The Bleak Communion of Abandoned Things
by M. A. Blanchard
I accept the house in lieu of a settlement. I don’t want Ashley’s dirty money. The house is the least ill-gotten thing she owns, an isolated property she won in a card game and forgot. We’ve never even been there. I’m hoping that the lack of shared memories will make it a perfect place to hole up while I try to get over her and get on with my life. I’m comforted by the fact that the house is supposed to be haunted. I don’t think I’m quite ready to be alone.
The ghost doesn’t waste time playing coy. The air temperature drops as I cross the threshold. It’s the kind of April morning that makes sweaters feel stifling, but my breath hangs in the musty hallway like a cloud of damp cotton wool. The door slams shut behind me. It’s fine. I’m used to slammed doors. Keeping calm is the best way to handle fits of pique. I shape my face into a mask of serenity, relax my shoulders, amble further inside.
The dark interior is half time capsule, half garbage dump. Supposedly no one has lived here since the previous owner’s grandmother passed away a decade ago. The windows are shuttered, but what I can see of appliances and decor implies that no one has renovated since the 1950s. The man who didn’t bluff as well as Ashley must have lied about the lack of inhabitants, though, or at least been uninformed. I doubt it was the grandmother who filled every room with heaps of half-bagged trash or painted the lurid murals that mar the violet-patterned wallpaper with eye-popping scenes of statuesque nudes making free with one another’s bodies and assorted other bounties of nature. Judging by the faint smells of weed and incense blending with the pall of mould and refuse, the house had fallen prey to hippie squatters. Poor thing.
I don’t bother unpacking. There’s nowhere in that house I want to set down my sparse—but clean—belongings. I drive to the nearest town and fill my passenger seat with boxes of baking soda, jugs of white vinegar, peppermint soap, a mop, a broom, a bale of cotton rags. The hardware store clerk raises an eyebrow at the quantity of supplies I’ve heaped on his counter, but not like he cares to know what I’m about. Somehow this doesn’t seem like that kind of small town. That’s a relief. I need a break from people who want to know.
From the outside the house is appealing enough, in that bleakly elegiac manner common to long-abandoned things. It’s tall and narrow, white siding faded from sunlight, green trim chipped and peeling. The overgrown yard is choking on scrubby saplings and broken things. I bushwhack my way around the house, wrestling the mossy ground-floor shutters open. I hope the incursion of daylight doesn’t bother the ghost too much.
When I go back indoors, new broom in hand, I see that I have inspired an act of haunting. Big letters drag through the dust on the hallway floor:
The thick grime on the kitchen counter is smeared with bold, definite words:
Looping trenches dug into the black mould growing across the living room’s filth-dimmed bay window make the ghost’s feelings crystal clear:
“Nice to meet you, too,” I say.
I don’t like intruding, but I don’t have anyplace else to go. This house is supposed to be mine, and it’s all I have. I unpack my cleaning supplies and get to work.
The ghost appears to warm up to me—metaphorically, at least, though the air temperature remains hibernal—once it realizes I’m not there to mess up its house even worse with my shabby little life. At first it hindered my every attempt to go between rooms, locking doors, shifting furniture, tipping buckets of soapy water, and scattering heaps of detritus underfoot, but after I decontaminate the kitchen it seems to relent.
“Don’t worry,” I promise, “There’s room for you and me both.”
Ashley never cleaned. She said women only feel compelled to clean because the patriarchy has been brainwashing them since girlhood. She always said them, never us. She liked it when I scrubbed our condo until everything sparkled and gleamed, but she also resented it.
“I guess you know your place,” she would say, watching me work. “They got you good.”
I’m not sure she’s wrong about the brainwashing, but I’ve never felt compelled to fight it. I know what it’s like to live in abject filth.
I’ve been sweeping, mopping, and scrubbing for over a week. I’ve taken countless reeking bags of old garbage to the town dump, grateful for the ones that were already tied shut so I didn’t have to see their ancient contents. Their deathly smell was bad enough without seeing what made it. I’m sleeping in my car, scrunched small in the back seat. I sponge myself down in the back yard each night before bed. I find myself longing for a stuffed toy to clutch while I sleep; cleaning up after strangers makes me feel like a child again.
I move in once every part of the house is clean. I unpack my books and clothes and cook myself a meal from an old cookbook I found in the cabinet above the sink, one of those nostalgic casseroles that look awful but taste like home. I eat at the scarred oak table, sitting on the one intact chair while I admire the sleek mint curves of the matching gas stove and refrigerator. Their finish is chipped, but they’re still beautiful. Keeping house inside a vintage advertisement feels so glamorous. I can picture the previous owner’s grandmother cooking her troubles away, standing at that gorgeous stove in heels and pearls. I wonder if she’s still here, watching me restore her domain to a fraction of its former glory. I hope she can forgive me.
Cleaning up after myself doesn’t feel like cleaning for Ashley, or my parents. As a kid, it was all I could do to keep us from living in a sea of mouldy dishes. I made lunch money picking up cans after the party guests passed out or staggered home. I don’t make that kind of mess. Keeping the tiled counters of my empty house clear—the wooden floors swept and waxed, the windows squeaky vinegar transparent—all is a breeze, and, maybe, a pleasure. I keep feeling someone staring over my shoulder, but I want to believe that the ghost is a less hostile observer than my former wife. I have to believe that my ghost is more like me.
Hostile or not, the ghost doesn’t like the blue curtains I hung in the bedroom. I can tell because it tears them down when I leave the room or fall asleep. I rehang the curtains each night before bed, until the night I wake in the small hours, gasping and choking, clawing at the heavy fabric wound around my face and neck.
“That wasn’t nice,” I say once I remember how to breathe. “What’s wrong with my curtains?”
It doesn’t answer. I wonder if it feels silenced because I didn’t leave it any dirt to write in. I wonder if it still wishes I would leave.
“You know,” I add, “If I die here, you’re stuck with me forever. Is that what you want?”
The ghost doesn’t seem to hate my living room curtains, so I move downstairs. That room is much nicer to be in since I pulled down the mural-fouled wallpaper and burned it, right outside the bay window so the ghost could watch. I kindled the fire with pictures of Ashley. The walls are a nice soft white now, the trim a shade cooler to make the room feel spacious. The curtains match the trim exactly. They dance, spectral and lovely, when I open the sparkling windows.
The next time I visit town, I stop at the jumble shop to look for lamps. Browsing, my eye comes to rest on an old slate chalkboard. Its dark wooden frame matches the kitchen table. The chalks in the box on its shelf are dusty and broken, but I can get more. It’s the perfect thing to hang on the blank kitchen wall. I’ll use it for grocery lists, or lists of ideas for what to do with myself. I pick up a white apron, too. It needs to be bleached, but its ruffled edges match the living-room curtains. I’ll wear it to show the ghost I think spectral is beautiful.
The house is as quiet as ever when I get home. I appreciate that my ghost doesn’t go in for clanking chains or moaning. I put the kettle on and hang the chalkboard. Erasing chalk-dust history makes me wonder if a chalkboard is a fair trade for the filth the ghost had used to write its initial warnings, for the voice I stole with my mop.
“I got you a present,” I tell the chilly silence. “In case you had anything else to say.”
I wonder Ashley would say if she knew I was keeping house for a ghost. I hope the ghost is prettier than that Montréalaise lawyer who’s been sleeping on my side of the bed since before the divorce.
Spring turns to summer. The house blooms into a home. Its rooms hold more space than furnishings, but I like that. I’d always lived amid other people’s things. My parents’ chaos and clutter, then the pizza-box middens of student housing. After we married, Ashley filled our place with first her pyramid-scheme tchotchkes and then the piles of gifts from her growing collective of worshipful followers. Even when I cleaned, there was no room to stretch out and breathe. I hadn’t realized how little of the clutter was mine until she met Monique. When I realized she might not get over her new fling as fast as she usually did—when I got tired of sleeping on the couch in my own home—I learned that all of my belongings fit into my car with room to spare. I’ve found a few odds and ends to make the house more comfortable—a copper kettle, a thick, soft window seat cushion, an armful of antique lamps—but the rooms still gleam with tranquil emptiness, unburdened by complications or clutter. I want my house to show how I want to feel.
I don’t know what to do once the purge and renewal are complete. The house is free of filth and junk, from cellar to soaring ceilings. It smells of spring air and fresh paint and crisp-starched fabrics. I get a local newspaper and circle some help-wanted ads. I don’t feel like calling about any of them, but I need to find something before my savings run out.
Maybe I should have demanded more. Monique was sympathetic, sorry for her part in shattering my marriage. As Ashley’s lawyer, she had been surprisingly generous—she was the one who suggested I take the house—and I’m sure she would have understood me needing to finance renovations. But all that money, the profits from offering ethereal solutions to desperate people’s problems, made me feel sick. I let myself live off their pain for years, pretending I believed that Ashley really helped her disciples. Maybe I deserve to be punished for going along with it all for so long.
I mope around for days, pretending I’m getting ready to pick up the phone. I’m just so exhausted. Wiped out from cleaning. Still flattened from dodging reporters, dodging Ashley’s followers, dodging the doggedly pleasant Monique wanting to make sure I was okay. I still haven’t rested. I’m in no condition to persuade anyone I’m a sensible hire. I put the kettle on and throw the newspaper in the recycling bin. My hands shake. It’s so cold in here for late June.
I wonder if I should offer the ghost a cup of tea. Something to break the ice. It seems rude to assume that a ghost would mind being cold, though, so I take my tea outside to drink in the sun. I need a little break from goosebumps and shivering.
I’ve been rereading my childhood comfort books. It’s hard to engage with anything new right now. I still have the series I read over and over as a kid, when my parents would leave me at my grandmother’s house on party weekends. Those books were more fantastical than my other favourites, even Alice in Wonderland and Sleeping Beauty. The family had a dog and a cat and a clean, bright house. The dad had short hair and smiled a lot, even though he never seemed to be drinking anything stronger than coffee. The mom looked more like my grandmother than my mom. She and my Nana wore knee-length dresses, high heels, pearls, set curls. I’d never seen my mother wear a dress. She liked leather boots, ripped jeans, tight babydoll tees that made my dad’s friends give sideways stares. I used to stare at that picture-book housewife for hour upon dreamy hour, knowing I’d grow up to be like her, like Nana. They looked so happy in their pretty aprons, cooking hot dinners and dusting their homes every day. Nana died when I was nine, but she never stopped haunting me, reminding me what I want.
I sit on my house’s back steps and stare at the yellowed pictures until my tea goes cold. The sun sinks into my bones. For a little while I remember what it feels like to be warm. I wonder if the ghost read these books. They’re about the same vintage as the appliances. I hope the ghost understands I’m trying to keep her house in the manner to which she was accustomed.
I decided a while back that the ghost must be a woman. I have no evidence, unless I decide that curtain colour preferences indicate femininity—a decision Ashley would, not incorrectly, decry as sexist—but I like to imagine her having better hair than my ex-wife. And better tits than Monique, whose tits, I admit, are better than mine. I can’t decide if I would feel more sanguine if I could despise her. I dye the bedroom curtains mint green, a shade or so darker than the appliances. Hopefully my ghost will like that better than blue. I’d like to sleep in the bedroom without being suffocated. I don’t want to believe that she meant to hurt me, but I have no evidence for anything I want to believe.
The ghost has lovely handwriting. The sound of chalk on old slate makes me look up from my bowl of porridge. The green chalk moves across the board, delicate cursive saying:
Don’t forget to take the trash out.
Truthfully, I had forgotten it was garbage day.
I hustle the bags to the road just in time. I know the ghost won’t forgive me if I hoard refuse. She’s lived—or haunted, at least—through too much of that. I shouldn’t upset her.
The mint-dyed curtains appear to pass muster. It’s been a few days, and she hasn’t torn them down. I move my air mattress back upstairs.
“What do you think, should we get a throw rug? The kind I can air outside to beat the dust?”
Maybe a small one.
“I’m thinking green and white stripes.”
She answers: Avocado and cream.
Conversing with the chalkboard becomes a habit. I hang another slate at my bedside so we can talk as I fall asleep. The ghost likes to suggest what I should cook. She teaches me how to use the menacing steam canner lurking in the pantry. I purchase flats of canning jars and lids, make the farm stand outside town a regular stop on my weekly rounds. We fill the shelves in the caliginous cellar with tomatoes and peaches and beets and my Nana’s beef stew.
I get a real bed. The ghost disapproves of my air mattress. The attic provides a gorgeous, if tarnished, antique twin bedstead. I’d long since taken the ruined mattress to the dump, but I hadn’t gotten around to making the bed into something I could use. I polish the brass until it shines. The jumble shop provides a clean secondhand mattress set. I haven’t slept in a twin since college, but that doesn’t matter now. The only person sharing my life has no body.
I’ve been avoiding my dwindling bank balance, but the knowledge creeps in around the edges of otherwise pleasant days. I’m still not ready to leave, but I have to face facts. My savings can’t keep us in chalk and canning lids forever.
“What kind of job should I get?”
The ghost doesn’t answer. Maybe she doesn’t approve of women working outside the home. It’s not like I want to add breadwinner to the list of roles I play, but I have no one else. I get a new paper in town and circle more ads. When she puts the paper on the burning stove, I put out the fire before it spreads, scorching my hands in the process. When I go to get another paper, the front door sticks. I have to throw my whole weight against it, bruising my shoulder, before it lets me out. I have to feel flattered that she wants me to stay, but the bruises hurt, and my blistered fingers hideously peel and ooze. Making a living will have to wait until they heal.
Ashley was so proud when her church started bringing in real money. I didn’t ask for details—I didn’t want to know—but I knew her teachings revolved around freedom of ownership, both of possessions and responsibilities. She dressed me in secondhand silk and sapphires—possessions her followers wanted to be freed of—and took me to stay at their second or fourth homes in Bali and Malta and Spain. I worked hard at suspending judgment. It wasn’t as if anyone in my family had ever made an honest living. She kept me supplied with organic ingredients and toxin-free cleaning supplies and bouts of therapy. It wasn’t surprising, really, when she threw me over for her new lawyer. Monique is more exciting than me. And she’ll be a lot more capable of supporting herself when Ashley dumps her. Maybe if I had been more exciting, my wife wouldn’t have needed to start a cult. Maybe I shouldn’t have turned down Monique’s proposal to get a bed big enough for three. Maybe I should have moved someplace I could get paid to be in weird sleep studies. I could use the rest.
The ghost may not drink tea, but she seems to like the tea I spill about my past. She writes:
You’re better off without her.
I’m not blameless. I could have tried to be more exciting, or found some morals or a backbone and left years earlier. I was indisputably the one who had been done dirtiest, though, apart from Ashley’s disciples. The ghost has no tolerance for dirt.
At least now you’re here, she writes. With me.
“I wish I could see you,” I say. “I bet you were gorgeous. I can almost picture you. Was it you who picked out the appliances, and designed that fabulous tilework on the counters?”
She doesn’t reply. Maybe I shouldn’t remind her that she’s dead.
I get another newspaper. The job ads are dismal. I can’t imagine myself surviving the kind of bleak, dead-end workplace that kept my parents in beer and not much else. I don’t know how I’ll manage to polish the floors if I have to go out and work. I’m so tired my bones feel splintery. The thought of being away from the house all day makes my stomach hurt. I read and reread my tattered fairy tales. At least Sleeping Beauty got her beauty rest. Lucky thing.
“I don’t want to get a job,” I pout, trying to make it a joke.
The ghost picks up the green chalk again and writes:
The next time I try to leave the house, none of the doors will open. Maybe the ghost is trying to do me a favour. She knows I don’t like going out. I’ve never quite shed the childhood fear that if I left my home it would vanish.
“I appreciate the thought,” I say, “But we’re out of milk. And I was going to get a flat of wild blueberries to can for pie.”
Don’t leave me.
“I won’t. I promise. Now let me out.”
I try the door again. It won’t unlock. Panic takes hold of my toes and tries to climb up my legs, towards the heart. I push it down. Breathe. Keep calm. She’s just in a mood. Everything will blow over soon. These things always do.
I can’t get to sleep. I didn’t even want to go out. I can live without milk for a day. I just don’t like feeling that I can’t get out without permission. I can feel the ghost nearby, a perpetual cold spot leaching the sunlight from my bones.
“Who are you?”
I hadn’t asked before. I didn’t want to spoil any of my illusions. Once it’s out, I fall asleep, feeling piqued that she hasn’t answered.
In the morning, the doors are still locked. Fuming and frightened at the same time, I don’t notice the cursive on the bedside slate until after I’ve fixed myself coffee and a fussy little omelette with parsley on top. I bring them upstairs to eat under the covers so I won’t spoil my breakfast shivering. I see the note when I reach the bed. She had written in green, of course:
I’m your house.
I set my breakfast down, carefully, not spilling a drop of coffee on the avocado-and-cream-striped throw rug we’d placed by my bed. My hands smooth the frilly apron against my thighs until I lose count of how many times they have moved.
The house won’t let me out. I’m eating peaches for breakfast. Their sunny golden syrup is misleading. They’re cold like winter moonlight. I wanted muffins, but the oatmeal and flour are gone. I hadn’t planned to touch our canned goods until winter. I’m not sure what I’ll do once I’ve emptied all of the jars. I don’t know if the ghost of a house, if that’s what she—it—is, understands things like starving. Maybe that’s what it wants. Maybe the perfect housewife ghost I’d imagined sharing my life with was a vision of who the house imagined I would become. She—it—was alone for so long. Poor thing. I wonder if I would feel better if I could despise her.
Another thing I’ve been avoiding slips out while I’m taking a bath. I’m finally getting used to soaking in cold water. I’ve heard that can be good for the immune system, or maybe for the character. The coal bin is empty. I wouldn’t know where to order more even if the house would let me. I heated bathwater on the kitchen stove once, but I’m afraid of what will happen when the gas runs out and I can’t make tea.
“What happened to the squatters?”
I don’t hear the bedroom chalk move.
“I wouldn’t blame you if you scared them off, you know. They really did a number on you.”
The green chalk finally rises while I’m towelling my hair. I’ve stopped feeling modest in front of the ghost. She’s my house, after all. I hope she likes what she sees. I see, in green:
They went away.
“Where did they go?”
Does it matter?
If only she had just said that she doesn’t know.
“What did you do to them?”
What they did to me.
I think of all the heavy garbage bags I took to the dump unopened. How awful they had smelled.
I keep on cooking and cleaning as best I can. It’s what I can do. I read the picture books again, and the ancient issues of Good Housekeeping I’d cleared off the canning shelves. I curl my hair with rags and stop looking out the windows. Sometimes the old dead radio I’d kept on the living room mantelpiece—it wouldn’t turn on for me, but its Bakelite curves were pretty—crackles to life in the evening. I think that means the house is feeling good. I dance to Dean Martin, Buddy Holly, Patsy Cline. I mimic Patsy’s matter-of-fact heartache. I really am crazy for feeling so blue. The house prefers green. I don’t know how to dye myself the right colour. I’m not a curtain, even if the only expressions I’ve ever known how to wear are masks.
Winter comes. The house grows darker, as snow drifts up the windows. Frost-flower shadows ornament the floors. I grow sleepy and slow, like a dormouse. The endless cold sinks inside me and weighs me down. I drink endless cups of tea to stay awake. I wish I could climb inside the steamy kettle. I can’t stop yawning. I don’t think I’ll need my summer clothes again. For something to do, I cut them all up and sew them into aprons.
“Am I a good wife?”
I ask the house over and over, even though I know the answer. It feels good to watch her affirmation loop across the chalkboard.
It’s too cold to sleep upstairs. I dismantle the bedstead and drag it down to the kitchen. I pile my pretty new aprons onto the mattress. They look like a nest, invitingly layered, soft and undemanding. I want to climb in, but I don’t think it’s time just yet.
I can’t recall my name anymore. I think I used to have one, but I’m not certain. All I know for sure is that there’s no place like home. I curl my hair again, admiring myself in the silver-backed mirror. I look like a picture of some long-dead Hollywood starlet. I don’t need cosmetics to make myself glamorous and hollow. My cheekbones are highlighted with shadows. The food has been gone for some time.
I pile books on the kitchen table so I can reach them from bed. I don’t remember when the power went out, but I like to hold my stories, even when it’s too dark to read. The books know who I am. Their weight makes my hollow limbs feel limp and shaky. I run myself a glass of icy water. My hands are too weak to hold tight to its crystal-cut sides. It slips and shatters on the spotless tiled floor. Sweeping up the mess, I prick my finger on a shard. I can’t fight the tiredness, not even to wipe up the blood so the tiles won’t stain. I’m just so cold. There is no more tea. I curl into the apron nest and close my eyes to sleep for a hundred years.
About the Author
Ariel Marken Jack (she/they) lives in Nova Scotia. Her fiction appears in Strange Horizons, Dark Matter Magazine, Canthius, Uncharted, and more. They curate the #sfstoryoftheday on assorted social media and write a column on speculative fiction for Fusion Fragment. A linguist and classical violoncellist by training, she is also an obsessive reader of all things quirky, uncanny, eerie, esoteric, and rare, and a compulsive writer of stories about impossible lives. Find out more at arielmarkenjack.com.
About the Narrator
Kitty Sarkozy is a speculative fiction writer, actor and robot girlfriend. Kitty is an alumnus of Superstars Writing Seminar , a member of the Apex Writers Group, and the Horror Writer’s Association. Several large cats allow her to live with them in Marietta GA, She enjoys tending the extensive gardens, where she hides the bodies. For a list of her publications, acting credits or to engage her services on your next project go to kittysarkozy.com.