Please note: this story was provided by the author and published as is.
I can hear them in the house. They are moving so slowly they think I won’t hear them, but their clothes whisper as they walk up the stairs. There’s a hand trailing along the wall now, I can hear the skin of it catching at the peeling paint.
Soon they’ll get to the attic, they’ll know I’m here. I have a feeling they already know. So this story, this dumb whispered recording, will have to be quick.
I hope you find this.
When I was seven I lived in tiny apartment at the edge of civilization, where our small Colorado town met the foothills. My mom, my dad and I in dingy little apartment twelve, and my best friend Ellie, just down the hall. We became friends because I had the one thing she didn’t, a window that looked out on the empty yellow hills behind our complex, the hills that rose into trees that rose into mountains.
Except the hills weren’t empty to me. On the nearest hill, at the top was a flat expanse of grass. There I imagined a house. Three stories, made of dark wood and wide windows. Plenty of space for me and sometimes her, my indulgent fantasy. A thick wooden front door and a porch that trailed around the side. Boxes of purple flowers hanging heavy and pungent from the rails. Anyone else would have seen a little girl race to the top of hill, reach out a hand and turn an invisible doorknob, step regally into space, run zigzag through the dirt, busy and crazy with nothing.
But I saw the foyer, the dusty blue rug. The living room with the wide fireplace, not one but three couches, a piano. I worked hard to make Ellie see it too, I got so angry when she got it wrong, when she saw it wrong.
I can still see it all in my mind. I would run up the hill, race into the foyer and down the hall. To check the view from the grand kitchen, the windows looking down on the river and the train yard. I always got a prickling sensation when I got there, when I pretended to lean against the black and white tile counter and stare out. I’d look behind me and always I was alone. That’s why I went to the kitchen first, to get it out of the way.
After the kitchen I would run up the stairs, wide and wooden with an intricate vine carved bannister. I’m sure I looked silly, prancing with my legs high, but kids don’t care about those things. I would run past the bedrooms — three of them — to my favorite imagined room. A rounded sitting room with red velvet wallpaper. It was there I would spend my days. Lying in the grass — the thick red rug — with my book.
Time would pass strangely then, though I never seemed to notice. I would read a page at noon and look up as I finished and it would be night. I would be cramped up and starving, weak. One moment I remember, strangely, with the tint of fear. I came to, sunburnt but cold, my mom screaming in the distance. I was lying on something soft, something besides the grass. I looked down and for a shaky moment, thought I had bled out on the ground. But my eyes got used to the dark and when I looked again there was a rug under my feet. The red rug, from my room.
But I wasn’t pretending, didn’t see the house around me. Just the dark outdoor night, and the blood red rug. I ran off then, to my mother, who was angry because she was afraid. That night I could hear things moving out there in the grass. The next day when I went to the hill, the rug was gone.
I never told Ellie this, but even when we stopped playing, even when I was too old, I’d go sit on top of the hill and think of the house around me again.
The summer I was sixteen is when everything fell apart. Ellie and I, toxic and too close, too young, confused. I was angry. So I left — her, and my mother and my father, left it all for good. An image stands out to me from that moment. Standing by my beat-up Subaru, packed bags at my feet, I looked up to the top of the hill. My hill.
I wanted to see the house one last time. One last moment of imagination.
But there was nothing but grass.
An imaginary house. That’s all it was. Like any kid, imagining an adventure, a life outside of their own small lot. A memory. It wasn’t real. It wasn’t real.
A week ago my mother called me. I was in my office, far above the crowd.
“You have to come back,” she said. My father was dying.
So I did. I drove all the way there, until the roads got familiar again. I hadn’t been back since I left. I wondered about Ellie, when I passed the high school. I wondered about her a lot. I want to say that it was just from habit that I turned towards our old apartment. I want to say it was me who moved my hands on the wheel, that I didn’t feel a hot daze come over me. That there wasn’t a pressure like a knife in my chest that brought me over the hills.
I turned the corner on Magnolia, past the trees.
The apartment to my left. My hill to the right.
The house stood nearly blocking out the sun.
Three stories tall. Dark wood, wide windows, boxes of purple flowers.
It was like a fever broke out on my skin. I don’t remember leaving the car, only the grass scratching at my knees.
Listen to me.
I stood in front of the house. The house I had made up, that lived only in my head. I walked close and passed from the sun into the shadow it made. It was like I fell into freezing water. I could smell the flowers, taste them, cold sweet and cloying. I could smell something else too, like wet rock. I can smell it now. It’s all over me.
I touched the house. Rough old wood. So solid under my palm. I tasted copper.
The part of me, the kid part that never left, was beating hard in my chest, screaming to climb the porch to look inside, to see if there was a blue rug in the foyer, three couches, a piano. Black and white tiles. A red velvet room.
But the person I am now ran back to my car.
I’ve heard that the more you visit a memory the more you tarnish it, mold it, until what you remember is not the truth at all. Collective remembrance falls through the cracks, and a generation remembers the name of their old favorite cereal as something it never was. A scene in a movie that never happened.
But this house. This memory house.
I made it up.
I drove to the gas station, got a large coffee and drank it burning hot in my car. It was eighty degrees outside and I felt sick. I was dripping sweat, it was running down my lips, but I was so cold. I thought of Ellie, of course. I wondered if she had built the house. But I hadn’t heard from her since I left town ten years ago, even though I thought about her nearly every day. I had tried to find her, more than once, drunken nights alone with the internet. But more people than I thought shared her name.
I saw my father lying in his bed and all I could see was the limp shadow of the house, his veined swollen hands like the flowers in their boxes. Were they wilted? I couldn’t remember, I wanted to go back.
My mother was speaking. I nodded.
Later, somehow, we were eating in the dining room. Ham and cheese sandwiches and red wine. “Our old apartment” I said, “there’s a house behind it, on the hill. Do you know who built it?” She looked at me strangely and for a moment I was relieved. I’d had a mental break, it was the stress, the house hadn’t been there at all. It was a temporary lapse.
“I don’t know. I thought it was abandoned,” she said.
The shivers were back. I stood up, knocking my wine. Red spilled over the table. “No, there was no house there before, there’s never been a house there.”
I made it up, I wanted to say. But I didn’t. She was already looking at me like I was crazy, red wine bleeding across her napkin.
“I used to play on that hill every day,” I tell her and made myself say her name, “Ellie and I.” “Ellie?” she said.
She didn’t remember her. This was a blow, somehow. I was angry. She was kind though, despite how awful I was, trying to reach out to me, my father breathing artificially in the next room. I got in my car again, leaving her with the mess.
The house was dim, like there was a light on deep inside, a light at the center keeping it awake. I watched for a long time, looking for movement until my eyes hurt. A few times my vision shuddered and I thought I saw something. Something passing by an upstairs window. I focused, waited and waited.
I knew then Ellie couldn’t have built it. The weather bleached wood, the sagging foundation, the too thick old windows. This house had been there for longer than either of us had been alive. Nothing changed in the house as the sky lightened to blue. I couldn’t tell if the light was still on inside. I had waiting all night. The car was growing hot with the sun.
Next I knew I was standing on the porch. The house close around me, claustrophobic before I was even inside.
I swore. The door was just as I imagined it. The doorknob brassy at the edges with use. I knocked. It felt like shooting a gun.
The waiting was so painful my teeth hurt. I realized I was clenching my jaw and tried to relax. But no one came. I put my hand on the knob and turned.
The door swung open.
I stepped into the foyer. The blue rug looked electric in the sun streaming through the windows. The windows above the couches, three of them. The rug muffled my steps as I walked over. There was a depression in the center of the closest couch, as if someone was just sitting there. I resisted the urge to feel if it was warm.
I felt more than heard the door close behind me. Softly, then a click. But there was no one there when I looked. I didn’t want to move, didn’t want to make a noise. I held my breath as I walked toward the kitchen. The walk down the hallway felt long.
A flash of light from a picture frame on the wall caught my eye.
It was a picture of me. Me, how look now, twenty-five, hair short. Standing in the hallway, this hallway, leaning against the wall, smiling. And there was someone behind me. A dark shadow, a blur… The prickling feeling was back. I did a full turn. No one there. I went to the kitchen.
I placed my hands on the black and white tile and leaned. There was the river, the train tracks. Something brushed against my back.
I froze. A floorboard in the hall creaked. I focused on my reflection in the window glass. I could see something moving behind me, in the hall. I forced myself to whip around. A blur of movement, an impression, a board groaned on the stairs. I raced past the photo, my own face staring back at me.
At the top of the stairs I paused. I looked into the first room, the guest bedroom I’d always thought, just the bare essentials. The next bedroom, two thin beds, matching dressers. To the other side, the master, curved windows, a four poster bed. The door was partially closed. I tapped it and it swung slowly open. My feet though, wouldn’t move past the threshold.
The late afternoon sun streamed through the windows, the bed glowed in it.
I blinked, the light too bright. In the afterimage of the sun I thought I saw a body on the carpet. Unnatural, bent up, still.
I scrambled back, rubbing my eyes. When I could see again, there was nothing.
I was about to turn away when I thought, late afternoon? It had been barely six a.m. when I entered the house. I stared back at the sky. I had to be wrong, I was confused. I pulled back, continued down the hall. I realized I was heading for my favorite room. The sitting room with the velvet wallpaper.
By the time I reached it, the sky outside was dark. The heavy curtains blocked out all sound and I stood and listened to the house. Quietly breathing in the dark.
I turned toward the hallway, backed up as I tried to see in the dimness. My back hit the curtain and I felt a flicker of movement on my calf. I screamed, muffled it into my hand. A moth flew past me. I sighed in relief. But I felt it again, again and again up my legs as the curtains around the room rippled with movement. The moths were in my hair, their dusty little bodies hitting my eyelids, falling down my shirt. I tried to breath but they were plastered against my nose, I opened my mouth and they flew inside.
I ran. Blindly through the house, moths streaming off me, choking, spitting them as I ran. I half fell down the stairs and hit the front door. I tried to wrench it open, but my fingers scrabbled on a smooth surface. There was no doorknob. They were suffocating me. My feet took me to the bathroom and I stepped into the shower. It felt awful as the moth wings dampened against me, struggling until finally, dead, they streamed off me. I stood, dripping wet in my clothes and stared down in horror at the cluster of bodies in the drain.
When I stepped out of the bathroom I was in the basement.
The floor was hard packed dirt and the walls concrete shot through with wood beams. There weren’t any windows. But I could still see, that dim light coming from somewhere still lighting the air around me. I couldn’t find the stairs, the walls were smooth and thick all around me. The door behind me was locked. The only place to go was into the darkness at the edge of the light. Shivering, my wet clothes icy on my skin, I walked towards the dark. I tried to believe it was my vision playing tricks as the darkness moved.
But I could just make out, against one wall, railings sticking out, an opening.
I ran for it. I could feel something, hear something, sliding along the wall beside me, quick without footsteps, keeping up with me in the dark. I didn’t look.
The door at the top of the stairs was closed and footsteps were coming up fast on the stairs behind me. The door flew open and I slammed it shut behind me. I was in the master bedroom. Outside, it was still dark. I was trapped.
I listened, like before. But the house wasn’t so quiet.
Someone is here. I can feel them.
Someone was close. There was only one place to go, if I could get there. The place I imaged last, as an afterthought, half finished, an add on. The attic.
The door was at the end of the hall, next to the velvet room. I stepped out. There was someone in there, in the room, the velvet curtains moving, the sound of fabric on the floor like the moth wings against my clothes.
I walked toward the door.
And she stepped out from behind the curtains.
It was her. Ellie, but not the same. My old friend, no longer fifteen. Ellie but with sunken eyes and a smirk that made it hard to look at her. And a shuddering, like her body couldn’t stay still. “There you are,” she said, and reached for me.
So here I am, making this voice recording for you, whoever you are. Waiting. For a long time I could hear her moving around the house. In no hurry to get to me. I guess she doesn’t need to be. Now she walks up the stairs, like it pleases her to be slow.
I will slip out of the world now, as easy as she did.
I am nothing but this. This recording.
Or, not exactly….
This unfinished attic, my afterthought, has holes, gaps in the boards. I hope this phone will travel safely to the ground. That the grass will cushion it. That you’ll pass by and find it. Oh god, I hope you are listening.
Because if you’ve found this and you’ve listened there is hope, because now I’m a memory, your memory. I’m in your head. Now you know the house. And maybe it will find you. Not all memories stay trapped in your head, not everything you imagine stays invisible. Some, every time you touch them, grow stronger.
Some are out there, waiting for you.