My neighbor left a slip of lined paper under a rock on the front doorstep at 5:35 p.m. I watched him on one of the four grainy black-and-white video monitors in the furthest corner of the old barn. From my perch on an upturned crate, I saw him look in the windows and knock on the front door for more than five minutes. I haven’t been able to breathe properly since.
I don’t understand why people can’t leave me alone. I’ve put up signs and made it clear the property is monitored but still they come and pry. Last Tuesday at 10:15 a.m. a uniformed man from the city came to the door with a clipboard and a long, black flashlight that he shined through the windows. He walked around the property calling my name, upturning several boxes and looking through them. I felt sick.
He left behind a bright yellow notice stuck to my front door saying I’m in violation of a bunch of city codes, which translates to them wanting to chase me from my home. I have no doubt it’s some bored politician looking to make a name for himself by picking on an old man. My father designed and built this house before I was even born. It’s his house and I won’t budge. I’m not hurting anyone and I simply want to be left alone with my stuff.
I check the monitors one final time and, finding no sign of my neighbor’s return, I stand and shake my legs back to life. Using an old rope strung for this purpose, I pull my way outside, into the dark, through the cramped backyard, and into the house. My breath begins to normalize when I stand inside, the walls of stuff surrounding me like shadowed friends. I touch everything I can with outstretched hands and feet. It’s all here.
I press between two large boxes to reach the light switch, sucking in my gut as much as I can. My pants slip down to my hip bones and I blink for a few minutes until the familiar shapes and patterns come into fluorescent focus. The visit by the neighbor affected my routine and I curse at the lost time. I don’t like when people interrupt me.
Swaying in place I try to remember what I was doing when I heard the gate open and ran outside. My belly aches and I realize I’ve not eaten anything today. I shuffle sideways into the kitchen and rummage for several minutes until I find an instant rice cup with broccoli and cheese. I add some water and put it in the microwave.
The lined note is still on the doorstep. I try not to think about it, but it feels like an intruder lurking nearby and the uneasiness almost makes me dash back outside to check the cameras. No, he’s not coming back tonight. It’s too late. He’s the kind of guy with a family who goes to bed at sunset and rises before the light to dash off to some 9-5 job. I hate that there’s still a part of me envious of men like him.
The shrill sound of the microwave timer makes me jump. I remove the paper cup and grab a silver fork from a pile in the sink. It’s not clean and I wipe it on my faded plaid shirt and move to the round wooden table behind me. My watercolors sit open beside a dry and ugly painting half-finished. I don’t remember what I was trying to do with the colors. I crumble it with my hands and throw it onto a pile of garbage, then sit to eat my food.
My father used to sit upright and proud in this faded yellow chair before it became stained and cracked. Straightening my own back to match his I hear him calling from his bedroom for me to come and help him. I shake my head to clear the sound. I don’t want to remember him then.
Instead, I crane my neck around, popping it, until another image comes into focus of him sitting at the clean kitchen table with a starched white shirt on. He’s putting on golden cufflinks and talking about the art museum he’s designing downtown. My feet don’t quite reach the floor and my mother is still alive. There’s laughter and bread baking. He strokes her rounded belly and they kiss.
The images float away though, like they always do, like a dream you can’t quite hold onto or tiny filaments of dandelion fluff in a slight breeze. No matter how hard I try, the memory fades into the room around me, absorbed by my things until his hoarse and crackly voice begins to yell at me.
“Hey, shithead! Do something useful for a change.”
“You can’t even cook rice right you useless piece of garbage.”
“What have you done with your life? Nothing! Absolutely fucking nothing.”
“Such a waste.”
His arsenal of insults echoes around me and I can’t finish my food. Throwing it across the room I watch it splat into a pile of wires. I can wash them off when I need them, is my first thought, followed immediately by the knowledge I’ll never need them. Then an itchy thought begins to form around the idea of waste and garbage, but the sound of wind chimes outside stops it.
My body feels stiff when I stand and my legs ache from sitting on the crate for hours, but I need to be sure the wind doesn’t blow away the lined note. It suddenly feels important for me to read it, to decipher the messages from the outside world. It could be crucial.
The path to the front door has become narrow and impassable at points, limiting my ability to move quickly or even fluidly through the space. It requires concentrated effort and a bit of climbing. My breath becomes wheezy and after removing the pile of boxes stacked against the door, I begin coughing. It’s several minutes before it subsides and I grab an old t-shirt from the floor to spit mucus into. I throw it back down. I’ll wash it later.
I look through the peephole, but despite the bright floodlights illuminating the porch and front gate, I can’t see anything but shadows. I search them for movement on tip-toes for several minutes, listening to my collection of wind chimes ringing out in various tones throughout the night. The cacophony makes me smile. It’s enough to scare away the monsters, I think, and then laugh at being such a scared old man. The boogeyman died a few years ago.
There are five locks across the door, and I unlatch them from top to bottom. Pulling the door open requires both hands, as it scrapes on the dirty ground and pulls with it discarded pieces of paper and little items which have fallen out of the boxes. I spot a pair of argyle socks and an old cellphone. Both are in good shape, and I bend over to pick them up and shove them into my pants pockets to examine in more detail later.
The lined note, which I can now see is on yellow legal paper, sits folded in half longwise under a rock painted to look like a giant ladybug. The rock was a gift from a friend years ago and when I touch it I can hear her laughter twirling around me. It’s such a vivid sound and I call out to her into the darkness.
There’s no response because she isn’t here. I’ve not seen her in fifty years. The number fifty sticks in my throat, burning and itching until it causes another round of coughing. I snatch up the note and the rock through the spasms, spit bloody phlegm into a box of old tools and close the door behind me by pushing against it with my back. I slide to the floor, and the cell phone tumbles out of my pocket and lands on an old candy wrapper beside me.
I set down the rock and grab for the phone, balancing it on top so it sort of teeters back and forth for a moment before finding its stopping point. It looks incomplete, so I pull the colorful socks from my pocket and drape them across the top. Yes, that’s right.
Unfolding and smoothing the paper I find a handwritten note printed in neat, black letters. It looks like the handwriting of a woman. I pull my glasses from my breast pocket and read out loud to myself.
The large beech tree in front of your house appears to be dying. The neighborhood children walk past the tree to and from school and we are concerned it could fall onto one of them or hit a passing car on the road injuring someone. Could you please remove it?
Your Concerned Neighbors”
Scrawled under the neat printing are a dozen or so signatures in various colors of ink. Conspiracy. Collusion. They must have spoken to the official who came here to try and take my father’s house from me. I stare at the paper and tears fall from my eyes blurring the ink, streaking it, and creating something new from something old.
Inspiration prickles through me and I twist my body so I can use the doorknob to pull myself to my feet. I fold the damp paper and put it in my front pocket with my glasses and restack the boxes in front of the door until I can’t reach to add another. I climb and crawl my way back to the kitchen table.
Unearthing rusted scissors from a pile of stuff on one of the chairs, I pull the paper note out of my pocket and begin cutting it into blurry yellow and black strips. When I’m done I arrange them on the table, tearing some pieces even smaller until they form the image inside my mind. I’ll need tape, dark brown fence paint, and one of the broken canvases in the barn.
“Tomorrow,” a voice inside says.
I push it away and shuffle through the house, touching things as I pass, making notes of other items I can combine and transform. There’s a wildness inside me roaring like it does, a beacon of need my father called crazy and my mother called art. I don’t know what to call it, but it drags my tired body into the chilly night until I’m standing near the beech tree sweating and panting.
The reddish-purple leaves glint in the moonlight. Copper Beech, I remember. My mother planted this tree and now it’s sick. I press my cheek against the rough bark and find it covered in puckered welts leaking sticky whitish residue. The leaves, once glossy and firm, are fragile brittle nothings in my fingers.
“There’s nothing wrong with you,” I say to it. “You are simply sad.”
I hug the bark, feeling the cancerous bumps press through my shirt into my delicate thin skin like needles pressed through or fingers thrust hard. I stumble back and suddenly recall a book I’d seen in the barn with a tattered brown and gold cover, the pages filled with colorful illustrations of plants. “The Family Herbal, or an Account of all those English Plants, which are Remarkable for their Virtues.”
“I’ll be back,” I say.
After several minutes of stepping around stacks of empty flower pots, piles of rocks, and overturned rotting boxes, I find the rough rope and use it to pull myself into the barn. Through the maze, I travel, hand over hand, until I reach my destination in the sighing darkness. I find a string above me and pull it, illuminating cobwebs and the shadowy shape of things old and new.
I begin shoveling my way through the boxes and piles, moving things as I search for the book. I try not to linger too long as I uncover tiny smiling Santas, satin dress shoes, half-eaten leather belts covered in chew marks, a box of rubber bands, a collection of gold jar lids, and my father’s old wheelchair. These items all have stories to tell, but I’m not interested right now. The book is all that matters.
Tiny creatures scatter unseen around me, their scent mixed with my own so we are barely distinguishable from one another. Dirty. Filthy. Diseased. The words take shape and then are replaced. Tree. Knowledge. Savior. There will be no need to remove the tree, for I might be old, but I still have tools and the ability to work. I have my hands. I have my stuff and my house. No, not my house. His house and my stuff.
A tall stack of boxes teeters toward me and I try to push them back upright, but I’m not heavy enough. Slowly, ever so slowly, they lean into my body until my legs give way and I slide backward tumbling. My head hits the wooden planked floor with a thud I don’t hear but rather feel—an internal earthquake. My arms are pinned beside me, and boxes sit on and around me, as the light above sways and sways.
When the light stills and stops I see a small book with a faded-blue cover that has landed beside my head, inches from it. I can smell the musty, gluey scent as if it’s trying to lure me to it—calling me to pay attention. Squinting at the faded gold letters for several minutes I eventually make them out, “Relativity.”
From somewhere deep inside the word rings and rings. My mother’s soft voice fills the barn reading to me late into the night of light, space, time, and gravity. Her voice like a thousand stars in the night sky calls and twinkles around me until I see her above me with outstretched arms. Her eyes speak of things I’ve forgotten—being called “her boy,” feathery kisses in the golden morning light, flower gardens, and midnight comforts when the nightmares came.
The stuff around me, the precious items I’ve held close to protect and comfort me, melt before my eyes and turn to colorful yellow vapor and sweet-smelling smoke. I watch it swirl around me, around her, until it floats out the windows and into the clear night sky. She pulls me to my feet, and I’m small again. Tears stream down my cheeks, but there’s only happiness on her face. The full moon shines bright behind her.
The word “sorry” wants to come, but she pulls me into her arms and pushes it away.
“Home is when we are together,” she says.
I smile and allow her to carry me home on her hip.
Author’s note: I tried to come up with a haunted house story, but since I wrote one in Week 10 I challenged myself to think about other definitions of haunted. I took inspiration from the many stories of trauma in my own family and our tendencies toward hoarding as a response to those experiences. The idea of being haunted by your past drove me to this story of the old man.
The photos in this story are mine, taken while cleaning out a relative’s home who struggles with hoarding and mental illness. I know this wasn’t a happy piece to read, but I hope you liked the ending. I didn’t know where I was going with this story, but once he was trapped under the boxes the ending came and I cried while typing it. The loving mother returning to rescue her hurt son was the happy ending my heart desired for him. If it touched you in some way, please let me know. Thank you.
Short Story Challenge | Week 13
Each week the short stories are based on a prompt from the book “Write the Story” by Piccadilly, Inc. This week’s prompt was to write a story about a haunted house. We had to include the words silver, relativity, watercolor, Copper Beech, limited, affect, broccoli, politician, arsenal, and cufflink.
Write With Us
Prompt: Something bad is about to happen but nobody believes the main character
Include: Andromeda, stop sign, dandelion, iceberg, spectacle, poet, candlelit, keyboard, bumble, and robotic
My 52-Week Challenge Journey
- What is the 52-week challenge?
- Week 1: The Heart and the Stone
- Week 2: The Biggest Little Gift
- Week 3: It Bearly Fits
- Week 4: The Claire in Clarity
- Week 5: The Family Tree
- Week 6: Through the Glass Windshield
- Week 7: The Final Goodbye
- Week 8: Sunset, Sunrise
- Week 9: Returning Home
- Week 10: The Water
- Week 11: Aw, Phooey!
- Week 12: Meeting Time