812 Firkin Street – Mel Hornyak

         At one point, 812 Firkin Street must have been a normal house.

         After things started getting bad, I developed an interest in the people who had lived there before my family. It’s usually easy to get purchase records on a property from the Internet, and names from those purchases, and people from those names — but for some reason, the only trace I could find of 812 Firkin Street online was in the background of someone else’s family photo. It was pinned to a “Suburban Life Inspo!!!” Pinterest board, washed-out even before someone had slapped a sepia filter on it. From the woman’s Peter Pan collar and flowered cotton dress, I guessed it was late 50’s — probably right after the house was built, along with all of the other houses in my neighborhood. Most of them have been replaced by empty McMansions now, which carry their own kind of horror, but 812 Firkin Street has remained the same squat, unassuming brick split-level that was photographed behind this family.

         I’ve looked at this photo many times. I used to have it pinned above my desk, because I needed to remember that it was once a normal house. The woman has a short, brown bob and a light blue dress that just barely shows the lines of her ill-fitting brassiere. The man is wearing a white button-down and brown dress pants, and his left hand rests on the head of a little blond boy who squints at the camera like it’s trying to sell him something. It’s awkward and staged, like any family photo, but the real difference is in the house behind them.

I compared it to one of our own family photos, for reference — me in the front, four or five years old, my younger brother Alex sitting on my mother’s hip, my father shading his eyes so all you can see of his face is his stilted smile. But your eye is drawn to the house. I can’t explain it, really. The house is the same — or, to be precise, every individual part of the house is the same. Each angle on each white-shuttered window and each brass decoration on our porch stairs is the same. The house number is still nailed above the door, the 1 is still just a little bit crooked. But the overall effect is so different. In the 50s, it looks open, inviting, innocent. It’s hard to tell if it’s the expression of an overly eager youth leader or a spider observing a fly approach its web. It seems like every line curves upwards, as though hope elevates it from a house to a home.

Behind my family, the house seems to take up more of the frame, even though I measured it and found it was smaller. The lines, the materials, the angles are all the same- perhaps a bit more weathered with time, but not enough to account for the way it looms over us. Every line seems to bow towards the place where my dad is holding my shoulder a little bit too tightly, and you can see the veins bulge over his knuckles. Every window looks dark, wide, staring, like a multitude of mismatched eyes. Even though the door is closed, there is something sharp and hungry about the way it crouches there, dominating the photo like a massive, dark cancer on the horizon. If you look at the photo too long the house begins to grow, to swell, to take up more and more of the frame until all you can see is the empty windows and the gleaming white door and you feel as though it is about to open wide and swallow you whole.

This is all to say, 812 Firkin Street didn’t become like this on its own.

Now that I have time to make theories — to sit down and think about everything that happened — I’ve settled on this, if only for my own sanity: A house crafts itself around the lives of those that inhabit it. There are mundane manifestations of this that everyone believes in: The worn places on the stairs where you trotted up and down them for twenty years, the polished place on the front door where your knuckle brushes it as you turn the key, the one cupboard that has dented the woodwork where you callously slam it shut. But I think — no, I know, that there are certain actions which leave a less visible mark on the places where they are done. Not ghosts, although I suppose this could explain a few different supernatural phenomena.

Only this: Walls, floors, and ceilings have long memories. They learn through the motions of those who move between them. And when a house is steeped in anger, stewed in malice, the echoes never really fade. Sometimes they rattle upwards and dissipate in the clacking of the attic fan and tuneless groans as the wooden frame settles after dusk. But sometimes, they rumble deep into the foundations, and stick there among the dust and the bones of rats, and a house develops a taste for blood.

***

I never really planned to move back in with my parents. Hopefully by the time I’m done you’ll understand why, but suffice it to say that when I left that place at 18 I never looked back. I  guess nobody really plans on it — after all, when anyone says their plans after college are to move back in with their parents, people give them that pitying little glance when they know they shouldn’t feel bad for you, but do anyway. Nevertheless, at the beginning of last summer I found myself as a recent graduate with a double-major in Art History and Music, and none of the job prospects I’d been promised before graduation had developed beyond thin-lipped interviews and “Thank you for your interest.” My brushes with research as an undergraduate had soured my taste for academia, and none of the museums or firms I applied to seemed to have time for a 22-year-old with a lot of experience analyzing the nuances of Francis Bacon and not a lot of experience with Excel spreadsheets.

In the end, my old high school decided to take pity on me and hired me on as a “Junior Media Specialist and Administrative Assistant,” a Frankenstinean combination of secretary and librarian paying half as much as either job would alone. I figured it was better than nothing, but I couldn’t find a way to torture the cost of living near my school into being even slightly equivalent to my salary. So, it was with considerable resignation that I decided to move back in with my parents, just until I could get back on my feet and get a bit of experience that might help me break into what I actually wanted to do.

That was why I found myself in front of 812 Firkin Street that hot June day, with all my worldly possessions in the U-Haul that I parked in the cracked driveway. I turned off the truck and just sat in the driver’s seat in silence, willing myself to go in. When I glanced at the house, I wish I could say that I felt then that it was different. In fact, I wish I had listened to the dread settling in my stomach, turned the truck back around, and driven to one of those expensive suburban houses that I had been considering before. I could’ve worked nights as a bartender or something to make ends meet; maybe gotten engaged and split the rent. 

The funny thing is, I don’t think the house was any different. Looking back at those photos from my childhood reveals it was hungry after just a few years of living in it; it must have been hungry since before I was born. Sometimes places we go back to are different, not because they have changed, but because we have changed. I think that’s why it all went so badly this time. Along with the boxes of art prints and socks that my mother helped me carry up to my childhood bedroom, I think I brought in just a scrap of my life outside. When I’m feeling fanciful, I imagine it’s a bit of my dorm room, clinically impersonal in its IKEA-style furniture but sedately charming once I fought back the tide of conformity with paper lanterns and postcards taped to the walls. 812 Firkin Street must not have enjoyed something encroaching on its space, and lashed out because that was all that it knew how to do.

A word about my mother. In the photo of me as a child, she has a soft, round face and alert eyes that you can see the sky reflected in. She worked part-time as a statistician, although she always told us that what she really wanted to be was a writer. When I saw her for the first time in four years I was startled to see her hair had gone grey. From the length and amount, I realized that she must have simply decided not to dye it anymore, and saw that there were still red hints around the bottom of her ponytail. You might expect her to be weak or helpless, in comparison to my father, but she wasn’t at all. She had a fire all her own, that would burn people at the smallest provocation — a broken dish, a careless remark. She was mean to cashiers at the grocery store. It was, perhaps, even more disorienting than my father’s stoic impassivity and blinding rage, if only because when she wasn’t angry she was one of the kindest people I had ever met.

When she caught sight of me, she threw her arms around me in a tight hug. It had been a while since I had hugged anyone, and for a moment I felt like I had forgotten how. Before I could remember, she had moved on to the back of the U-Haul, throwing the latch open.

“How was the drive? You didn’t need to stop in Ohio, did you? I always hated the rest areas there.”

And just like that, my life before leaving fit perfectly back into place with a dusty sigh, like an unread book being returned to the shelf. I bit back a disagreement about Ohio rest areas and made a noncommittal noise as I piled boxes of clothing into my arms.

“Drive was fine,” I said shortly, following her through the door and up the stairs to my bedroom. She winced apologetically before turning the handle.

“I’ve been keeping a few things in there while you were away. You can move them once we get all of your stuff inside.”

As she opened the door to my room, I briefly didn’t recognize it as my own. The contours of my childhood bedroom were there — the massive oak bed against the far wall, my dresser and bookshelf against the opposite, my desk crammed in the corner beneath the sole window (although now it looked out at the grey clapboard on the side of a neighboring house.) However, every conceivable surface was piled with stuff. Books spilled out of my bookshelf and onto my desk, stacked twelve high. There were piles of magazines in front of my closet and a defunct TV wedged behind my dresser. The floor was littered with even older detritus from when I was a messy teenager, dirty clothing and drink bottles and used tissues I couldn’t be bothered to carry the extra five feet to the trash can. My mom placed her box down atop an unstable pile of art supplies and left for more.

It was alone in that room that the first, dangerous impulse to clean built in me. My mother was not a clean person. She was an organized person, certainly, but not clean. Her main problem was that she never threw anything away. Gifts, souvenirs, clothing she had outgrown, shoes she would never wear again — she surrounded herself with them like they were old friends, and sometimes, when I was very little, I would find her talking to them when she thought she was alone. In the later years that I lived there, our house began to accumulate massive drifts of stuff — stuff, a word that became a swear and an invective in our house, spat out like a hot coal when my father moved the wrong bag and caused a tax-return landslide, or sat on the couch and knocked over a set of boxes that contained nothing but figurines of the Pope. Apparently the collection had continued to build up as I was away.

I should have trusted her system, as someone who had lived in the house longer than I had. It only occurs to me now that her vast accumulations of things managed to hide the walls, the floor, the entryways, to choke the house on tchotchkes and stop it from swallowing us.

 Let me be clear: I don’t think either of my parents really knew what 812 Firkin Street was. But I think my mother covering it over allowed us all to live there without seeing the worst of it. Ironically, I guess, her stuff was protecting us, but that very protection allowed 812 Firkin Street to grow and fester behind all of the old magazines and forgotten holiday ornaments.

While my mother brought in another few of my boxes, I inspected the nearest container — this one was full of National Geographics. The one I picked up was from 1967. As she climbed the stairs again I thumbed through it, then held it up.

“I can recycle these, right? They’re really old.”

My mother’s eyes flared, then grew narrow, and I braced for what was coming next.

“You want to recycle those? Those are from my great-aunt- I bet they’re worth a lot of money- look, you’ve almost got a complete set there- people collect those, you know!”

I felt a flicker of an old anger crawl into my stomach.

“I bet they’re worthless, like most of this stuff,” I retorted, sweeping my arm over the storage unit that was to be my bedroom. “When’s the last time you even looked at any of this?”

 My mom advanced on me, tossing the box she was carrying aside, and I flinched instinctively, holding the magazine up as protection — but she only snatched it out of my hands and smoothed it carefully, shooting a glare at me as she found a new wrinkle on the cover.

“Get up,” she said shortly, and when I stood she lovingly placed the issue back in the box I was kneeling by, centering it in a neat stack with the rest of them. She picked the box up, still glaring at me, and removed it with an air of offended dignity.

“I need to clean this place up, you know,” I called after her. “I can’t live like this!”

She laughed, a short, bitter snort I had come to recognize as her reaction to things that hurt her.

“You should start with your own stuff, first,” she said, and then rounded the stairs with the National Geographics and disappeared from sight.

As I opened one of the drawers to my old oak dresser and began unpacking a suitcase into it, I wondered about the anger I felt at her string of denials. It had been a while since I had found myself lashing out like that — indeed, it had been exactly four years, to the day. Sometimes, when I looked back at my teenage years, I felt like things might have worked out better if I were not so volatile, and chalked it up to hormones. But just then, my mother had suddenly appeared to me not as the complex, flawed woman I had come to pity from a distance, but a vile thing, a hoarding beast lining its den with garbage, and the insult had sprung to my tongue before I had time to think. I pressed my palm flat against my chest, and could feel the fluttering of my heart beneath my fingers. I consciously tried to increase the time between beats, and swore that I wouldn’t fall back into my old patterns of behavior now that I had to live here again.

I didn’t yet know that I didn’t have a choice.

***

For the first few days, I avoided my father, in the same way a bear avoids the patch of forest where it once caught its foot in a trap. For the most part, he was content to do the same. I think we could both hear the echoes of our last fight in this house, just a few days before I left for college. That night, I almost broke his arm. He gave me this scar on my left eyebrow. He still wears that heavy brass ring. I don’t want to talk about it.

Anyway, I rarely had the opportunity to see him. My father worked as a lawyer at a massive firm downtown, the same job he had held since before I was born. Now, he managed a team of younger attorneys, and often stayed at the office late into the night reading briefs and organizing evidence. When he was home, he spent the vast majority of his time arguing with my little brother about whatever new interest was drawing him away from his schoolwork. I spent every day until my contract started holed up in my room, trying to assert my control by organizing it the way I had seen on interventionist TV shows: everything out of sight, all my clothes neatly folded, packing up outgrown things for donation and replacing them with what I brought back from college. It wasn’t easy — my mother seemed to decide that items from when I was a child blurred the boundary between my belongings and hers, and would hover in my doorframe like a turkey vulture, offering unhelpful comments about which things I “simply couldn’t in a million years” get rid of. More than once, I caught her going through my trash to pick out old markers, single Legos, or thumbtacks that she thought were “still good.” Still, little by little, I began to unearth parts of my room that had been buried for years under piles of garbage and knick-knacks.

It was as I was moving aside an old filing cabinet that I first saw the veins.

At first glance, I thought that they were water damage, or cracks in the wallpaper. It was a branching network, about three feet long, that traced from the moulding at the corner of my room to just below waist height. There was a thick central tube, and then smaller offshoots that tapered into nothingness, like inverted lightning. Moreover, the paint wasn’t cracked on top of the markings — it had stretched, like a skin, to accommodate the fluid inside. I reached out and touched it gently with the pads of my fingers.

I shivered at the way the bulges yielded beneath my fingers. We like to think of our walls and floors as firm, immobile, and sturdy. This part moved. By pressing on the larger central vein, I could make the tiny offshoots expand slightly, creeping further up the wall. I was about to chalk it up to water trapped between the paint and the drywall when I noticed that whatever the blisters were filled with was warm. In fact, it was the exact same temperature as my fingers. I prodded it again in astonishment, and that’s when I felt a heartbeat surge through it, from the baseboard to the tips of the veins.

I stumbled away from the wall. I stepped into the hallway to call to my dad that the house was falling apart again, but hesitated. I should have told my parents right away. But, in some way, I didn’t want to disturb the delicate silence my father and I had preserved with something so easily mocked. I touched my scar and wondered if he was in a bad mood today, if this would make things worse. Besides, I was already rationalizing away the pulse I had felt surge through the wall. Perhaps someone else in the house had turned on a faucet, or I had pressed it with my knee accidentally. I even thought that its curious warmth could be explained by it being fed by a hot water pipe.

Still, I had an uneasy feeling about it, and I wasn’t entirely surprised when I re-entered my room and the veins were gone. I didn’t feel the newly smooth surface. I didn’t want to know if it was warm. Instead, I moved the filing cabinet carefully back into place, and resolved that I wouldn’t be moving any more furniture in my cleaning spree. I think I meant to mention the potential leak to my mother or father, but I never found the right time. I didn’t think much of it myself, to be honest — at least, not until the rats.

***

         Once my job started, things became more bearable. My room was clean, although all of the furniture remained firmly against the walls. My work was boring, but it helped to have some kind of excuse to leave my mother’s searchlight gaze and my father’s constant grumbling. I did notice that coming home at the end of the day invariably infuriated me. I would be fiddling with my key, exhaustion settling into my bones from a long day of sorting through the Vice Principal’s files, and my mind would begin listing all of the little irritations that would be waiting for me inside. I could almost see the pile of umbrellas in the front hallway that I would need to twist around to get in, hear the shrill voice of my mother as she was about to ask me to mow the lawn, smell the mess my little brother had made in the kitchen by leaving the milk out. For the first time in my life, I understood why my father came home some nights and immediately picked a fight with whomever was nearest. After spending all day at the office, entering the house conjured a dark, buzzing rage that made me irritable and uncomfortable until I found someone to discharge it at.

         It was for this reason that I began to take walks. I’ve never been a very fitness-minded person; I guess I played sports as a kid, but I didn’t bother to continue once I went to college and no longer needed an excuse to avoid my house after school. The first time, I was fed up with my mother and father arguing about Alex’s grades at the dinner table. I just stood up and left. The streets of my neighborhood are pretty quiet, especially at dusk. I wandered down to the park and sat on one of the swings, watching fireflies rise from the grass like the sparks of a phantom fire.

         I felt calm, and almost happy, for the first time since I had moved in. The sun set before I got a call from my father asking me where the hell I was, and I reluctantly returned. I began to cultivate a habit of going on evening walks, under the guise of improving my health. I walked each street a dozen times, sometimes pacing around a block for hours on end — anything to avoid the hours after dinner, when everyone was bored, tired, and volatile.

         It was one night during those uncertain after-dinner hours that I first heard about the rats. I was washing the dishes when I heard my father hammering on my little brother’s door. I glanced over the remaining dishes, calculating whether I would be able to finish washing them and leave before the real fight started. 

         My father hammered on the door again, hard enough that I could hear it vibrating on its hinges afterwards, and then tried the doorknob. Locked, of course.

         “Alex!” he called, unnecessarily loudly. Alex gave a noncommittal grunt from within his room. “Get out of there, I want to talk to you.”

         There was almost a full minute of silence, although I could still feel the threatening presence of my father at the top of the stairs, like a coiled spring. I had just made up my mind to go up and get Alex myself before Dad tried to take the doorknob off when I heard the door open.

         “Hey, look, I found another one of those mice,” Alex said, as though he was genuinely surprised to see my father outside the door. I smiled without humor. I recognized the strategy of presenting another topic to try and defuse whatever he was angry about.

         “What were you doing?” My father said, refusing the distraction.

         “I…It doesn’t matter,” Alex responded. From the tone of his voice I could tell he was folding his arms. “What do you want?”

         My father sighed.

         “That’s not a mouse, you know,” he relented. “That’s a rat.”

         “How can you tell?”

         I couldn’t tell if Alex was genuinely interested, or grateful for the misdirect. I heard a small item pass hands, and a distressed squeak.

         “First of all, it’s far too large to be a mouse. Second of all, I’ve never seen a mouse that color, but white rats aren’t that uncommon. I bet there’s something about the shape of the head as well.”

         “Well, where do you think they’re coming from?”

         Before my father even spoke, I could tell it was a mistake.

         “Probably from that shithole of a room, I’m guessing,” he said, and I heard Alex’s elbow knock into his doorframe as he tried to stop my father from going inside. “Honestly — you can’t even be bothered to take dirty dishes upstairs to the sink? Or, what is this, a Cheetos wrapper? It’s filthy in here!”

         There was a moment of silence, then Alex started to say,

         “It’s none of your business-”

         “Of course it’s my business!”

         My father’s voice was beginning to climb in volume. I heard another brief struggle as he tried to shove past Alex. I wasn’t even washing the dishes anymore — just holding a glass under the water and listening intently, trying to predict if I needed to intervene or run.

         “It’s entirely my damn business if your filthy room is attracting rats! Maybe it doesn’t bother you to have them crawling all over your things, but it bothers the rest of us. In fact-”

         “What are you doing?”

         There was a note of fright in Alex’s voice, and before I could react my father entered the kitchen, brandishing a glue trap in his left hand. He stormed past me and out into the backyard, with Alex trailing after him. After a moment, I turned off the faucet and followed.

         My father was kneeling on the thin concrete slab outside of our back door that had always served as our deck. It looked like he had knocked aside the plastic chair that my mother liked to sit on in the evenings. Alex was standing a few feet away, skinny arms folded tightly over his chest. As I drew closer, I saw that my father was holding down the rat in the glue trap, which was weakly twitching and trying to bite him, but kept getting deflected by his heavy brass rings.

         “Are you going to kill it?” Alex asked, his voice uncharacteristically plaintive. Dad huffed.

         “Of course I am. We don’t want the damn thing coming back in.”

         Now that the rat wasn’t being brandished like a weapon, I could see that it was unlike any I had seen before. The little creature was pure white, from its nose to the tips of its tail — not the way an albino animal is white, with little hints of cream and pink, but a complete lack of color. It looked deflated, its chest barely rising and falling as it gave up the fight against my father and rested its face on the glue pad beneath it. I felt a surge of pity as it struggled for each breath, but there was no mercy in my father’s fingers as he held the mouse against the concrete. For a moment, I thought he was going to pop its head off with his bare hands. Instead, he stood, placing the tip of his shoe on the rat’s back to hold it down, and grabbed a shovel leaning against the side of the house.

         Alex looked away, his knuckles white where he was clutching his arm, but I couldn’t stop watching as my father drew back the shovel like some mythic hero brandishing his sword, removed his foot, and neatly chopped the rat in two along its neck. The glue plate snapped, sending the two pieces flying away from each other. My eye was drawn to the head, to the way its thin pink tongue lolled out onto the fluorescent green glue. The wound my father had made was a mass of matted fur and some kind of clear fluid. But, I remember distinctly, there wasn’t a single drop of blood. Alex raised one shaking finger to point at it.

         “That’s what…. It’s not the rats being there I’m worried about. It’s the fact that they’re all like that.”

         My father nudged the other part of the rat with his shoe, the shovel still dangling from his right hand, and shrugged.

         “It must have been sick. I certainly would be, if I had to live in a garbage pit like that.”

         I saw anger flare in Alex’s eyes, and he stepped forward, drawing himself up to his full height. I knew his voice got higher when he was scared. Now it was barely a squeak.

         “I don’t see why it’s a problem what my room looks like. You never have to go in there! You never want to go in there! You should keep your fat nose out of it-”

         My father slammed the tip of the shovel down onto the concrete, creating a metal clang that made all three of us wince.

         “I don’t like having vermin in my house,” he growled, and bent down to pick it up again. “Rat or human.” I darted out of the door and seized Alex by the arm. He tried to squirm away from my soapy touch, but I held fast to the back of his shirt.

         “We’re going for a walk!” I said, and pulled him towards the back gate.

         “No, you aren’t,” my father responded, but he didn’t move to follow us as I manhandled Alex out of the backyard and into the street. Alex strained against the hold I had on his collar, and when I let go he tried to turn around before I blocked him with my body.

         “Let’s go,” I said quietly. There was something dark and wild in his eyes as he looked back towards the house, as though he couldn’t even see me. With an angry grunt, he turned and started walking quickly away, making me hurry to catch up.

         We walked for a long time. The sunset was particularly beautiful that night, a luxurious purple that painted the sky in colors usually reserved for flowers and wildfires. Gradually, I saw Alex’s shoulders fall from his tense position, and his eyes began to actually notice the streets we were walking on. We ended up back at the park, sitting on swings that were far too low for us and dragging our heels in the mulch as we watched the stars come out.

         “He was going to kill me,” Alex muttered, and I made a noncommittal noise.

         “You looked like you were about to kill him as well.”

         Alex shot me a glare.

         “Yeah, maybe. But I would never do it. I bet you he would do it.”

         A woodpecker started hammering at a tree, somewhere in the forest ahead of us. Someone’s dog barked. I let the night noises fill the silence between us, until I couldn’t stand it any longer.

         “What did you mean about the rats always being like that?”

         Alex met my eyes, and I saw satisfaction there.

         “You saw it too, right? I don’t know what’s up with them. I keep finding them under my bed. I don’t need to trap them, even — usually they’re too weak to move, or they just try to drag themselves along on their front claws.”

         He turned his face away from me, towards the playground. I could hear him struggling to keep his voice neutral.

         “I keep hearing these noises below me. In the crawlspace. Once, twice a week — it’s this deep, creaking sound, and then a sort of… gurgling.”

         I let out a small breath.

         “Maybe the rats are sick, like Dad said. And that might just be the boiler.”

         My words felt empty and cold in the evening air. For a moment, we both thought about the crawlspace. As a child, it terrified me, not least because I was forbidden over and over again by my parents from entering it. As a teenager, when my mom or dad asked me to go in to shut off the water or reset a fuse, I would argue with them for hours until they would get exasperated and do it themselves. It was a dark, cold place, just a few feet tall, and pitch black — no light but whatever flashlight you brought with you. From the weight of the silence between us, I could tell that Alex felt the same way about it.

         “I saw some veins,” I was surprised to hear myself saying. “Maybe just a water leak. But when I was cleaning my room, I saw these thick veins climbing up the wall behind my dresser. They… were warm. And when I looked back-”

         “They were gone?”

         Alex’s eyes were wide, looking back at me out of the gloom.

         “I saw something like that by my bookcase. Why do you think I’ve been piling up trash there? I don’t want to see them, and I don’t want to hear them. There’s something really, really wrong with that house.”

         I let out a small, bitter laugh, and stood from the swing.

         “Tell me about it.”

         As we began the slow walk home, Alex remained silent for the most part, but as we rounded the corner to our block he nudged me with his elbow.

         “What should we do about it? You know… the house.”

         I sighed. “I don’t think we can do anything. It’s not like Mom or Dad are going to fix it. And if it’s just hurting rats, I’m not sure it’s worth fighting over.”

         A dour mood settled over us as we walked up our front lawn and rang the doorbell. We weren’t expecting our mother to answer with the cuffs of her jeans soaked in blood.

         “Where were you two?” she hissed. “I must have called you twenty times!”

         Dread settled into my stomach. “I left my phone here,” I said, holding back a reminder of why we had left in such a hurry. My mom made a disgusted noise and turned back towards the hallway, pounding down the stairs to my brother’s room. As we followed, I could see several pairs of dark red footprints on the steps. For a moment I thought, dear god, she’s finally killed him. Alex reached out and squeezed my hand.

         When we opened the door to Alex’s bedroom, we found my father standing inside, covered in blood but very much alive. The stink of the viscera moved in a wave out to the hallway. Dad was moving a towel across the floor, already half-soaked in blood. As soon as Alex saw him in his room, he ran past me and began gathering things from a drawer in his desk. My father ran a bloodstained arm across his forehead.

         “Look at this shit,” he said, his face curling with distaste. I nodded, still in shock. “It’s coming from the corner behind his bed, I think. Some sort of dark water malfunction.”

         I froze as my mother passed me another towel.

         “Dark water?”

         My father turned to me, a ribbon of blood snaking down the side of his head.

         “Yeah, from the plumbing. Maybe if your piece of shit brother kept his room any cleaner I could’ve stopped the leak faster, huh?”

         My head was spinning, both from the smell and my father’s words.

         “But… this is blood,” I said hoarsely.

         “What?”

         “This is blood! It’s all blood, every bit of it! There’s blood on your face! There’s blood on the floor! My god, can’t you see it? You’re standing in the stuff!”

         My father squinted at me, then looked down at the fluid coating his feet where he had rolled up his pants.

         “Blood? No, of course not. It’s obviously just backlog from the pipes. Honestly, I’d rather it was blood, maybe it wouldn’t smell half as bad.”

         I held on to the doorframe as I watched the puddles of deep red on the floor. It no longer seemed to be soaking in, at least, and as my father threw another towel down he managed to create a dry patch. I was beginning to feel unbalanced, and swiped aside the trash beside Alex’s bookshelf.

         “Look, see! There’s a vein here. That’s where it came from.”

         There was no vein, of course. But just near the bottom, I saw the minute tooth marks of a rat, and a furry shape dart away. When I turned back to share my findings, I saw that my father had placed a hand on my shoulder and was gently guiding me out of the room.

         “You should drink some water. Bottled water, preferably, at least until we get this worked out. You went on a long walk.”

         I tried to struggle against his grip, but it was as firm as the day we took that family photo in the harsh sun outside of 812 Firkin Street.

         “We should get it tested,” I said desperately. “Then you’ll see what it is.”

         My father’s eyes flared. “I don’t need some chemical expert to tell me what’s within the walls of my own home. Where would that much blood even come from? Why would it be here, in our house? For god’s sake, use your head. You sound like a crazy person.”

         It was those final words that made me shut up. I had heard my father talk about ‘crazy people’ before. It was another word, like stuff, that meant something else in our house. His brother had stayed at a mental hospital for the first few years of my life, and I think he saw everyone who wasn’t rational as manipulative and dangerous. For the record, I don’t think I’m crazy. I probably shouldn’t say that — maybe it’s the best defense I’ve got — but there you go. I mutely accepted a bottle of water from him, and he left the kitchen to keep cleaning up Alex’s room. In the end, we managed to get it dry, and get rid of most of the smell. If anything, it looked better without the drifts of garbage on the floor.

Alex still looked haunted as he settled down for bed that night, but his silence earlier rang loud in my ears. Maybe a word from him in support of my outburst would have convinced my father. Deep down, though, I didn’t fault him for it. Vouching for me then could have gotten him punished, and he was just trying to survive the same way I was.

         It was right after this happened that I began to research the previous owners of the house. My desk began to look like a parody of those conspiracy theory boards you see in TV shows. I’ll admit, I began to read a lot of creepypasta as well. When you search ‘haunted house,’ the results usually don’t address the concept quite as literally as I needed. I did manage to drag up one or two convincing-looking blog posts from people who had photographed veins in their own houses, or heard odd sounds from the basement at night.

         I think I believed that, with enough time and evidence, I would be able to convince my parents to move, or at the very least, to believe me about the house. Every night that I stayed up late researching, the shadows on the wall made me jump, expecting them to be more veins. In hindsight, I’m not sure if moving would have helped matters at all. Even if the house let us leave, I bet our new home would have just become another 812 Firkin Street — a little larger, a little nicer, but rotten to the core.

         According to recommendations from the blog posts, I began sleeping with a flashlight, a house key, and a weapon by the side of my bed. Unfortunately, without stealing a knife from the kitchen, the most dangerous thing I had was a letter opener shaped like an antique dagger that I had bought myself in France. I always intended to replace it with something sharper, but in the end I never had the chance.

***

A week later, I was awoken at night by movement beneath my bed.

I’ve always slept with a light on, even when I was little. I don’t remember why. Still, it helped me stay calm as I grabbed my flashlight and crouched down at the edge of my bed, shining it through the dust bunnies that were already accumulating since my cleaning spree at the beginning of the summer. It only took a moment to find the culprit — a little brown mouse, crouching at the edge of the moulding, nibbling on a crumb of a cookie I must have dropped between my bed and the wall. I relaxed, letting the flashlight rest on the floor. It was just a harmless animal, and moreover, wasn’t one of the dehydrated husks that Alex had described.

Its beady eyes met mine in the flashlight beam, and I smiled at it. For a second, it stayed frozen, its little chest beating in and out like a flickering candle flame. I didn’t quite see what happened next. One moment, the wall was just white moulding and a brown wooden floor, all right angles and straight lines. The next moment, it was still that, except the hind legs of the mouse were inside it. The smooth join between the latex paint and its furry torso was perfect, as though the mouse had been built into the wall from the very beginning. Its front legs twitched as the color slowly drained from its face, and it scratched at the floor trying to run away. A single drop of blood fell from the wall to the floor, where it soaked in until there wasn’t even a stain.

At that moment, there was a knock at my door.

I jumped, hitting my head on the underside of my bed, and was already unsettled and angry when I went to open it. Standing outside, a flashlight in his hand, was Alex. The fear in his eyes stilled my irritation somewhat.

“There’s that noise again,” he muttered, “In my room.”

“Can’t this wait until the morning?”

He glanced around my starkly clean room again, taking in the bright lights carving out the walls and floor.

“I can’t sleep,” he said, still quiet. I went back to my bed to grab my flashlight, and palmed the key and letter opener too.

“Why don’t you wake up Mom and Dad?” I grumbled. He just stared at me, his face impassive, until my gaze slid to the floor.

“Okay, yeah, I get it.”

As we crept down the stairs to his room, every noise seemed to be five times louder than it was during the day. Each creak of a floorboard sent shivers up my spine, and I watched the corners of the walls with special wariness.

Alex seemed to have been making a valiant effort to recreate his piles of garbage from before the flood. I waded through empty chip bags and dirty mugs to get to the place by his bed. I was about to tell him I couldn’t hear anything, when a deep, crackling rumble shook the floorboards. It was so strong that the windows buzzed in their frames. A sound followed that reminded me of bubbles passing through a garbage disposal, roaming about beneath our feet. Alex followed its path with his flashlight.

“See?” He whispered. “It’s louder than I’ve ever heard it.”

I looked down as well.

“I just saw…” I hesitated, not wanting to scare him further. “I think I just saw a mouse being taken in my room. Maybe it’s just…. digesting it.”

The crawlspace below us gurgled again, as if in assent. We stood in silence, listening to the house shift and burp.

“We can go down there and take a look in the morning,” I began to say, but Alex placed his hand on my arm and stared me down.

“I can’t sleep here,” he said hoarsely. “Not while it’s doing this.”

I’ve wished a hundred times that I had made the right choice and invited him to sleep in my room that night. I wish I could say that the thought didn’t cross my mind, but it did. I looked into his eyes and saw a reflection of my own terror. But I also pictured my nice, clean room, the four stark walls, and felt the thorn in my heart where his silence had hurt me. I imagined him, this garbage-dwelling creature, curled up on my newly vacuumed rug, and it sickened me. I almost managed to convince myself that it was just plumbing, or the gas lines acting up again. That was why I placed a hand on his shoulder and clicked on my flashlight.

“Let’s go now, then.”

***

         The crawlspace is a long, low, cinderblock area that lurks to the left of our basement. As I crouched before it, I could feel the cool, dusty air it exhaled into the rest of the house. I tried to cast my flashlight around inside, but it barely touched the tunnel that protected the entrance from the rest of the space. I think it was meant to conserve heating or something. The old smell comforted me, in some measure. At least it didn’t smell like blood.

         Alex prodded me in the back with his flashlight.

         “You go first.”

         I thought about arguing with him, but when I saw the look in his eyes I got on my hands and knees and began to crawl through the narrow aperture. The cinderblock tunnel you have to use to enter the crawlspace is low, narrow, and close on all sides, only opening up into the broader space after a few feet. I clutched my flashlight in my teeth and hurried along it.

         As I was crawling, I heard Alex enter behind me. After a few more feet, I became aware that the tunnel was quite a bit longer than I remembered it being. I glanced behind me, but could still see Alex’s flashlight bobbing in his mouth. He made a confused noise, so I shook my head and continued forward.

         As I kept crawling, the air in the tunnel changed. Before it had been cold, dry, and smelled a little bit like dirt. But a fetid wind was replacing it, something hot and moist. I moved a few more feet before I placed my hand down on a part of the floor that was nothing like the others, and I smelled something visceral.

         When I looked behind me Alex’s light was gone. I couldn’t even turn myself around in the confines of the tunnel, or see the light of the basement at the end of it. I could either try to crawl backwards and pray I found the entrance, or keep going into this tunnel that was rapidly becoming more and more like meat.

         Crawling backwards would have been the better option, I think, but I believe there is some sort of animal instinct in every living thing that tells us never to go somewhere we can’t see. I began to crawl forward rapidly, trying to ignore the squish of the tunnel under my hands, the liquid that was beginning to drip from the ceiling and mingle with my sweat. I had been crawling for what I estimated was longer than the entire width of our house when I turned a corner and entered the crawlspace.

         I only recognized it as such because the dimensions were the same. I had to crouch low to enter it, and the walls and ceiling formed a roughly rectangular shape, but that was where the similarities ended. Every visible surface pulsed with meat. The walls weren’t held up by wood and rivets, but by thin, smooth shafts of bone that barely contained the raw flesh between them. Some part of my brain recalled the story of Jonah and the Whale.

         In the center of the room was a pulsing growth from the ceiling, a red mass that culminated in something that looked like a heart. Each chamber filled alternately, and the pulse thrummed through the floor under my feet and the walls around me, filling my head and drowning out all other sounds. I stumbled back, casting my flashlight over the far wall, and there I saw Alex.

         I thought he was leaning against the wall at first, one arm placed there as he bent over to catch his breath. Then, looking again, I saw that his arm was inside the wall, and he was screaming, his voice mixing with the deafening thump of the heart. His face didn’t start to drain of color. Instead — Well, you’ve seen the photos, I’m sure. The house didn’t seem to care about spilling a bit of blood this time.

         I wish I could tell you that I decided to be heroic, and thought I would be saving Alex, but I know that isn’t what happened. I was scared, so scared — and below that, I felt a deep, churning hatred, the kind that seeks blood. I still don’t know if it was the house’s, or my own.

         I drew the letter opener from my pocket and advanced on the heart. It thudded again, rocking the floor beneath me, but just as Alex thrust out a last desperate arm for help, I plunged the letter opener into the center of the heart and drew downwards.

         It was easy. Like cutting through butter.

         A moan shook the house, and I watched as the heart tried to heal itself, its disparate parts flapping uselessly. I think that must have been when the blood got on me, as I watched the heart shrivel, and the bones along the walls retract, and the flesh on the floor soak away like so much dark water. It’s odd, I suppose, that the blood remained. But what’s the saying — it’s thicker than water? It’s thicker than most things, I think. I had a long time to think about it, there in the dark.

***

So, there it is — my unedited statement about how my dad found me alone in the crawlspace clutching a bloody letter opener, next to the body of my little brother. To be honest, I don’t think I killed 812 Firkin Road that night. I keep thinking about the dull blade of the letter opener slipping so easily into its heart. I think it was just taunting me, letting me have some kind of hollow victory.

I bet you don’t believe me. Nobody has so far. I guess that’s alright. You all can get me committed, throw me in prison, whatever helps you sleep at night, all alone in your big empty houses in their big empty neighborhoods.

If you do throw me in prison, though, I ask that you make it a new one. Built in the past few years, if possible. Buildings have long memories. I no longer trust those older than I am.