The house breathes around me, curls in to cradle me, but will not let me go. Mother told me it was for my own protection, though from what or whom she never said. She's gone now. And the house cannot tell me. But how can I be safe when the danger is not out there, but here with me, trapped as surely between walls of red brick and thick glass as I?
A monster roams these halls.
I can hear it rumbling up and down the corridors as I sip my tea at the small table in the kitchen. The delicate china teacup rattles only slightly as I place it on its saucer. Heavy footsteps pound on the hardwood floors, followed by the drag and slide of ropes. The noise grows closer and louder, until I can hear it just on the other side of the closed door at my back. The huffs of heavy breathing. The tap of long claws against the wood. I suck in a breath and do not move. I cannot turn my head. I cannot open the door. I cannot even blink.
Another hesitant tap. A soft scratching. And then the heavy steps begin again, growing faint, growing distant. My held breath escapes me in a rush.
The house cannot allow it to escape, Mother told me once. There is no telling the damage it could do to the world.
But why am I trapped here as well, I asked.
Mother only said it was for the best and returned to reading her book. Best for whom though? For me? For Mother? For the world? And now Mother is gone and cannot tell me. All that is left is me, and the monster, and the house.
From the kitchen table, I stared out of the French doors that lead from the kitchen to the garden. The late afternoon sun warms the stone pavers encircling flowerbeds. I lift the teacup to my lips again, hands trembling.
Stay here with me, says the house in Mother's whispering voice. The whispers reverberate through the brick walls and the kitchen stove and the plates in the cupboards and the floor beneath my feet. Stay safe. Stay here with me.
Stay here with the monster.
With a heaving breath, I surge to my feet, grip the doorknob, and fling the French doors open. My blood thunders in my throat, against my temples. My lungs burn. My legs quiver. I take a step, my bare foot pressing against the air. Out and down. Down. Down.
I halt mid-step, body caught in the threshold between kitchen and garden, and can go no farther. All around me the house whispers. You cannot leave, my girl. Stay here. Stay where it is safe.
Choking back a sob, I step back from the French doors, closing them gently. I sit back down and the cup rattles as I sip my tepid tea. Somewhere in the empty rooms, the monster screams and howls.
I contemplate the cup in my hand. The delicate blue and gold flowers on a white field. Mother's favorite. Mine now to do with as I please. I am empty and still, empty and still as the empty rooms of the house, and I feel nothing as I smash the teacup on the kitchen table. Blue, gold, and white china now a shower of glittering dust. Somewhere in the empty rooms, the monster laughs.
It is not safe outside this house, my girl, Mother told me a million times. The world is not friendly. The dangers are endless. Madmen, murderers, monsters. There is no telling the damage the world could do to you. Stay safe. Stay here with me.
But if the world is full of monsters, why must the house keep ours contained, I asked.
Mother only said it was for the best and returned to her needlepoint work. And so, perhaps our monster is the only thing more dangerous than the outside world. No telling what damage the monster could do to the world, no telling what damage the world could do to me. And so, the both us remain here. Trapped.
But when Mother was here, she kept me safe. Doors double- and tripled-locked to protect us from the outside monsters. Hiding in her room to protect us from ours. And when I awoke to the sounds of screaming and claws clicking on heavy oak doors, Mother would pet my hair and wrap me in her arms and promise that the monster could never hurt me while she was there. Layers of protection, wrapping around and around me like ribbons. Or rope.
Mother protected me from the monster as the house protects the world. But Mother is gone. And somewhere in the empty rooms, the monster wails.
I do not sleep at night. I did not, much, even when Mother was here. But Mother is gone, and now I do not sleep at all. I lie in bed with the sheets pulled over my face. Or I sit curled up in my little armchair by the window with the curtains tightly drawn, arms wrapped about my legs. And I wait. Mother is gone. She cannot protect me now.
The house groans. Shadows shift across the floor. The tap tap tap of claws echo through the empty rooms. The heavy steps grow closer and louder, accompanied by the drag and slide of heavy rope. From my little chair, I watch the door and hold my breath. Some nights the doorknob turns. Some nights the door hinges creak. Some nights terrors come to drown me. Tonight, the monster stays away.
In the morning, Mother's favorite teacup is whole and pristine, sitting on the kitchen counter. I turn and leave the kitchen without breakfast.
The house provides, of course, and always has. Food, clothing, books, firewood in winter. Mother never explained how. Perhaps she didn't know. I live with the invisible hands of the house always holding on, its touch apparent and inescapable with every cup of tea, every meal, every book found waiting for me on my bedside table, every dress found waiting for me in my wardrobe.
The house will not let me starve, but neither will it let me go. The curtains dance in a breeze I never feel. They curl about my legs and shoulders, like an embrace. Or a grip to hold me down. They mock me, drawn to hide the view beyond the windows.
Madmen, murderers, monsters. Do not let them in. Stay here. Stay safe. It is dangerous even to look. Keep the curtains closed.
A sudden impulse has me gripping the curtains, pulling them sharply to the side. The window is filled with bright light, looking out onto the gardens. Beyond them stands a row of beckoning poplar trees, and beyond the trees rises the distant horizon. Fueled by an emotion I cannot name, I unlock the window and yank. Hard. The window does not budge.
You cannot leave, my girl.
The window clicks itself locked again.
I cannot imagine the dangers beyond that glass, but they must be awful if Mother believed them worse than the monster I am trapped with. My lungs constrict, my pulse is a furious tempo in my throat, and my hands shake. I step away from the window, filled with terror. As terrified of what might exist beyond the glass as what exists within it. Skirts swirling about my feet, I spin and walk away. Through halls, past the kitchen, past the front door I have not dared to approach since I was a small child, back to my bedroom. A book is waiting for me on my pillow. Mother's favorite teacup is on the bedside table, filled with steaming tea. I snatch up the book and clutch it to my chest. I can almost feel Mother's hands petting my hair. Surely, I am safe here. But somewhere in the empty rooms, the monster roars.
The house is growing tired. It sighs and sags. The walls tremble with the effort of holding up the roof. The bricks are beginning to chip and crack. The doors creak and moan ever louder with each passing day. Food grows stale as it appears on the kitchen table, as if the effort to maintain it is draining away. Mother is gone, and the house feels the loss even more than I. As if its structural integrity was inexorably tied to hers.
The silvered-glass mirrors in the corridors have grown filmy and tarnished. I am thankful for that at least. I do not like mirrors. Do not like to see the apparition of my own body in them. I try to avoid meeting my own gaze as I walk through the halls, catching only glimpses of long pale dresses and dark hair at the corner of my eye. I do not recognize the face I see in mirrors, though Mother assured me again and again that that face was me.
Mother is gone and can no longer assure me. I doubt it more and more with each passing day.
I do not know how long I have been here alone, tormented by the monster in the empty rooms. Months. Years. Eternity. The house groans constantly now. Long spiderweb cracks in the kitchen ceiling spread down the wall and across the upper cabinets. I wonder if I smashed Mother's favorite teacup again, would the house be unable to repair it this time? Would it stay broken? Somehow, I do not dare to test it. I fear the answer.
At night, I stay curled beneath my sheets, trembling. The monster is most active at night, most brazen. A creature of shadow and night. This has always been true, but it is worse now that Mother is gone. The heavy steps approach. The bone-chilling drag and slide of rope. My ears are filled with the squealing scratch of claws dragging themselves across wall and mirror and painting. I clutch my sheets, press them against my face, breath gulping breaths.
I hear the doorknob rattle. The door creaks slowly open. A heavy step. A sharp tap. A dragging slide. Through the thin white sheets, I see the candles by my bed flicker and die. Quiet tears roll down the sides of my face and into my hair. Squeezing my eyes shut, I swallow shuddering sobs.
Then suddenly it is there above me, pressing me into the mattress with inescapable weight like boulders stacked upon my chest. My ribs creak and buckle. I will break any moment now. Long claws, razor-thin and razor-sharp, pierce through my shield of sheets to curl almost languidly around my chest, around my throat, around my arms. Points dig into flesh. Pinpricks only. Promises of pain to come. Hot breath wafts across my face, and the damp sheet clings to my skin. A shake so violently I fear I will shatter. I wait for teeth.
But teeth do not come. They never do.
Please, I think. Release me.
Not for the first time, I beg. Night after night I wait to die, and do not. I long for it now. I am tired, more tired even than the house. I long for the end. But it will not come.
All around me the house whispers in Mother's demanding voice: you cannot leave, my girl. Stay. Stay. Stay.
The house will not let me go. And the monster will not oblige me with oblivion. Eventually, it crawls away. But I do not pull the sheets from my face. I lay in bed and pray for the end.
In the morning, several of the mirrors in the hallway are shattered ruins on the hardwood floor. I look down at the shards of my face staring back up at me with dread. And envy.
Time has no meaning in this shuddering wreck of a house. But later I find myself standing before a single unbroken mirror in an isolated corridor. The surface is tarnished and gray but whole. Still I do not believe the face reflected there is mine, though I know it must be. Mother told me so. It is ashen, eyes ringed with dark circles, lips dry and chapped, hair a dark wild tangle hanging down my back. It is a mediocre face. A miserable face. What is this body I inhabit? So weak, so useless, so scared. How long must I wear it?
In the space of a blink, long black claws come into view. Narrow and sharp as razors, they curl around me from behind, across ribs, over shoulders, wrapped around my neck. Bite in. Paper-thin lines of blood trickle down my ashen skin. Eyes red and weary, nearly numb with a strange mix of terror and resignation, I watch the blood drip. All I see are the claws at first, then I begin to make out the monstrous pitch-black shape beyond them, just coming into focus. Numbness recedes. Panic floods my veins, pounding in my head and throat and chest.
Mouth open in a voiceless cry, I spin to face the monster... only to find empty air. My imagination?
But no. I swipe a hand across my bare neck, and my fingers come away bloody. A choked sob breaks loose with a rattling sound from my chest. The monster's rope drags down the corridor, and its hideous howl ricochets through the house. The house whispers in response, the sound building and building until they drown out the howl beneath an endless roll of thunder.
How can it possibly be safer here?
Please. Please let me go.
I'm not certain if I'm speaking to the monster or the house. Of death or of freedom. Either would be a relief.
The day the ceiling finally collapses in the kitchen, I learn a new fear. It takes the cabinets and china and kitchen table with it just as I scramble out of the way and into the corridor beyond. I crouch against the wall and cover my tear-streaked face with shaking hands for a long time. All around me the house quakes. Fault-line cracks spread across the hardwood floors and up the walls. Windows rattle in their frames, threatening to shatter. The house may kill me now. Not the monster. Not the world outside. Just the house. Somewhere in the empty, ruined rooms, the monster screams.
In blind desperation I rush to the front door. It has never opened in my presence. I have not even looked at it in ages. I touch it now, unlocking deadbolt after deadbolt with frantic speed. I grip the doorknob, twist, and pull with all my might.
It does not budge.
The house whispers. You cannot leave, my girl. Stay safe. Stay here.
The walls shake, cracks breaking open into gaping holes. An explosive sound tells me that another room has collapsed. A ceiling or a wall or both have caved in like a galaxy falling inward toward the black hole at its center. I twist and pull at the doorknob again and again. I rattle the door in its heavy wooden frame. I kick and pound it with my fists. But it will not open.
You cannot leave, my girl. It is dangerous outside. Stay safe. Stay here. STAY!
The house will not release us. It will crush us both beneath its inexorable weight and never know the difference. Somewhere in the crumbling house, the monster wails.
Terror and panic are thick sludge in my mouth. I can hardly breathe. But I spin away from the door and sprint down the crumbling corridors. I do not know what to do, I do not know where I am going. The wailing beckons me, and I follow the sound, turning down corridor after shuddering corridor, past cracked mirrors and floors laced with fault-lines. And I find myself at Mother's door. I have not opened this door, have not stepped inside, since Mother has been gone. I open it now.
There, in the far corner, is the monster.
Massive, dark as a black hole swallowing light, it is curled up and hiding, still wailing. Ropes wrap around its amorphous body and trail out behind it, frayed and chewed apart at the ends where it had clearly freed itself from its bindings. Who placed those bindings? Mother? The house itself? Perhaps it does not matter now. It is scared. More scared even than I am.
I take a step forward and we both tremble. Another step. Around us the house groans and shivers and crumbles. The whispers grow louder and louder, like an approaching freight train. I take another step. We both sob.
I stand beside the massive creature with its skin the black of a universe without stars. With irrational calm, I reach out and touch it lightly. Lay a palm across the cold membrane between me and oblivion, and do not flinch. The wailing halts. A head, or something like a head, lifts and turns. I stare into a face I recognize more surely than the one I greet in a mirror. I know the creature by its seeping wounds and wide, unblinking eyes and gaping, hungry maw. A creature of hunger. A creature of terror. A creature of despair.
Reaching up, I curl my small hand around a single massive claw. I do not flinch as the razor-edge bites into my palm. I grip tighter and pull. The creature lurches up to standing. It stumbles forward into my embrace. I feel the razors slide into me as I stare up and up into those unblinking eyes.
I know you.
And the creature is sliding in, slipping beneath my skin, beneath the muscles, beneath the bone. It tucks its trembling black hole body beneath my ribs and sighs, exhausted.
The freight-train whispers explode into bonfire screams.
Stay stay stay staystaystaystay
The ceiling cracks and falls in large slabs of drywall and flaking paint. Once more, I spin and run. My skirts, which belong to the house, tangle around my legs to trip me, to hold me. I reach down and rip the hem to shreds. The floor buckles and breaks open. I leap across the canyons. The walls collapse around me, blocking my path. I cover my head with my arms, dodge, and charge on. The unfamiliar-familiar reflections stretch from shattering mirrors, hands reaching to grab me and hold me fast. I wrench myself free and run. Down corridors, past rooms that vibrate with shrill commands. I run to the front door and slam my whole body into it as I skid to a halt.
Once again, I grip the doorknob. It will open now. I demand that it opens now. A creature broken in half is weak. A creature whole and complete cannot be stopped. I twist the handle and fling the door open. The house screams and quakes. Just past the threshold, the lawn is green and still. The trees beyond that sway gently in a breeze.
My girl my girl my girl stay with me stay stay STAY!
“NO!” I screech. The words rip through me, harsh and breathless from lack of use.
It is for the best, Mother said. For whom? For her? For me? For the world? No telling the damage the world could do to me. No telling the damage I could do to the world.
“It's time to find out,” I whisper to the black hole nestled comfortably beneath my ribs.
I step through the door.
© 2023 Amanda Haimoto Rudd