?"
No one answers. I begin walking further until I find a threshold leading into a kitchen. This room, too, is extremely nice looking and almost brand new in appearance. It isn't much of anything special, sure, but it's still much nicer than the scene I met before, with the living room. It reminds me a lot of the style I'd see on TV shows from the 50s. A sort of simple, homey style of kitchen.
When I look at the oven, I see that it's on, revealing what looks to me like a butterball turkey baking inside of it. I look around to the sink and look out of the window. Outside, I can see two children, a little boy and girl, running around, with the boy chasing her with a stick. For some reason, I can't surpress a smile at this. So innocent and carefree, they are. It reminds me of... of...
The smile drops. This again feels familiar to me for some reason, though I cannot say why. It reminds me of how I would use to chase my own little sister around the backyard...
My own little sister...
I'm about to lean in closer for a better look at the two when I'm startled by the timer on the oven behind me. "Up, there's the birdie, Harold!"
"Mm-MM! Good God almighty, Girdie, I can smell it already! My mouth's a broken dam now, better warn the locals!" The smell of fresh turkey permeates the room. I hear both voices laugh at this. The first voice I recognize to be the softer, more sultry voice I'd heard before, the one referred to then as "Ma", while the other was only a slightly more cheerful version of the gruff voice.
I can't help but wonder, what changed? What happened to the drab scene I'd first met with? Why are the two speaking so cheerful now when they were much more scathing only a moment ago? On top of all this, though, why does all of this feel so familiar to me. Why is it that I know this place, yet I don't at the same time?
I have no time to ponder this, however. I have to hide. I can't let them, Harold and Girdie, see me, an intruder, in their kitchen. I throw my head frantically in every direction in search for a space big and secluded enough to hide in. Nothing in this room, however, is large or hidden enough to suffice.
I hear footsteps come down the stairs leading into the living room. My body seizes. The footsteps approach the kitchen threshold. My heart punches my rib cage. I'm trapped, there's no running or hiding. My mind, in the next two seconds, starts speed-cycling through every possible horrific scenario for when they find me. Will they call the cops? Shoot me? Maybe feed me to the dogs, fuck, I don't know!
The footsteps meet the threshold and I see now standing before me a man and woman, both about early to mid-40s and both looking like they, too, came from a TV show in the 50s. Harold takes a huge whiff of the kitchen. "Well dear Lord above, Girdie, that smells DELICIOUS!" Girdie chuckles and moves into the kitchen. I stand still, my body still bracing for their reaction that, surprisingly, hasn't already come yet.
Girdie moves in front of and opens the oven. The smell of the turkey from before becomes almost overwhelming. It indeed smells delicious, as Harold exclaimed. It's too delicious, in fact. Girdie pulls the pan out of the oven and places it on the stove top. "There he is, Harold!" she exclaims, taking a step back toward me to admire it's golden brown perfection.
"Our Thanksgivin' supper!" exclaims Harold. "By golly, Girdie, you really went an' did it this time!" The two giggle again while embracing one another. I simply watch, both too moved by this, as well as perhaps haunted.
WHERE HAVE I SEEN THIS BEFORE?!
The front door is swung open and I can hear small footsteps running toward the kitchen. "Mommy! Daddy!" the small girl's voice cries. "Danny's gonna hit me with a stick!" My heart freezes in my chest.
She said 'Danny'...
But... But that's...
"Where is he?" Girdie snaps at the little girl, waving her head all around, looking for the apparent brother.
"Let me handle this, Girdie." Harold says, stomping out of the kitchen. "God, that boy's really gonna go an' try to ruin our family's thanksgivin'." He lets out a crazed chuckle and says "Well we'll see 'bout that, won't we?" I follow Harold into the living room.
He stands at the front door, shouting out of it, "Danny, you git yer ass in this house RIGHT NOW!" I stare over his shoulder to see the little boy, "Danny", also frozen in place like I was, quivering. I squint and lean closer.
My jaw falls to the floor. The little boy, standing in the middle of the front yard, shaking like he's got an alarm clock stuffed down his throat, looks exactly the same I did at his age! I wipe my eyes and look again, and see even more clearly that this is the case.
The little boy over there IS ME! But... H-How is that possible? What the hell is this place?!
I watch the trembling boy take measured, fearful steps across the front lawn toward the porch. He gets about two or three feet from the porch when Harold shouts, "Now, you mind tellin' me just what in hell's gotten into that big ol' rock head o' yers that you think you can go 'round, tryin' to hit yer little sister with a stick?!"
"Sh-Sh-She..." the little boy begins. His knees are buckling now as he speaks. "She and I were just playin' around, Papa."
"An' ain't we told you kids better than to go 'round with sticks?" The boy's head slumps down.
"Y-Yes Papa." Harold cups his hand to his ear. "Yes Papa."
"Uh-huh, so I'm gonna ask one more time, why in hell do you think you can just go 'round tryin' to terrorize yer little sister like this?"
"I... I... I'm sorry, Papa." Instinctively, my legs clench up. Somehow, I know what's coming to little 'Danny'.
"'Sorry' ain't gonna cut it this time, boy." growls Harold, already unbuckling his belt. The boy's eyes widen to double their original size. I feel every bit of his terror right now. In fact, it's two-fold for me. I'm starting to realize now why everything is so familiar.
This all happened. The little boy is me. This is my life! This is... This...
is my house!
The boy makes it to the porch, where Harold fully undoes his belt and cracks it like a bullwhip. Both myself and the boy flinch while the echo this creates takes its time to die out. Harold yanks little Danny up by his arm and drags him into the house. He begins screaming, "Please don't, Papa, I said I was sorry! I'm sorry, I promise I won't do it again!"
"Oh I know you won't, cause I'm gonna make DAMN sure of it!" He drags the screaming child upstairs. I do not follow. I don't want to see this. Not again. I don't even have to anymore, the boys screams and subsequent cracks from Harod's belt paint a quite vivid picture in my mind, disregarding the fact that memories of this night are slowly coming back to me.
With each rapidly passing second, more and more of this night comes back to me and a crippling shudder breaks out across my entire body. Faintly, I can feel my skin growing hotter and hotter.
No... No, God, please, not again. Not the fire again!"
Suddenly, I notice that it's nighttime and Harold is heard stomping down the stairs. I follow him into the kitchen again, where Girdie and the little girl are already seated around the table, each with a plate of food. "He's been dealt with." Harold declares, somewhat dryly. The little girl hangs her head down like she's disappointed or ashamed. Harold walks over and pats her head. "It's alright, darlin'. He ain't gonna try no stuff like that no more."
"I didn't wanna get him in trouble, though, Papa." She looks up at him with a pitiful stare. I hear Harold sigh and lean down toward her, patting and kissing the top of her head.
"I know, but you did the right thing, ya hear?"
"Okay Papa." I see the two smile at each other before Harold moves away from her to take his seat at the table. "Aight, now, you wanna say grace, Girdie?" Girdie smiles warmly at the two of them before bowing her head and closing her eyes. The other two follow suit.
The blessing over the food is asked and the three open their eyes and start eating when I notice the room filling with smoke. My body shakes profusely. It's happening again.
The room fills to the ceiling with smoke before I can hear coughing and gasping from the table. "Harold, where's all this smoke comin' from?!"
Harold wheezes and says, "I don't know, here, open a window or somethin'!" My heart finally punches through my chest. I can hear footsteps approaching the windowsill above the sink. Suddenly, a thunderous BOOM rattles throughout the entire house. Following this are howls of agonizing pain from Harold while Girdie and the girl shriek in terror.
I start coughing myself. Smoke floods through my lungs, polluting the oxygen that was in them. I flail my arms around, frantically trying to clear away the smoke to see something, anything! Just this much movement soon becomes a struggle for me, as does breathing. Eventually the screen of ash gray is mingled with sparks of orange and red.
Heat pervades the room, evaporating any moisture in the air, turning it dry and heavy. I fall to my knees, still clawing desperately for the air I know, deep down, I'll likely never breathe again. I push away just enough of the cloud around me to see, in front of me, the very same moment I've surpressed for so long, to a point that up until now, I'd actually forgotten. It's the boy, little Danny-- ME-- dashing off across the lawn, disappearing into the night.
It all comes back to me now. The dinner, the spanking, then... Then I...
The screams of agony from the kitchen elevate to a pitch shattering my eardrums. I spin around and look. All I see is a ball of bright orange and red and within them, the blistering, charring bodies of My mother, father, and baby sister, all staring straight ahead, straight at me, screaming. The flames creep upon me now.
I want to move, but just like before, I'm unable to. My joints won't budge, no matter how much I scream for them to. The scorch begins licking the tips of my fingers and I think about everything in my life that comes next.
I remember how I ran to the police station that, at the time, was situated only a mile and a half or so out from the house, telling them my house had caught fire and how I just narrowly made it out of the window, but my family were still inside. They rushed to the house with haste, them, the paramedics, and the fire department, but by the time they do, the house was little more than a pile of, ironically enough, firewood, all crumbled down to the foundation.
I can remember how only about half of Mama's body was found intact. Papa, somehow, was found to be breathing-- for another 30 seconds. They never found my little sister's body. I spent the next two to three years trying then to suppress all of this through a combination of therapy and/or drugs. It worked, and for the next 10 or so years to the present, all of this; Mama, Papa, and my little sister and this house, were all nothing to me. Not even shadows in the back of my mind.
The flames, tired of teasing me by stinging the tips of my fingers, leap upon me, engulfing me just as with the other three. The burning is excruciating. I open my mouth to scream, but there's no sound to escape me. My lungs have been seared and my body's quickly following suit.
The world starts going black again. I once again cannot see, feel, smell, taste, or hear anything anymore. I think this time will be the last. I'm gone-- for good this time...
My eyes open. I'm in the woods. It's nighttime and I can barely see a damn thing. I begin to walk around, hoping to find my way out of the woods. Where I was before or why I'm here, I don't know.
I wander through the trees and find a clearing. In the middle of it, I see this house...