On Tuesdays and Thursdays we go to feed the house.
Zhan takes me. We walk down the cracked sidewalk, hopping the places where the cracks are almost chasms. At points we have to push through high weeds. We go in the middle of the day when the sun is a hammer beating on your head and it’s too hot for the flies to buzz. There’s hardly anyone outside then and never anyone down this end of Pine Street, which is probably the only reason we can come and feed the house at all.
Because if the rest of them had their way they’d just let it starve.
Can you starve a house? I asked Zhan once, and he just spat tobacco at me and smirked. It was a stupid question and I know that now. Of course you can starve a house. You can starve anything that’s alive.
Zhan flips his shaggy black hair back from his face, huffs out a laugh at nothing in particular. Zhan is three years older than me and all angles and he doesn’t know I’m in love with him.
In my mind, all three of those things are of equal importance. In my mind, none of them can exist independently of the others.
Zhan has two squirrels in a steel box trap under his arm. They scurry back and forth and rattle the wire mesh on the ends. I can feel their panic. Once it would have bothered me but I’m over that now. I’m focused ahead, trying not to trip over anything but also because I want to see the house the second that seeing it is possible. I don’t want it sneaking up on me. It keeps up the appearance of dormancy but we know that it’s like any predator; it only seems passive when it has to.
“Step it up, Tom.” Zhan glances back over his shoulder and speeds up a little. We’re not supposed to be here. If we’re seen by an adult nosy enough we’ll get busted for truancy and they’d probably want to know what we were going to do with the squirrels. I move faster, grass whispering around my ankles.
Then I see it.
It’s two stories. There’s a porch running around its front and a little way onto the sides. Its blue paint has faded and peeled until it’s almost gray. Its front yard is dead and brown. The four front windows—two on each floor—are broken. They’re black holes. We’ve never seen what’s inside. We’ve never gotten close enough to do so. A rusty PRIVATE PROPERTY KEEP OUT sign hangs crooked on the wire mesh fence but that’s not why we hang back.
Zhan and I stand there for a few minutes. The squirrels are still and silent, and I know without looking that it isn’t because they’re afraid. They’re beyond fear.
Finally Zhan drops into a crouch and sets down the trap, points the front at the gap where the gate used to be before it rusted off its hinges. He opens the trap. I lose the fight against the shiver that wants to roll through me; there’s sweat trickling down between my shoulderblades, but that’s not where the shiver is coming from.
The house is staring at me. At both of us.
The squirrels walk out of the trap. They aren’t moving in that funny little hop that squirrels do. They’re walking, one foot in front of the other, stiff. They’re little squirrel zombies. They walk through the gate without hesitation, up the broken pavement of the front path and right up to the door.
Here’s the thing about the door: It’s there. And it’s not.
They walk right up to it and through it. It never opens.
No sound. No movement.
“Every fuckin’ time,” Zhan murmurs. I nod.
Zhan picks up the trap. We back away. Twenty yards clear and we turn and walk back the way we came. Neither of us says a word.
The house has always been there. Or it was there when we moved here, which was before I can remember anything, so as far as I’m concerned that’s always.
Zhan and I have been friends since I was old enough to have friends and he’s been my hero since I was old enough to have heroes. A lot of this is because he accepted me from the first when a lot of other kids laughed and called names and threw rocks and never gave me a moment’s peace at school—most particularly the ever-present trio of Kyle Patterson, who has hated me for reasons of his own since the third grade, Jake McDonnell, who’s his best friend, and Drew Carter, who usually just tags along because he has nothing better to do—because of my hair and the clothes I insisted on wearing and how I bristled every time anyone called me her. I could never have explained to them why I wanted these things; they just felt right in a world that was nothing but wrong. But Zhan, if he didn’t understand, at least accepted without question or complaint. For Zhan, I just was. I am.
Like the house.
I was ten when Zhan first took me to the house. He had caught a neighbor’s cat, a mangy thing that always came after us with claws fully extended. It hissed and yowled in the trap but then it walked through the front gate and we never saw it again.
Zhan swore me to secrecy. I swore.
That was three years ago. In those three years Zhan has never answered any of my questions, not where it came from, what it really is, how he found out about it, or whether or not we could kill it. I think if there were answers, Zhan would give them to me.
Later in the woods, after we’ve fed the house, he sticks a hot dog into fire we made in a ring of stones and holds it out to me when it’s split down the middle and steaming. The light is touching his face with soft, shifting fingers. I look at him and I hope—oh, God, I hope—that he can’t see what I’m thinking.
I knew I was in love with Zhan a year after he showed me the house. I think the house is why it happened. He shared a secret with me. It made me want to share all of mine.
It’s getting tough to do the twice-a-week-sneaking-out thing.
Back in summer it was easier. We could get away for entire days, spend the morning tossing a baseball back and forth in the dusty lot two blocks from our street, check the traps, feed the house, and devote the rest of the afternoon to shooting crows with an air rifle from the bushes that surround the parking lot of the Los Vientos industrial park. In the summer it’s pretty empty so no one runs us off. But I think Zhan always enjoys that part more than I do.
Regardless, it’s not summer anymore. School’s back in session, never mind how hot it is and will be for at least two more months, and it’s not all that hard to go truant from lunch with all of us crowded into the blacktop yard—blasting heat at us—but we’re running a little bit of a risk every time.
Thank Christ no one really cares. That fucking dyke and her faggot friend. Neither of us is especially popular, so okay, we have each other.
We have each other. I love how that sounds.
Here we are again. This time it’s three chipmunks, walking in stately procession up the path. Zhan and I are standing close enough to touch. I glance at him—it always feels hard to look away from the house, dangerous even, but I can manage it for him—and for the first time I wonder How much longer are we going to do this?
What would happen if we stopped?
I don’t know why Zhan started feeding the house. But in bed that night I start thinking about that steady plod all the animals do up to that not-there door. And I think about how hard it is to look away from the house, how hard it is to even keep from going there, the way we’ll get around almost any obstacle to do it.
It calls us.
I fall asleep thinking about it there in the dark, alive, hungry, waiting for the next time we bring it meat.
I dream about it. It’s not a good dream.
I’m standing where Zhan and I always stand, looking at the house. But it’s not like it usually is. We never go to the house after dark but it’s dark now, starless and moonless. And I’m alone.
Except I’m not. Because the house is there. And while I know that every time we stare at it, it’s staring back . . . I’ve never felt it like this before. It’s this dark hulk sitting there, and while it’s not moving I feel like it is. Creeping closer to me. Reaching out.
The front yard is full of bones.
We’ve never seen it like that. The house leaves nothing. It takes everything in. Flesh, bone, blood. Light. Air. I want to turn around and walk away. Run away, maybe. But I can’t. My muscles are locked. And instead I find myself walking forward in that walk that hundreds of animals have been forced into before me. Bones crunch under my feet. The air is weirdly hot.
What are you? Where did you come from?
I reach out and put my hand through the door, and I feel it disappear into the nothing beyond.
“I wonder if it was from some kind of experiment.”
Zhan grunts and passes over the cigarette we’re sharing. It’s an off day for us—at least as far as the house is concerned—and we’re sitting on the concrete wall outside the abandoned Sunoco, drinking flat soda, smoking. Watching the sunset. My hand brushes his when I take the cigarette, and he isn’t looking at me.
I can’t decide which is harder to stop thinking about, Zhan or the goddamn house—and maybe they can’t be separated. Maybe neither can exist without the other.
But it’s been a while and I should really figure it out.
“I mean,” I persist, “like maybe it’s like a black hole or something? Like a scientist was doing shit and it went wrong.”
“Or maybe it’s haunted,” I say. “I read about something like that. Haunted houses. People go into them, never get seen again.”
Zhan takes the cigarette back and taps ash onto the asphalt. “Whatever, man.”
No, not whatever. But I’m not irritated with him. I’m irritated with the house. I get the sense, subtle but increasingly hard to ignore, that we don’t talk about it because it doesn’t want us to.
“You know it’s not haunted,” Zhan says after about ten minutes of silence. I jump, and then I stretch my arm back to scratch at a fake itch on my shoulderblade so he won’t think I was startled, but it probably doesn’t work.
“You know it’s not, Tom. That shit is alive.”
It never really feels like autumn, but the days get shorter. I don’t ask Zhan about the house, not for a while. If it really is trying to silence me, I give up and let myself be silenced. I’m thinking about other things. I’m getting to the point where every week I can feel myself changing, getting older. Two weeks ago I looked at myself in the mirror and I’m getting tits, shit, still small but I can feel them coming. Mom took me out to get a couple of sports bras. I got them one size too small and so far it’s working okay. I’m still flat. And Mom doesn’t seem like she cares what I do. She watched me come out of the changing room and look at myself and all she did was ask me if the bras were okay.
Not asking questions is a kind of support, isn’t it?
Whatever. Zhan. And the Winter Formal is coming up and last year I wouldn’t have ever thought about going because I’m that fucking dyke but now I’m fantasizing about it, me in a tux and Zhan in a tux, matching pair except he’s taller with longer hair, and we’d dance in the dots of mirrorball light and everyone would leave us alone.
I don’t even know why I want this. I wish I could stop. I wish the house would make me quiet about this like it does about itself.
Maybe the animals don’t die. Maybe they go somewhere better. Maybe that’s why none of them ever come back.
It takes me a minute to get it. We’re walking to school, taking our circuitous route that sends us through the blacktop yard, and I get lost in the rhythm of my own steps.
He’s moving. Well, aren’t we both? Together?
Then, “The fuck you mean?”
“End of the month.” He kicks a rock into the scrubby grass. “Dad’s got a new job. He told me this morning.”
“You can’t,” I say. It comes out without me thinking. It’s a statement of fact, like what he just said. He can’t. Of course he can’t. We’re a matched pair, like when I think about dancing with him; we go together. We don’t make any sense apart.
He huffs a laugh. “Yeah, well.”
We’re at the fence. We’re through the fence, where some of our classmates are heading inside and the others are screaming all around us in those play screams that escalate out of control; one person starts being loud and then everyone gets louder and louder until no one can hear anything anymore but no one shuts up. I stop and I stare at him. He stops and stares back. His hair is falling in his face. I can only see one black eye. He has crow’s eyes. Like the crows he shoots.
“I don’t want you to.” I take a breath, and I latch onto the only argument I can think of that isn’t about what I want, because I don’t think what I want ever carries a lot of weight. “What about the house?”
He shrugs. “That’ll be on you, I guess.”
“I can’t. I don’t have the traps.”
“I’ll give them to you.”
“I can’t.” I’m so close to crying. I’ve never cried in front of him. I hate it so much. “I can’t, I can’t, I don’t want you to.” Jesus Christ, I sound like a two-year-old, and he’s just looking at me and he’s like the goddamn house, I have no idea what the hell he’s thinking.
I was working up to asking him to the Formal. Like a joke. Be my date. And he’d take it as a joke and we’d spend the whole night smirking at everyone like we’re too cool for them instead of the other way round, and we probably wouldn’t even dance but you know? I think I would have been okay with that. But it’s not like it even matters now.
“I have to.” And for those three words he sounds so gentle that suddenly I’m sobbing and pushing myself forward, my arms going around his skinny frame, those tits that I don’t like and don’t want pressing against his chest.
I don’t mean to kiss him but I do. I don’t really mean to do anything. Like ever. Shit just happens. He’s happening. He tastes like cigarettes and toothpaste.
Oh, God, he’s kissing me back.
We just stand there. If I could hold onto this it wouldn’t even matter. Now I’m the house and I’m pulling him into me. Stay here. Stay in me. I’ll never let you go. Not a single part of you, not even your bones.
All around me the screams are rising into a surprised, mocking crescendo.
We get a day of peace, like a gift. Then they come for me.
I’m walking home. Isn’t that always when shit like this happens? People get mugged. Raped. Dragged into vans and never seen again. None of that is what happens to me, but one moment the sidewalk ahead of me is clear and the next it’s crowded with guys. Looking at me. Clenching their fists.
Kyle, Jake, and Drew. They’re big enough to count as a crowd.
I stop. On some level I suppose I expected this. I took a risk; more often than not risks have costs. And I was getting too lucky with not getting beaten up much anymore. But I look at them there in the twilight and I have this awful feeling that today I’m in for more than an average beating.
I can’t run. Their legs are longer. But I take a step back anyway. I’m still blocks from home. If I screamed I’m not sure anyone would come to the door.
That gets me bristling. I think of that cat, his fur all bushed out and his lips drawn back from his teeth; he always looked like a snake. Maybe I can be like that.
Jake tips his chin toward me. It would be easier if he was sneering or something; instead he just looks cold. “So you were making out with your girlfriend the other day. That was real fucking sweet, Tessa.”
“I’m not Tessa.” They use my name like a punch. Names shouldn’t get used like that. No one should be able to use them like that. I feel guilty for letting them. “The fuck you guys want?”
“We want your girlfriend,” Kyle says, and he sounds like he’s doing me a favor, telling me. “You know where she is. We wanna see you make out again. It was real hot, Tess.”
I shake my head, but Drew steps forward and grabs me by the arm and squeezes so hard I feel my bones grind and I choke back a cry. I’m getting a sense of it, what’s looming in front of me out of the dark. Behind them. It’s more than them. Bigger. Nastier. Driving them. Do they know? Would they care if they did? There’s something like that behind everything like this that anyone does anywhere in the world. I don’t think people can do things like this on their own. Not that people are fundamentally good or any shit like that but just because I honestly don’t think people are strong enough for this kind of bad.
I’m trying to figure a way past this, and I’m not smart enough to wriggle free no matter how much I wish I was—but I think I might be strong enough for a different kind of bad.
I have no idea if this will work. Probably it won’t. They aren’t like Zhan and me. They haven’t been called.
But I incline my head down the street, breathing hard. I hurt. It’s hard to think over the hurt; I’m sort of impressed that I can do it at all. “Okay. I was . . . I was gonna meet him. I’ll take you. Just don’t hurt us, okay?”
It sounds lame. They laugh. I don’t expect anything but more hurt. We all know, there’s this kind of understanding between all four of us, even if none of us acknowledge it. I think gazelles have this kind of understanding with lions.
I start walking. Drew doesn’t let go of my arm. I swallow down the pain. All I’m thinking about is black empty spaces, open to the night. And the day. And always.
Kyle frowns. Drew gives my arm a hard wrench and this time I do cry out. They’re not happy. I knew they wouldn’t be happy.
“The fuck is this?”
We’re standing a few yards away from the gate. It’s full dark now and the streetlights make everything look orange and too hard and just plain weird. Nothing is the right shape.
But the house looks exactly the same as it does in the daylight.
“I was meeting him here,” I gasp. “He’s here. I swear.”
We’re not close enough. That has to be it. Please, let that be it.
“So where is he? She,” Jake corrects with a glance back at Kyle. A little nervous. I get it; this is a conceit he came up with and they’re following his lead like when dogs want to make someone happy. But at this point it’s sort of ridiculous and I have to bite my lip to keep from laughing. They’d hate that. They’d hurt me even worse and they wouldn’t wait for Zhan to do it.
Zhan is at home.
No one is coming for me.
So I point toward the house with my free hand. “He’s in there. We go in there to drink sometimes.”
Jake and Drew look like they at least sort of buy it, but Kyle is staring at me with narrow eyes. Shit, he doesn’t. Shit. Not that I really thought this would work, but shit.
Kyle nods toward Jake. “Get in there and check it out.”
And then I know I’m screwed. There are two ways this can go and neither of them help me.
Jake will go in there and whatever gets the animals won’t work on him because he’s not that bright but he’s still human and it doesn’t work on humans the same way. And inside he’ll find nothing. Just an abandoned house with broken furniture and peeling wallpaper and whatnot.
Or Jake will go in there and not come out. And then Drew and Kyle will be pissed at me beyond what I can imagine now. Pissed and maybe scared. And we’re really close to the woods, and the woods go back a long way from the road. They get deep.
For the first time it occurs to me that I might not make it home tonight.
Jake starts walking. I can’t breathe. He’s three yards from the gate. Then two. It won’t work on him. He’s not walking the way the animals do. He’s still got that I can fuck you up swagger. One.
He steps through.
And nothing changes.
I want to yell. Scream for help, for all the good it’ll do me. These are the last few minutes before something black and awful hits me in the face. I can’t avoid it, I can’t duck. I can just stare and wait for it.
My gaze hits the windows. Those black, empty holes in space. And I swear one of them flickers out of existence for a split second and then back in again.
It’s winking at me. The fucking house is winking at me.
Jake is pulling out his phone, calling up the flashlight app, and it’s just going on and beaming out across the remaining path and toward the door when he stops. Drops the phone. I watch it fall in slow motion—I thought that shit only happened in movies, but no. It hits the concrete and it shatters. It glitters in its own light before the light goes out.
Jake steps forward. Stiff. Plodding. Staring straight ahead.
The rest of it happens so fast. He gets to the door and then he steps through the door and he’s gone. Drew and Kyle are yelling his name, demanding that he come back; they’re not total idiots, they know that something’s wrong here even if they don’t know what it is, and when Jake doesn’t appear again after a minute their cries start getting angry.
Drew’s hand is loosening on my arm. I could twist free, I know it. I could turn and run back down the street. They might not catch me? But I know that’s bullshit. They’d catch me. They’ll be pissed, and they will be scared, and I’ll have run and they’ll be pumped up and bursting with adrenaline and I know what happens to a lot of kids like me in hick towns like this and I know it’s bad and I know sometimes you walk through that door and you never come out again.
Everywhere in front of me are doors. There are no good endings behind any of them. There’s no good choices here.
But there is this one.
I break free. Drew is yelling the second I do, lunging forward, but that second I have on him is what I need and I’m tearing ass toward the gate and through it and up the path. Toward the door. All those processions of animals, all those zombie creatures, walking without ever turning back. In all the months and years we’ve been feeding the house none of them have ever turned back. I’m a living conglomeration of rhythm, my heart and my lungs and my pumping arms and the pound of my feet. I don’t even know if they’re chasing me. They probably aren’t. But even if they don’t follow—
It’s like everything in my brain folds in on itself.
I stop. One by one all of my muscles are locking up. I can’t get them to respond to anything I do. I don’t even think my lungs are working like they were because suddenly I can’t get my breath. I’m looking at the house and it occurs to me that I shouldn’t fight this. The house is my friend, because it helped me and it’s still helping me now. The house doesn’t care who I am; the house will let me be whatever I want to be. I should go to it. I should go in there.
It can’t turn it off, I think distantly. Not even for me. It can’t.
My legs are carrying me forward. I think I’m smiling.
I’m kissing Zhan on the blacktop. We’re sitting shoulder to shoulder and I’m imagining that I can taste his mouth on the cigarette we pass back and forth. We’re in the woods, doing fuck-all the way we do. We’re lying in Riverside Park and my head is on his stomach and I can hear his heartbeat and that soft little gurgle that stomachs make even when you’re not hungry. There are birds taking off, landing, all around us. We’re standing in front of the house and watching animals go where we won’t go. Where he wouldn’t let me go. The first time he took me there. He told me to stand clear.
I try to stop before I even get why I’m trying. My legs don’t really stop moving but my body stops, and that makes them walk right out from under me and I drop onto my ass. The pain drowns out everything else and something in me snaps, a tether coming loose, and I roll onto my stomach, clawing at the dry ground. Trying to crawl. That pleasant hum in my head that was drowning out everything jerks into a screech, angry and loud, and I scream, clapping my hands over my ears but I can’t block it out.
It wants me. It wants me and it’s going to have me and there’s nothing I can do about it.
Something heavy and hard comes down on my ankle and twists it sideways. If I cry out I don’t hear myself. Turning over is like rolling a log down a hill; it’s tough to get going but once you’re there it’s tough to stop. My vision is blurring, bursting with light at the edges, but I can see enough.
Drew and Kyle. Standing there, locked in place. They came for me. The stupid fuckers actually came for me.
And they’re moving forward toward the door.
With them there, it feels like the focus is swinging away from me and onto them. I can pull myself up to my hands and knees, one hand still against the side of my head. The screech has faded. The house is getting what it wants. And so much of it, too. Three big, meaty courses. Drew and Jake step onto the porch and together, without hesitation, they walk through the door.
My arm hurts. I don’t feel sorry for them. I don’t feel sorry when I think, at the edge of the hum in my brain, I can hear them start to scream.
I’m floating around the periphery. The house can’t or won’t pull me in now, so it’s locked me into a stable orbit. Around and around. I think it might be waiting.
Things have happened. Things are still happening. I can’t go back, even if I get free. I’m a singularity. Everything has changed and is always changing forever.
I open my eyes once in the dawn light and I’m surrounded by bones. I’m looking into the empty eye sockets of a skull. Totally clean. Polished. Sunlight gleams off it at a low angle and looks red. I don’t know whose it is.
They weren’t as digestible as squirrels. As cats. I guess.
I slide my fingers into the sockets like a bowling ball. I float back down like that. There’s something comforting about it. I’m not alone. Or I won’t be. If I just wait long enough, I have a feeling he’ll come. He always has.
I’m locked into an orbit, but my name pulls me back. Barely. I lift my head off the hard-packed dirt and Zhan is there, at the gate, and dawn light is washing all the remaining color out of the world, and I know my time itself was sucked into the house and I’ll never get it back, and I’m not sure I care. Zhan’s eyes are taking up his whole face. God, he’s so beautiful.
“Jesus Christ, Tom, what did you do?”
But I don’t need to answer him. In this place, he should understand. We’re compressed into each other. No real space between him and me.
Just like I always wanted.
I had to do it. You weren’t here.
When he showed me the house three years ago he had to have known we were doing more than just feeding it. He must have felt that. You don’t feed something like this and get nothing in return.
Come here, Zhan. Be with me.
My gaze meets his. I can’t move any more than I have but I think if he were closer to me, folded into me, I could move a lot more. We could circle together. We could dance.
“Please.” I don’t know who says that.
For a moment I think he’s going to step through the gate and I’m so happy I can’t breathe. For a moment I’m sure he is. One foot in front of the other, Zhan, just like that. You’ve seen how easy it is, over and over and over.
And he turns around and walks away.
He doesn’t run. We never ran.
My head drops down again. Just let me fall, then.
Without him, my orbit decays.
I never know, afterward, if it’s just that the house demanded both of us and I was unacceptable alone, if I was bait for him and I failed, or if I was stronger than I knew. But at some point I get up. I walk past the bones. I’m plodding, slow and steady, pulled back every second of the way. I go home and I sleep and I don’t dream, and part of me feels like it’s just gone. Like I left it behind. Or like I’m carrying around something new. Or both things at once.
I never hear anything about any bones. No one ever asks me about Drew or Kyle or Jake. That’s good. I don’t know anything.
At the end of the month Zhan moves away.
I never saw him again. But I also see him every day, in the part of me carved out by the house to contain itself.
He can’t stop himself returning. Neither of us could.
Once it had us, it had us. We always thought we were better than the animals, better than the boys I tossed through that door to save myself, better because we didn’t let ourselves get pulled in. Better because the house knew us. Better because we had an understanding.
But we always went back there. We were always called. We never said no. In the end he and the house are pretty much the same, devouring me before I can even begin to fight. If I even wanted to.
So half of me moves on with life, high school and college and whatever the hell comes after that, becoming freer, becoming more myself . . . and part of me is still there. Unchanged by time but shaping everything around it. I don’t exist apart from it. I don’t make any sense beyond the arc I carve around it, spiraling inward and out. Small and scared and trying so hard. Waiting for him to come to me.
Live here. I have enough room for you.
There’s never any escaping that orbit. There’s never any going back.