She stared at each house with peculiar eyes. Squinting, watching, jerking her head side to side, squinting. The brown ones with the wild landscape that must have cost the owner a fortune. The plantation-style ones with pillars that have sneaky vines engulfing the cracked white paint. The shabby small ones with quaint door decorations telling incoming neighbors, “Welcome, Happy Holidays.”
June hadn’t been kind to these houses. The streets stunk of rotting vegetables and life. The dirt didn’t have the wet consistency it used to have. Instead, the air was full of small particles that filled the nose and caused her to spit on the sidewalk. She left a wet mark that was soon engulfed by the beating sun. No moisture was left. The trees in the yards had turned musty brown colors. They had leaned over, as if to take a break during a long run. Except, they had stayed that way, hunched and bent tightly at the base. The grass was no longer grass but tufts of hard, uncomfortable needles. Everything was dying. The world was dying.
She’d walked almost all day, resting behind broken freeway underpasses to finish her lunch. She’d found a small creature running about her fire last night. Searching. Scavenging for warmth and light. She’d given it some of her green beans she’d stolen from someone’s stash. It greedily ate the little pieces she lined in a row towards her hands. It ate and ate and ate until it was in her hands squirming, a fish out of water. She broke its flimsy neck and the small snap melted into the outside world. It was nothing.
Now, she was ravenous with how big it seemed. Digging out her knife, She made quick work of her kill, as she was afraid it would slip out of her hand and run away at any moment. She skinned it completely and saw the bulging belly. Tearing out the bloated sac, she stashed it in her crinkly plastic grocery bag and salvaged what meat she could. The meat was cold by now and was beginning to smell like all the others did. Rats, though, they smelt worse. They smelt less like raw meat and more like old cans of meat that were opened and left out for a day in the heat. The heart of the rat was enlarged. She’d seen it before. The world was dying. Now the animals were, too. She looked at the desolate world around her. She couldn’t get too carried away in the open. She concealed the bloody innards and hunched further under the fallen concrete overpass. She shoveled the meat into her mouth, feeling the blood dry under her nails. She sucked on them quietly as she again looked around. Squinting, watching, jerking her head side to side, squinting.
Crisscrossing in front of the cars strewn out along the roadways, she walked on. But now, she lingered wearily on a small blackened white house. It leaned slightly to the right side, as though it were some attractive male prowling for a female in the midst of a busy club. The leafy-colored shutters were hanging sideways and some had been torn off completely. The chainlink fence was torn down on one end of the yard after a large oak tree had bent over, never to recover again.
She opened the front gate and glided over the buckling rocks that should have been stepping stones. She made her feet lightly touch each stone that might crack, watching the house to see it there were signs of life.
The door wore a holiday sign reading, “Joy, Hope and Charity.” The maroons and greens had lost their luster, but the wooden letters still stood as the doormen. She knocked, knowing no one looking just for a friend would answer. The door gave way to her heavy hands and slid open. Sunglasses on, she slithered into the house, knife in left hand with right covering her mouth and nose. Once, she had gone into a house looking for food only to have pepper spray shot straight into her eyes. She’d learned her lesson.
The house certainly could have been in worse shape. She quietly closed the door and listened. No one came from hiding. No one told her to leave. She kicked a large boot towards the end of the short hallway that led into another room. Nothing. Silence. The house shifted its weight as the wind outside blew. Her bony shoulders softened, relaxed, and she removed her sunglasses. Pinned to a wall in front of the door was a yellowing piece of paper. It was typed. She recognized the orderly and pristine letters and lines.
Methodically, she removed her gloves and shoved them underneath her armpits. Listening, hearing, watching. She removed her boots, and revealed her beaten and battered socks. The holes showed bony and gangly toes curled in unnatural directions. She’d found these boots in an outlet store a week before. They were her size. 7.5. She’d burned the ones that caused her toes to become so unsightly, so constricted, so foreign. She unlaced them slowly and continued to listen to the house. She placed her gloves into her boots and placed them neatly near the door, where the remnant of a table was. She’d made herself at home at once. Removing her scarf, she slumped against the wall and unpinned the note.
I know I won’t be there when you get in, otherwise you wouldn’t be reading this note. So I’ll tell you a bit about myself in case we happen to run into each other. I pray one day we do run into each other. This is my home, and my name is Bethany. My husband, Jett, and I moved from the city to the suburbs after he got a job as at a manufacturing company six months before this all started. I work from home as a Marketing Advisor. We have a dog named Dog, or had one. We found him on the street without a collar when we were dating. He listened to us when we called him Dog, so it stuck. He ran away when the house started to shake at the beginning. I was mating socks on the living room floor when the walls creaked and trembled. The house came alive and seemed to open its jaws, attempting to eat everything inside and out. He’d been with us for nearly 5 years, but was pushed out by something. I’ve been terribly lonely without him. I love animals, in fact. I’ve been a big activist for animal rights since we got Dog. If he comes back, please feed him and keep him company. He is a little hesitant at first, but I promise you will love him as much as I do.
You’ll notice there aren’t any photos of us on the walls. I figured the last thing that people would want to do was look at them. This world doesn’t care about the past anymore, as I’m sure you are beginning to understand. I’ve buried them out in the yard, which means they could be broken down by the earth by now. It’s January 10, 2018. I don’t care much for finding the photos when I get back. Otherwise, I would have taken them along. Besides, I don’t want photographs to compare who I was to who I am.
After the first tremble, my husband didn’t return. He didn’t come back before the second either. I know he wouldn’t leave me like the dog did. I know he loves me, so I am going to find him. Like I said, he works in a manufacturing factory and works long hours. I know he is resilient. Strong. If my husband is reading this, I’m sorry if I haven’t made it back. I’ve hidden you a note in the place where we used to hide love letters.
Anyways, you’ll notice there is a full kitchen with coffee maker included. I’m sorry to say that I drank all the coffee a week ago. I just wanted to stay awake in case the men looting houses showed up. I watched them drag old Betty across the street out of her house and…. She…Well, I’m sorry anyways that there won’t be any food for you when you get here. I ate all that, too, in the last two weeks. So now I am going out to find my husband.
I have a few requests if you are living in this home while I am gone. I’ve called you my renter. You’ll pay me by following a few house rules. If you don’t I may not ever know. Hell, I may be dead by now. But nonetheless, I’ll tell you my requests:
First, water my cactus plant. It doesn’t need much. Cacti are resilient and keep the little water they are given in reserve. That being said, you shouldn’t eat the cactus. As you’ll notice, I cut off one of the stems and tried it. It tasted worse than anything I’ve ever had to eat so far. Also, I had stomach cramps for a week. Move it to the sunniest place in the house. My husband bought this plant for me when I was dating him. We’d gone to the nearest hardware store and looked through hundreds of little plants. This one was unique because it had little hot-pink flowers that opened up when the sun would lightly touch its needly exterior.
Second, leave the office door shut. There is hole in the floor and if left open, the house drops in temperature and becomes unlivable. Also, you’ll notice that the books have been taken off the shelves and burned. The shelves themselves are yours to burn if you wish. I can’t stop you, even if the idea makes me cringe.
Third, please write your name, age and the date on the hallway wall. This letter was a funny idea when I first thought of it. I was holding onto the last bit of my computer battery to write it. I know we may never meet. I know that you may kill my cactus and eat it. But I don’t want to go away from this world without you knowing that I was a real human being who lived in this house. My photos in the yard might be gone, but I was real. I want you to remember that humanity is still alive and it lives through the names and dates on the wall. We don’t have to forget who we are because the world has forgotten who it is.
Renter, don’t forget to close the door when you leave. Don’t forget to stay hopeful. And above all else, water my damn cactus plant.
She pinned the note back to the wall and followed the corner into the living room, knife still in hand. There was an overwhelming wet fire smell, like the one she remembered as a child during summer nights in the woods. The fireplace was now the throat of the house, blackened and sooty. Hungry. She noticed the potted plant sitting by the large front window. It was almost dead by this point. The beautiful flowers were frail and disappeared when she reached her hand to touch them. She dribbled a few droplets of dirty liquid onto the hunched over plant. She waited for the plant to chug the little given and gave some more. She thought she saw the plant rise with confidence.
The hallway had names written and carved into the wall. Some were young, as young as little Eliza who was three weeks old. Most were older, but none surpassed the 75-year-old named Robert. How this house had stood out to the coming people, she did not know. It was in bad shape, much like the others. All she knew was that the plant wasn’t entirely dead and people had written on the wall. The roof was still intact, although a couple pans were sitting in the middle of the floor to catch droplets. The door was open when she followed the hallway towards the office. Someone had patched the floor with pieces from the shelves. The room was dirty, and the hardwood floor had deep cuts and bruises. But no more hole. She turned to leave the room when she noticed that the wall with the door had a large picture of a maze. Someone must have drawn the labyrinth on the wall with marker, and someone else had tried to figure out the puzzle with pencil. The smudges were evident in all sorts of directions, but finally someone had made it all the way to the center and back again.
Touching the wall with her disfigured fingertips, she felt the people who had used the wall. She felt them in the crayon that smeared when she rubbed too hard. She felt them in the fingerprints that were a result of wet marker.
She left the intensity of the feelings and rested back into her cautious attitude. She moved slowly down the hallway towards the bedroom. All the doors were open and showed a mixture of bedding and broken furniture. The bedroom was no different. The sheets were torn off the bed and the mattress lay naked and exposed. The little trinkets on the nightstand were no longer there. The night stand had probably been eaten up by the house. The closet had no more clothes but skeleton hangers. All the shoes were strung across the floor, broken and scuffed. No one needed a pair of stilettos in a time like this.
She walked easily around all the garbage and found the baseboard she was looking for by heaving the bed frame aside slightly. It popped off with a little jiggle. She reached inside to find the love letters sitting in a pile. They had been hardened by time and dirt. She delicately grabbed each one and stacked them together in front of her stomach. She wanted to believe they were fake, that this world was fake. She stared a moment longer before peeling back the envelope of the most recently written letter. It was dated January 10, 2018. She closed it before she got halfway through and let the swell of intensity consume her.
She’d told herself that maybe he had forgotten their special place. Maybe he had come home and not read the note she’d made. Maybe he’d made it home only hours after she left and was in search of her. Maybe he was hiding from her and would unveil himself at any point. She sobbed tears that dripped onto the hardwood floor and were absorbed instantly into the house. It thrived on her tears. It ate them up.
The sun outside began to set and she pulled her aching back against the wall. The cold hardwood floor relentlessly took all of her body heat, and she shivered. Rationality took control. She hoisted herself up and, with letters in hand, made her way to the fireplace.
She’d become a different person since she’d left this house, much like she thought would happen. But she never expected herself to become so strong in so many ways. Starting a fire became habitual and easy. Second nature. She was able to manipulate the flames so carefully that they spoke back to her. The fire was her companion, giving her heat when she fed it food. She’d learned the hard way that controlling fire was the most important skill to survive out there. Now, she started a fire in her own home, here, and let it burn.
Until all the furniture was destroyed. She worked tirelessly, methodically to cut down the couch, shelves and kitchen cabinets. She grabbed the last of her shoes and watched them melt into submission. She grabbed all her first-edition novels and threw those in, too. She stashed the letters safely into her jacket pocket as she burned the yearbooks, photo albums she hid in the house attic, calendars and everything else that would burn. Everything. Nothing was safe from fire, nothing was safe from this house and its lips smacking together. It was never satisfied. She watched the fire lick its lips across the mantel. Fire was your animal when controlled, harnessed, leashed. But when uncontrolled, it was a monster, eating at your insides and pulling them apart.
The house yawned and moaned in pleasure as the fire began to consume the ceiling. She watched as the house became alive as the sun rose, like a newborn when it needs to be fed. She delicately unpinned the note from the wall and looked at the letters. The house was empty of all but these words on these notes that did no one any good. It did no good for Eliza or Robert or her husband. They all were gone by the time she made it here. There was no more here.
She tossed them into the fire and watched as the house consumed them. All the words were eaten up. All the sentences smashed and ruined. She let the fire consume the intensity in her body. The heat dried up all efforts of tears. The fireplace ate it all gladly and asked for more. She threw the cactus into the flames and watched the fireplace chew and chew and chew until the tough, resilient skin was no more. More. But by now the house was empty and the fire was no longer controllable. All that remained was her boots, gloves and scarf neatly stacked in the corner. She put them on as she always had. She replaced her sunglasses as the June sun started to beat upon the old and dingy house. She traced her fingers along the names and ages of all of her renters. They’d all been here and she imagined they were with her now. She imagined her husband was dancing in the flames, smiling, showing his tiny chin and crinkled forehead.
The fire consumed the hallway now, the names, the ages. She walked herself into the fire and felt herself being swallowed up into the belly. The intensity was gone, the light was gone, all was gone. But the fire still wanted more.