The Room in the Other House
by Kristi DeMeester
I’ve counted the moments we once had over and over. Tried to hold them in my hands as if they were solid, but in the end, there is nothing except for the dark scar tracing against my palm. If I squint, it looks like a worm. If I squint, it’s almost like you’re still here.
We found the house when we weren’t looking. Driving along back roads because there was nothing else to do. We’d had too much to drink the night before and needed coffee and open air that tasted of rainwater and the cloying scent of rotting wood. You took the turns too fast, and I squealed and pretended to be angry, but you grinned through all of it, and it was the kind of dangerous smile I loved.
“What if we just never went back?” you said, but it was a conversation we were always having. There was the house we’d just moved into. The one with the extra two-stall garage and bonus room. Space for your workshop. Space for all of that scrapped metal you called a “project.” There was the dog we adopted together when we decided this thing we were doing was more forever than not. There were Monday mornings and paychecks and doctor’s appointments and phone calls. We were not the kind of people to disappear.
And then you did.
You drove, and I let my eyes drift closed and ignored the dark star of a headache that had begun to form. When I opened my eyes, I didn’t recognize the road. The houses were more spaced out. A bleeding away from suburbia into country. Here and there, barbed wire fence lined the road, but there was no livestock penned behind it.
“Where are we?” I said.
You shrugged. “You got somewhere to be, pretty lady?”
“Got a hot date tonight. I need to shave,” I said, but it was loud with the windows down, and you didn’t hear. If you’d heard, you would have laughed.
You should have turned around. When you saw the sign, you should have turned around.
These are the things I tell myself now. The ways I trace my way back to you. Small consolations for all of the mistakes we made that day.
“The hell does that say?” you said when we passed the first sign. Only, it wasn’t a sign. Not really. Two planks of wood nailed together to form the top of a triangle, the bottom piece missing. A phrase painted in green and in all capitals.
“It’s too small,” I said, and then we were past it.
There were no more houses. Only fields and trees and the sky gone dark overhead with the threat of a storm, and your hand on my thigh and slipping up and under the skirt I wore, and there was no one to see us under that broad, unending sky, and I unbuckled your pants and took you in my mouth, and you worked your hand against me, and I came before you did.
It had been years since we’d done that. Like a couple of horny teenagers who’d managed to steal an hour alone, all fumbling hands and wet mouths. I left your jeans unzipped, and you drove with one hand on the wheel, and the other still kneading my thigh.
“There’s another one of those fucking signs,” you said, and this time you slowed down, came almost to a full stop, and leaned out the window. There are times when I think that I reached for you then. My fingers grasping for your shirt, your arm, your hand, any solid thing that would call you back to me, but then my memory is made up of all of these small betrayals, and I think that maybe I didn’t.
“The Father of Lies,” you said and popped the door.
“Get back in the car. You’re going to get us killed. We can’t just be stopped in the middle of the road.”
“You see anyone else out here? Just hold on a second.” You leaned further out, further away, and I turned to watch behind us.
“So fucking weird. The Father of Lies,” you said, but you didn’t close the door.
“Probably some Jesus thing. You know. Repent ye sinners, and all that stuff. Watch for The Father of Lies. He’ll eat your soul,” I said. You didn’t laugh. You didn’t move. Something cold crept along the back of my neck, but I told myself it was the wind or a bug or any of the other things you tell yourself when you don’t want to believe what’s in front of you.
“I don’t think so. It’s something different. Sounds like a scary movie,” you said. You did move then, the door slamming shut behind you, but the engine idled, and you still looked at the sign and lifted your finger in the air, traced the outline.
“Would you come on already? Let’s go,” I said. You turned away then, your hands back on the wheel, and we were moving again, and I tried to settle back into the quiet I’d found earlier, but everything inside of me had gone heavy and light at the same time. Like iron covering something hollow.
“Jesus. They’re everywhere,” you said and pointed. Ahead, the road twisted away, but dotted along the black top where at least five more of the signs. All that strange triangle with no bottom, the neat, green lettering. The Father of Lies.
“Let’s just turn around. Go back,” I said.
“It’s fine. It’s some weird church thing. Like you said. Right?”
“Yeah. Okay,” I said, but you rolled up your window. I like to think you did that for me. To make me feel safe.
When I dream now, everything is green, but you are not there.
You had slowed down to go around a turn—the kind that kids call The Widowmaker and race their bikes down—when I saw the house. It stood just off of the road, was not set back like most houses in the country. The windows were busted out, the wood on the porch rotted and the steps sagging. Another abandoned house in the woods. The kind people write books about.
I didn’t see the toddler until we rounded the corner, the road still curving so you braked even more, and we were moving as if underwater, as if each movement was a slower precursor to something larger.
There was a large, spreading oak tree in front of the house. A monstrous, gargantuan thing that someone would tell you to cut down in case a nasty storm came through. Exposed, gnarled roots against dark earth. A lovely, terrible thing that cast long shadows.
The toddler was underneath the tree, sprawled on his back, his hands dancing through the air as if conducting music only he could hear. Under the tree, he looked fragile, too small to be alone, but he was alone. The house was empty, and there were no other cars, no adults pondering the landscape or taking pictures or changing a flat tire.
“Slow down a second,” I said, and my skin prickled. I craned my neck, looked back to be sure. The toddler still lay on the ground, his pudgy hands lifted to the sky.
“I got it. It’s not like I’m going to flip the car.”
“No. There’s a kid back there. A little kid. Under the tree. I’m pretty sure he’s by himself.”
Your mouth turned down at the corners, and you squinted up into the rearview mirror, and it’s these small moments I miss the most. How your face would move as you were thinking or how when you slept, there were tiny lines next to your eyes. I wonder how long it will be before I start to forget these things.
“You probably just can’t see them,” you said, but you slowed the car again, and I unbuckled and turned around in the seat. The toddler was still there, under the tree, but his hands were at his sides now and his eyes closed, as if he’d drifted off to sleep. Panic slick against my tongue, I watched his chest, my heartbeat slowing just a bit when I finally saw the rise and fall of his breathing.
“There’s no one back there,” I said. You reversed the car then, backed up so that I could see the toddler more clearly. He couldn’t have been more than two with the kind of curling golden hair that make women coo and run their fingers through it. He was dressed simply. A navy shirt and khaki shorts. A pair of dark shoes.
“Stop,” I said. The car jerked beneath us. You’d braked too suddenly. I think it was because you’d finally seen him, too. “You see? There’s no one else around.”
“Holy shit.” Your voice dropped to a whisper.
“Who just leaves their kid in the middle of goddamn nowhere?”
“Maybe they’re around back, or something?”
“We would have seen them when we passed the house. There’s no one out front; no one in back. There sure as hell isn’t anyone inside. You can see straight through the windows to the back. Empty.”
“Okay. Hold on,” you said and looked behind you, backing the car up even further to pull off onto the shoulder.
I’d looked away from the toddler, just for a second to do another sweep of the land, the house, to see if there was someone, anyone, we had missed. A blur of skin and hair hidden behind a tree or a flash of color, a shirt or a pair of jeans, against the green. It couldn’t have been more than five seconds, maybe ten, but when I looked back, the toddler had vanished.
I grasped your shoulder. “He’s gone.”
“He’s gone. He’s not there anymore,” I said, and you peered past me, your mouth set in a thin line.
“He’s there,” you said and pointed, and my entire body sagged, the air rushing out of me. I turned to look. Through the busted out windows, I could see him. The toddler had gotten up and wandered inside the house, his chubby little legs jutting out from his shorts that were too small. I could see the dirt on his hands. It made me feel sick, and I remember thinking how strange it was, how awful to look at this child and feel as if I was coming apart, but then the toddler stepped away, and I saw what it was he was moving toward. A fire burned inside the main room. Flames leapt toward the ceiling and flickered just beneath the crumbling plaster.
“There’s a fire. Inside the house. Was there a fire before?” I shook my head. Couldn’t remember. There had been only those open windows like wide hungry mouths gaping around darkness. The trees. The grass. So much silence in this empty place. There had not been a fire, but it was possible I had not seen, possible that this was a new angle and I missed it before. Perhaps there was an adult here who had built it, someone to care for this tiny creature standing transfixed before the jumping flames.
“I don’t think so,” you said.
“I didn’t see…” I trailed off. The toddler crept forward, his hands outstretched as if to catch himself if he fell, but there was a part of me that saw it as an obscene mockery of prayer. But he was a child. Could barely talk. He wouldn’t be doing this. Couldn’t be.
“What is he doing?” you said and shifted forward so that you pressed against my back. This was the last time I touched you. The last time I felt your weight as something that was a part of myself. I’ve tried to call that sensation back, but I cannot remember anymore what it was really like. There is only the stain of it. A bleached out memory I cannot quite take hold of.
The toddler leaned forward, swaying in the way young children do when they are on the verge of losing their balance. “Oh my God,” I said because I knew what would come next, could see that terrible moment unfolding so that I could only reach for the door handle, my fingers banging against the metal and left aching, but I was too far away.
The child tipped forward, and I screamed.
In my mind, I still see those flames. Deep orange and almost beautiful. How they swallowed that small body in massive licks, the clothes, the hair, that smooth skin vanishing so quickly.
I heard you opening your door behind me, but I was moving, throwing open the rear car door to search for anything I could find that could smother the flames, and then I was running, an old towel clutched to my chest as I gasped out something like prayer or like please or like not yet, and I found that I was no longer screaming, my mouth opened wide, but the air around me plucked the sound from my lips.
I was up the front stairs and through the front door, which stood open on broken hinges. My hands shook because my body had memorized what it was I needed to do, but it knew what would come after, and the fear of seeing that small form shriveled and blackened was more terrible than anything I could conjure.
“Oh, God.” There was nothing else to say. Nothing else to do but run toward the wheeling column of flame, my arms extended.
I don’t know when you stopped following me. I didn’t think to look. I only know where I found you before I lost you again.
Before I threw the towel over the child, he turned to look at me, and I could see his face. A slight darkening around the mouth. His eyes so pale they were almost white, bleeding into the sclera. I thought he smiled at me. An impossible thing, but there is the memory, clear and bright, and even after everything that came later, I cannot forget the shape of his small teeth.
“Okay. It’s okay,” I said and threw the towel over him, ready to throw him to the ground and snuff out the flames. When I did, the towel met only air. It fell to the ground with a soft whump. There was no child there in that house. There was nothing.
I held myself still, a whine building in the back of my throat because I knew then that whatever I’d seen, it was wrong. Something that should not be, and I curled into myself, unable to leave this nightmare we’d stumbled into. A line of sweat crept down my neck, and the air tasted of something of foul.
I called your name, but the air was dead. Silent. No bird song or wind. Unnatural. I knew we needed to leave, get back into the car and drive away, not glancing back like Lot’s wife who died with the taste of salt on her lips.
But then I was trying to leave that terrible, empty place behind, and I was saying your name over and over until I knew that I was screaming again, but there was only the walls with peeling paint and exposed wood and gouged floors as if something monstrous had dragged its body over them.
When you answered, your voice sounded far away, but you were only in the next room. Down a small hallway in what looked like a bedroom, but it was too large to be a bedroom. The ceilings opened to the sky, and the floors seemed to stretch away and away. You faced the back wall, your hand against it as if I’d stumbled on you knocking.
“The kid. He disappeared. Just vanished into nothing. We have to leave. We have to leave right now. There’s something wrong here,” I said, and you glanced over your shoulder and then turned back.
“There’s a door. I saw it.”
“It doesn’t matter. We have to go. Now. Please,” I said. You lifted your hand and traced over the wall. I imagine there was dust on your fingers, some ancient reminder of what had once existed here, of whatever still lingered in the silence.
“Wait. Just a minute. Something’s here,” you said, and I remember how you stepped forward, how you pressed your mouth to the wall, how you opened it, your tongue trailing over that crumbling paint.
“Stop it,” I said, but you moaned, your back arching as if something inside of you longed to get out. I turned away, could not bring myself to touch you, to pull you from whatever terrible thing you’d found.
“I can open it. There’s a room there. In the other house,” you said, and you shifted forward, your fingers slipping under some latch I could not see. You grinned. Large. Toothsome. “See? Like the Father of Lies. Something you can see through and exist in at the same time.”
“Don’t. We don’t know what it is,” I said, but you were already through, and I tried not to think of how you’d mentioned the Father of Lies.
“Of course we do. It’s a room in the other house. I’ve already said.”
You went through the door, vanishing all at once into whatever lay beyond. I stood on the other side waiting for you to come back, but I could only hear your voice, the breathless, edgy rasp in it as if you’d been running for a long, long time.
When I heard the dog bark, I crept toward the door—nothing more than an extension of the wall that jutted outward—and called your name, but I did not look through. Not yet. I wonder if I hadn’t looked through, if you would have come back. But I did. And you were there, standing in the middle of a room with nothing in it. No furniture or curtains or pictures on the walls. Smiling and tanned and without the small paunch you’d been putting on over the past two years. Too much beer and too little exercise. The comfort of middle age and a stable relationship settling under our skins and leaving us as less than what we began.
Our dog—the Swiss Mountain Dog mix we’d adopted together because it was something that would belong to the both of us—sat beside you, her left ear cocked as if listening for a pitch we could not hear.
“It’s Nona. We must have left her here somehow,” you said, and Nona looked back at me, but it was not Nona. Not really. Her fur was a bit too thin. Too greasy looking. Her eyes lighter than they should be. Not the color of dark amber but of honey.
“It isn’t Nona. Come out. We have to go,” I said, and you scratched the dog behind the ears and cooed something at her.
“I’ll put her in the car, and we can go. Okay?”
My heart lurched, liquid and hot, in my chest. “No. We’ll get home, and Nona will be there, all curled up on her bed, waiting for us. And whatever that is—” I pointed at the dog. “What will it become once we get there? What will we have brought home with us?”
“Come in, love. Help me,” you said, and the dog opened its mouth then, but the sound that came out of it was not the sound of a dog. It was a child’s laughter. Then a scream.
“No. I want to go home,” I said, but my voice was next to nothing, and you turned and walked away, the motions of your body fluid and lovely and not the lumbering gait I’d memorized the night I fell in love with you.
The dog followed you, but its head still angled to face me, that terrible mouth still open as you turned toward some hallway I couldn’t see, and then you were gone.
I waited there outside of the door until it was dark, a damp chill creeping over my skin. I whispered your name. Over and over until it was a word I no longer recognized as something that had once belonged to me. I clenched the handle of the door tight enough to cut into the soft flesh of my palm. The scar has become a constant reminder that you have fallen into a place I cannot find.
Later, there were police officers. Your mother flew in from Arizona and we sat together at the little table you and I bought at the antique store and drank cup after cup of coffee as she asked the same questions over and over.
Why can’t they find him? How can an entire house just vanish? No one’s ever heard of anything called The Father of Lies. There are no signs about it anywhere. Not like you said. Are you sure it was a house? Are you sure of where it was? Are you sure?
Always, I had the same answers, the same repeated phrases that added up to less than nothing. Her eyes and the thin line of her mouth grew harder every day until she left without hugging me goodbye.
The police asked those same questions, but with more technicalities. Was he unhappy? Had you argued recently? Was there any reason to believe he would have harmed himself? Are you sure of where the house was?
They searched the car. Our house. They interviewed everyone, asking what kind of person I was, if there was any reason to believe I could have committed some kind of violence against you.
After a year, they stopped asking, and you became another body vanished. Another person eaten by things we’ll never understand. And I’ve been waiting. All of this time. So many nights passing as I stare at the shadows on our ceiling and wait for the feeling of you pulling back the comforter to climb in beside me, the deep smell of your skin, but I am alone in this house that we found, the start of our life together thrown into this unnatural stasis.
It has been a year and a half since you walked into that room in the other house. The house I cannot find, on a road that doesn’t seem to exist. I’ve researched The Father of Lies but there’s nothing on the Internet except for thousands of entries about a Bible verse, but none of it adds up to anything that will bring you back. Nothing in any of the libraries I’ve visited, with their gray-haired ladies who twist up their mouths when I ask them if they’ve ever seen anything like that before.
I am different now. Thinner. The planes of my face are sharp and hungry. My hair cropped close so that I don’t have to brush it. I do not think you would fall in love with me if you saw me now.
It has been a year and a half of learning how to navigate around the space you left.
When the door appears in our house it is winter. A thin crust of snow lies over dead earth. There is a sky that looks drained of color, caught between gray and white. I am looking for the spare set of sheets we’d bought when I find it. Standing no taller than my shoulders and narrow, hiding in a place where there has never been a door before.
I know now that you are trying to find a way back to me.
I throw open the door and peer inside. It is a room I’ve seen before. In the other house. The one I cannot find.
The room in the other house is dark. Empty. I sink to the floor, clinging to the knob. You are not there. After all this time, you are not there.
“You have to be here,” I say into the darkness, and I hear something shift. A soft exhalation. A sound that could have been a sigh.
You do not emerge from the shadows, do not come rushing forward with arms outstretched, and I bite my wrist so I will not sob.
But then there is your voice, gentle and sweet, and you speak to me from the darkness, and the door seems to open wider, the whole world spilling forward.
“Where have you been? How did I lose you?” you say, and I cry out then, my hands trembling as I inch myself toward the threshold.
“Come out. Please. Follow my voice. I’m here,” I say.
“Come through so I can see you. I need to see you. Your face.”
Still, I see nothing in that room. Nothing that could be you, but your voice goes on and on. There is nothing else I want to hear.
“Come through the door. I’ve missed you so much,” you say.
I close my eyes. Extend my hands so they are inside the room where you were lost. The air is damp, and I hold my hands out to you, palm up, as if in supplication.
I lean forward and into the darkness breathe one word. I hope it will be enough.
About the Author
Kristi DeMeester is the author of Beneath, a novel published by Word Horde, and Everything That’s Underneath, a short fiction collection forthcoming this year from Apex Publications. Her short fiction has appeared in Ellen Datlow’s The Year’s Best Horror Volume 9, Year’s Best Weird Fiction Volumes 1 and 3 in addition to publications such as Pseudopod, The Dark, and several others. In her spare time, she alternates between telling people how to pronounce her last name and how to spell her first. Find her online at www.kristidemeester.com.
About the Narrator
Jacquie Duckworth grew up sneaking out of her room in the wee hours of the night to watch Twilight Zone and Night Gallery. She is an actress in the San Francisco Bay Area performing everything from Shakespeare to sketch comedy and is proud to have been featured as the “Bondi Neighbor Woman” in a television episode of Discovery ID Channel’s I ALMOST GOT AWAY WITH IT!