by Carolyn Abram
Walter remembered the previous couple as round and undulating—the furniture stuffed to the brim and mattresses crowning upwards. This time, everything was square. The couch and chairs were in cubic sections, laid out at perfect right angles to each other. Men streamed in and out of the entrance, carrying boxes, corners, hard flat screens.
Two of the men struggled to turn a shelving unit through the narrow entryway without puncturing the wall. Walter tried to recall the limitations of physicality. A time when he’d had form and stood in doorways the way these men did, leaving voids of space all around them. Nothing came back. A wind rippled across the threshold; he fled to his favorite crack in the ceiling. Walter didn’t like open doorways, open windows, open invitations to come inside when all he wanted was to keep everyone out and himself in.
“Michelle,” the man called, “the movers want to know where the bookshelves go.”
Michelle bounded into the room, “Small ones in the bedroom, tall ones in the living room,” she looked directly at the mover and nodded at him until he nodded back.
Josh and Mish, a constant racket of shushing noises. They wore shoes that left acrid scuffs in the hallways, shed layers of clothing as the day progressed, exposing their hard skin. Even their bodies seemed less rotund, more sleek and angular. How faddish, Walter thought. He no longer remembered the fads of his time living in the house. He’d long ago stopped counting seasons or couples. They gritted their teeth and heaved the sticky windowpanes open; turned the hot water spigot to fill their buckets; swept and vacuumed and mopped and polished.
Walter fretted. Walter panicked. Walter hid in the broken doorbell in the attic. Its tinny echo hid the screams of the layers of dust being sucked up, the strata of grime being squeaked off the windows, the tarnish and dirt being ferreted out, exiled. I’ll remember you, Walter thought, people are only temporary.
Walter was exploring the cotton candy pourousness of the insulation beneath the floorboards in the attic. The fiberglass was oddly unyielding—like being inside a salt crystal. Hollow reverberations jarred him out of his miniature cathedral. He had no choice but to go observe.
Sex, Walter remembered, as the sheets hung over their naked bodies, rippling in concert with the smacks of skin. Walter no longer felt even a phantom pang of flesh, just annoyance at the inevitable crescendo of noise and distress. The window was open and a warm breeze wafted menacingly through the room. A fallen strand of hair tumbled across the expanse. The feet of the bed chiseled, thrust by thrust, into the floor beneath. Indelible ink on someone else’s belongings.
The house was being reassembled under their rule. Kitchen, dining room, living room, bedroom, office. One room left vacant. The room was the one where the pockmarks of an overeager hammer had been patched but then sank into the wall. Even layers of paint couldn’t hide the slight ridges. Walter loved pushing against these canyons, feeling their citrus catch. There was also the dust-dried postage stamp that had slid in between the shelf and the wall in the closet. The room was left to Walter, it seemed. Still, it was vacuumed top to bottom, and empty boxes were left flattened in one of its corners like heavy flags.
Walter considered his options. He watched, followed, learned the treads of their shoes and the folds of their jackets. He spread himself over the leftover imprint of a duck-shaped appliqué in the bathtub. Michelle ran the water and for a moment Walter was in heaven: heat. Heat was a rarity. Rather, the contrast was a rarity. When it was summer it seemed it had always been summer and the whole house swelled and suffocated. When it was winter it had always been winter and the house shivered and tucked itself tighter. The cool tub overwhelmed by the hot water was brand new and familiar at the same time.
“Oh wow,” Michelle said. Walter wondered how she was talking to him, but then she turned her head and called out the door, “Josh, get in here.”
She pointed as soon as he came in, “Do you see that?”
He shook his head.
“There’s like, what are those things called, it’s a rubber ducky, you know, so you don’t slip in the tub. Do you see the outline?” she pointed again.
Josh turned his head, hair so sharp and close-cut it didn’t even change direction. He squinted, “I guess so.”
“Isn’t that funny? I guess someone must have scraped off the decal but the glue stayed.”
“Yeah,” he nodded gravely.
Michelle watched him for another few seconds, but Josh’s face didn’t transform to mirror her elation.
“Okay, you can go. I have shared my discovery,” she waved him away.
Walter wanted to attach himself to the metal rivets on Josh’s pants. They looked smooth and intriguing. But when he followed Josh, he was usually forced to watch more destruction: the light fixtures replaced with stainless steel behemoths, layers of polyurethane and dirt stripped from the molding, dingy brass doorknobs discarded and the fibers of wood beneath them brushed and blown away.
Michelle poured some sort of soap into the tub; Walter felt the long-forgotten pressure of a sneeze. She took hold of a bristle-brush and began to scrub. She was trying to erase the evidence. She was trying to undo so much history. Walter hated her. He burrowed into the faucet, sensing the rust inside would not be there much longer. He embraced each droplet of water before it moved on to the sloshing beneath.
Michelle liked to lean against the doorjamb and stare into Walter’s room. This, he understood; doorjambs had an almost nutty flavor hidden in their layers of paint and right angles. He wondered if Michelle could taste it too. He felt the house expand and sigh, good naturedly, making space inside. This worried him.
He started simple, seeping himself into the floorboards and the water pipes, tugging and clanking and moaning in the evenings. The problem was volume. They were always listening to something. They talked and they sang and their screens talked and sang. At night, he tried to wait till they were nearly asleep, watching the disturbed rustles of blankets and covers. They thumped their pillows, rolled towards and away from one another.
“I’ve been sleeping terribly since we moved,” Michelle said at breakfast.
“It’s the stress,” Josh said, “Plus this house sounds like it’s falling apart.”
“House settling,” she took a sip of her coffee and looked at the walls around her.
“Maybe we have rats,” Josh looked down at the table, at the words on his shiny tablet.
“Oh that doesn’t help.”
In the exploration of the peculiar tackiness of the traps Josh laid out, almost electric in their bite, Walter was sure he’d lost several days of haunting. When he returned to their bedroom, they had plugged something into the wall. It was emitting a sort of noise. Ocean, Walter remembered, the word building and crashing like the noise of the thing itself. He lost entire nights ebbing with it, thinking about a wide expanse of sea. Salt. Stinging. Sunburn. Something wonderful had happened to him there, he was sure.
Every morning, when they shut it off, Walter would worry he’d somehow accidentally left the house. He’d rush to rediscover all of his favorite spots, cobwebs in unreachable corners, his attic doorbell, the postage stamp and dent in the wall, the strand of spider silk hanging from the ceiling of the closet in his room. These were his benchmarks. When they were gone, he would have lost.
Walter hid in the outlet in the bedroom. The window was open; even the screen had been removed and this made Walter nervous. Josh and another man—older, but with a similar face—hauled a large metal box into the hole, blocking the outside. Each of them glistened and grunted. Josh wiped the back of his arm against his brow. He steadied the box as the older man closed the window above it. He snapped something in against the sides of the window.
“Okay,” he said.
Josh released the box, stepped away as though it might catch him leaving.
“Plug ‘er in,” said the older man.
“My life is about to get exponentially better,” Josh said.
The prongs sunk their teeth into the space Walter was occupying. He felt a rush of dizziness as contact was made and a satisfying shock of electricity leapt out and snatched Josh’s hand.
He snapped his hand back, “Fuck,” he said.
“Old house, old wiring,” said the other man.
“Fucking fuck,” Josh muttered, “One more thing to worry about.”
He stood up and flicked the switch on the box. Walter felt the current pass over him, hum and shudder the box to life.
Cool air flowed out into the room. Josh stood directly in front of it, eyes closed, face relieved and slack.
“One thing at a time, son,” the man clapped Josh loudly on the back.
Walter hated the box and its duplicates throughout the house. Their growls reminded him of the word monster. It changed the quality of the air wherever it was. Only a few places were left unsullied.
When Michelle walked out of the shower one morning, the mirror was fogged. “GET OUT” was written across it, rivulets of water running off the edges of the letters.
“Very funny,” she snorted, shook her head, “I’m done, I’m done.” Then she raised her voice to call out, “Your turn.”
She held out a finger and drew and heart through the center of the mirror.
Hmmph, thought Walter. He ran himself across the grooves in the steam created by Michelle’s finger. It was comfortably smooth, with pulses of water droplets every now and then. Small consolation.
Joshua came into the room, towel around his waist. He surveyed the mirror, smiled, reached out and traced an arrow through the heart. He turned on the fan, shaking his head. The whir ate away all of it.
GO AWAY, the mirror said.
“Josh,” she called out, “if you have some problem with me taking such long showers could you at least talk to me about it, because passive aggressive notes are not helping.” She listened to the scuffling beyond the door, “Go away,” she mumbled to herself, “idiot,” she reached out and wiped the mirror clean with the side of her hand.
Josh opened the door, “What are you yelling about?” Steam swirled and Walter rode the eddy up into the ceiling.
She leaned close to the mirror and opened her eyes wide, pulled something out of her lashes, “I wasn’t yelling. The shower. I wasn’t even in there for that long.” She blinked a few times at herself.
“Who said you were?”
She turned towards him, pointed to the mirror, “You did. You left the notes.”
Josh furrowed his eyebrows, raised his voice a bit, “I have no clue what you’re talking about.”
“The mirror. Have you not even noticed my little messages back to you?”
“The hearts? I noticed. It was cute.”
“So why are you heckling me about the shower?”
“I’m not.” He rocked the door back and forth. The hinges squeaked and reverberated from shingles to foundations.
“So why the notes?”
She stamped her foot, “You are impossible sometimes.”
His tone shifted, “You woke up on the wrong side of bed.”
“Fine,” she turned back towards the mirror, “Forget the whole thing.”
“I’m not going to leave with you all mad at me.”
Their voices echoed off the tiles, Walter remembered the word headache.
“Mish,” Josh jiggled the doorknob, looked at her dripping reflection. His face softened.
She picked up a comb and attacked the ends of her hair. “Will you at least own up to the mirror?”
Josh held up both his hands, “I give up, okay?”
“Here,” Josh closed the door behind him as he stepped into the humid room. He took a bottle of shaving cream off the counter and sprayed it into a hand towel. He traced something across the full expanse of the mirror. Michelle kept combing. He cranked the shower back on.
Walter bounced in the puffs of steam that poured out of the showerhead. It emerged slowly, but with greater clarity than any of Walter’s messages.
MICHELLE = THE BEST, the mirror said.
Walter skated across the surface of the letters. The shaving cream clung so closely to the fabric of the glass, anything Walter wrote would pale by comparison.
Michelle smiled. Josh put his arms around her.
Walter submerged himself in the toilet tank, where he could hear nothing but the faintest trebles of their voices, soft and cooing. He always enjoyed the toilet tank; it brought back vague memories of swimming, of being submerged and new and bright. It had the added benefit, for whatever reason, of clogging the toilet, which wound up costing several hours in overtime for the plumber.
They were painting his room. The paint was yellow, it filled him with memories of salivation. The sun was streaming into the room and Josh and Michelle were blasting music and singing along at the top of their lungs. The sounds echoed and were absorbed by the walls.
Michelle wore a cloth cover over her mouth. A shame, she was becoming prettier, as though something about the house was softening her, like she was ripening. Peach, Walter remembered, soft and luscious and immersive.
Sometimes when Michelle was sleeping Walter poured himself around her face like a mask, feeling the smooth grooves of air hugging her nose, the slight tickle of her eyelashes, the rougher terrain of her lips.
The entire floor was covered in plastic spotted with yellow boot prints; Joshua kept stepping in the paint tray.
“I am some kind of klutz today,” he said, though Michelle seemed not to hear him over the music. He pushed his roller back and forth over the dent in the wall; the wet paint made it even more noticeable.
Walter trembled, sending small ripples across the paint tray. Moving things required focus and energy. His work was going unnoticed.
Michelle climbed up a stepladder to reach the awkward corner above the closet. The drifting pendulum of spider silk and the face on the postage stamp watched from the other side of the wall.
Josh spun a dial on the speakers and the noise softened, “Babe, you shouldn’t be on that top step, I think.”
“Don’t be silly. That’s just those crappy plastic ladders. This one will be fine.” She leaned and raised her heels to stand on her tiptoes. The far leg of the ladder copied this motion, rising slightly off the ground. If she leaned a little more, if Walter just added a little more torque, she would slip and fall. He hesitated; it seemed so drastic. Before he could recover and push on the lifting leg, Josh had put his painted shoe on the bottom step, weighting it.
“Jesus Mish, the whole thing was about to tip,” he snapped.
Michelle looked down and pulled her shoulders up to her ears.
“Okay, you don’t have to say it, just come down,”
Michelle rolled her eyes, drawled, “You were right. I should be more careful.”
She stepped down and Josh smoothed her hair, leaving yellow prints along her scalp. He kissed her forehead.
Vomit, Walter remembered. He wrapped himself around the strand of cobweb, waited.
He started slamming doors. If they were both home they would jump, turn and stare at each other, then burst out laughing. He tried to slam more, ones where the windows weren’t opened, where they couldn’tblame it on a draft. He knocked over picture frames, anything precarious. They fought about the piles of dishes—Josh left them by the bed, Michelle in the office—about the cheapness of the frames for their wedding photos.
“This house is not safe,” Michelle surveyed one day, “Too many corners.”
This made Walter optimistic. But then, just when he thought maybe he could turn them against the house and the house against them, they learned to shut doors as they moved between rooms. They bought doorstops. Walter vented his frustrations by clanking harder on the water pipes. The plumber came back; gooey layers of insulation were added, thick and deafening as honey.
Apparitions were difficult, and consuming. Required good timing. Walter felt certain he didn’t usually have to resort to this. He waited for the full moon, constructed himself as visible and ghoulish across the threshold of the bedroom. Joshua washed his face, turned out the light, walked out of the bathroom towards his room. Walter braced himself for a scream.
Joshua squinted at him and walked straight through.
Walter remembered what it felt like to knock a fork over his metal fillings. Remembered the twinge of knees scraped over hard red earth. Joshua paused, shivered, crossed into his room.
This was a mistake he tried not to replicate. Touching people overwhelmed him with sensations of pain. He would need to retreat, recover his strength. All the hard work of haunting would have to cease.
Joshua climbed into bed. Told Michelle that he thought his vision was getting worse. He could hardly see a thing once he took out his contacts. Michelle murmured something. There was the rustle of bed sheets, the bunching of their bodies in the center of the bed.
Josh said, “Jeez, I guess it’s really getting to be winter, glad you warmed up the bed for me,” The quilt rose and fell with their breathing.
Walter banished himself to the darkest corner of the basement, between the cold concrete wall and the hot water heater. As he curled around the curves of the water tank he thought briefly of Josh, folding himself around Michelle in the dark, then of the house, folding around all of them, containing them, keeping them safe.
Once he felt his strength returning, he made his rounds. The broken doorbell in the attic had been touched. It had been picked up and left on top of a new pile of boxes; Walter could taste the whorls of greasy fingerprints left on the chimes. His room had been filled with furniture. In its closet, the postage stamp looked at him mournfully. It had slipped slightly—Walter realized the closet had been painted too—and a corner was now visible beneath the shelf. The cobweb had been painted into the ceiling, the faintest scent of yeast accompanying the small bump it created. Walter was losing. He had maybe already lost. They were stronger than he’d anticipated, more mulish. The house seemed content. Beyond content—it was buzzing with life and energy. Not you too, Walter thought.
The sea sounds were gone. Walter fluttered in the draft streaming from the closed window. Something severe. Something to fix all of it. To get everything back to normal. If he waited any longer the house would forget him entirely.
Michelle’s hand rested next to her lips on the pillow. Walter coiled himself around it, felt the hard nails and their rough-hewn edges. The skin was dry; he could slide into the cracks without yet touching her. Maybe he could get her to understand that she was unwanted. He should have tipped the ladder when he had the chance. He wrapped the coil tighter, spinning through flesh.
She sat straight up, looked down at her hand. Walter felt woozy.
“Oh,” she cried out, doubling over.
Walter rushed to the outlet under the window to recover.
“Joshua,” she screamed.
They left immediately. They had even packed a suitcase.
Walter was rolling around in the pilot lights on the stove, enjoying the tiny rumble of flame when the lock clicked and the door fell open.
Walter sighed; he’d allowed himself to think maybe they had gone for good.
They carried something. They brought it to his room, laid it down in the miniature bed. Baby, Walter recalled suddenly. He molded himself to the dent in the wall, but couldn’t get a good view of it.
They left it alone for a little while in the afternoon. Walter hovered over its crib, trying to recall when he had last seen something of this type. None of the couples before this had had babies.
She opened her eyes, looked straight up at Walter. Walter felt like he had a head and a body and a face again, and like she could see all of it. She yawned and her curled fist leapt into the air, passing through Walter.
The same shattering hum, but different somehow. Words long obscured floated from him. Beauty. Innocence. Daughter.
“Oh,” Walter thought, “I had a family, once.”
She blinked rapidly, her mouth opened and a wail emanated from it. She had the same force as a vacuum cleaner, but in the other direction. Michelle rushed in, followed by Josh. “Shhh, shhh,” she said, scooping the baby into her arms and pressing her close, “It’s okay, it’s okay.”
Carolyn Abram welcomes your comments on The Move at ceabram[at]gmail.com.
photo by tim ebbs.