You Could Live Here
Jonathan Robbins Leon
Home is where the heart is in this sinister short story…
Artwork by Katie Barrett
I’d been sleeping for ages when my door is pushed open. Leaves tumble into my foyer, and footsteps on my hardwood send shivers down my frame.
Two men, one in the prime of life, one much older. Father and son, I think.
“Isn’t it gorgeous?” the younger one asks.
“Jamie,” the older man says, one eyebrow raised. “It’s a money pit. When’s the last time someone lived here?”
Fifteen years, four months, and seventeen days since they took the child away. Afterwards, I watched them drive a For Sale sign into the lawn, but few people travel out this way, and the sign eventually leaned over and gave up.
“You’re not afraid of a project, are you?” Jamie asks.
“It’s forty-five minutes to the nearest grocery store. I think we passed the state line on the way out here.”
“Exactly.” Jamie puts his arms around the older man’s waist. “All this privacy, and all this space.” He pulls him in close for a kiss. Not a familial kiss at all.
“What, are we going to raise chickens?” the older one teases, but the kiss has softened his demeanor.
“Maybe. I’m just saying keep an open mind.”
They take the tour, and I do my best to blow the cobwebs off, to angle the blinds so that light spills in golden and soft. You could live here, I whisper in my way.
“It just keeps going, doesn’t it?” the older one says.
“I think the master’s in here.”
I stretch out before Jamie. See how much room you’d have? And over here, isn’t this the perfect nook for curling up with a good read? Notice my built-ins? My crown molding?
I’ve held fast over the years, keeping my windows and doors shut tight against animals and damp, hoping the boy might return someday. But this last year I’ve begun to give up hope. He’d be an adult now, free to live where he pleased, and yet he has not come back. Likely, he’s forgotten me, convinced himself it was all his imagination.
“Rob, I’m in love with it,” Jamie says.
His lover crosses his arms, trying to appear stern. “I’m not doing all of this by myself. If you want this, we’re going to have to get rid of all the furniture, and then there’s probably going to be issues with the plumbing, and god knows what else.”
Rob sighs, and Jamie claps his hands at his victory.
Jamie dabbles in real estate, but this isn’t his real passion. He’s a painter. He takes over the den as his studio, and I widen the windows a little when he’s not looking, flooding the room with natural light. I love watching him work. At first the things he paints don’t make sense to me, just broad splashes of color that couldn’t possibly take form, but slowly, he breaks them up, adding shades and highlights, until his intention is revealed.
My walls are adorned with his best works, the ones that are too large and daring, too expensive to sell. I always thought I was plain, just a 70s split-level, my tastes retro at best but more likely outdated. Jamie has transformed me. I feel fresh, alive again.
Robert is away much of the time, having a very important job. He still complains about the commute a lot, but the initial repairs to make me habitable were less expensive than he’d anticipated, and I try to remember that he likes it warm in the mornings but chilly after crawling into bed. Still, I like it best when it is just Jamie and I.
I have taken to pretending he is my very own boy. Of course, he is much too old to be the same one, and he is not so boisterous, never tearing down the stairs screaming to hear his own voice. Nor does he scribble on my walls or leave my taps running. Still, he feels at home here, as the boy did, even though I have yet to make myself known to him.
Do other houses long to be loved? I do not know. Perhaps they are as silent and dead as furniture, or like houseplants, alive but unconscious. Yet I am awake to everything that happens within me. I watch as Jamie and Robert make love, Robert so appreciative, drinking Jamie up with his eyes and his hands. And I am there when Jamie takes his midnight baths, balancing a wine glass on the edge of the tub. Through the water I’m able to touch his body, to hold him and thank him for choosing me.
At night, when they are in bed, I try to sleep, but my mind is always restless. Jamie has made my heart stir again, and with that comes memories of the boy. When only silence yawns within me, there is nothing to distract from remembering.
Dillon was napping inside when Mamaw died. I saw the old woman clutch at her chest and fall from the ladder, landing at the foot of the pear tree. I waited for her to get up, but by evening, all I could do was draw the curtains.
The boy woke from his nap, knowing something was wrong because it was dark. He called out for the old woman, but the best I could do was shift myself around him, making myself small and warm so that he could cry.
Her own mother having survived the depression without a refrigerator, the old woman had been taught to always plan ahead, and thus swore by canning. Glistening jars of pickles, green beans, tomatoes, and jams lined my basement shelves. I would use these now to feed her grandchild. I had command of my water and electricity, and I would keep Dillon safe, locked inside until someone came for him.
Only no one did. Dillon’s parents had abandoned him to his grandmother, never bothering to check in, and the old woman kept to her garden with only the occasional trip to town. No one noticed her absence. We watched through the window as Mamaw’s remains seemed to melt into the dirt, her garden growing wild, eventually overtaken by weeds. Dillon ate jam for all his meals. His chubby toddler body lengthened, and he liked nothing more than to run and explore. I made my hallways long for him to race through, and every night while he slept I would move the doors, add new staircases, and create entire rooms for his amusement.
He talked to me, in his own language, understanding that I could respond in a fashion, coming to love me as he might have a parent. I showed him the old dollhouse stored away in my attic. This had belonged to my first family, from the time when I was not yet fully aware of myself. “It’s us,” he said, putting only the boy doll in the house. The grandma doll was placed where a back yard might have been. “Mamaw’s a garden,” Dillon said. In his imagination, the boy and the house went on adventures, growing old together, and no one ever came to knock.
I had him to myself for a year, three months, and eight days. At last, someone remembered him. They knocked, and I blocked out the sound, drawing the shades when they tried to look in. A locksmith was sent for, and they found the boy asleep in the attic. “Can he talk?” the social worker asked when she came to collect him.
“He talks,” said one of the policemen, “but just some made-up language. Nothing you can make sense of. He must have been on his own a long time. I don’t know he stayed alive.”
“He’ll be ok now,” the social worker said. She picked my boy up, and he kicked at her, calling to me, screaming that he wanted to stay, that he loved his house, but they didn’t understand. Outside, they buckled him into a car seat, and he cried for me not to let him go, but the best I could do was flap my shutters in a vain attempt to reach him.
Jamie holds a dinner party, his artist friends driving from the city to see his new collection. He tells them he’s been very inspired here, and they agree that his new work is different, more inventive. But doesn’t he miss the city? He shakes his head. “I can think here.”
Robert does not fit in with Jamie’s friends. He is older, his career not in the arts. While the guests drink coffee and reminisce about old times when they were all struggling and sleeping on one another’s couches, Robert takes a phone call upstairs. “Yes, I’m going to tell him,” he says. “I’m worried he’ll be upset. He loves this house.” Robert speaks furtively, not wanting to be heard. “But I can’t pass it up. It’s London, for fuck’s sake. The money they’re offering is insane.”
He tells Jamie after the party, and there is a fight. Jamie does not want to go, but Robert makes the money, and for all their differences, they are a unit. Robert has to be up early for a flight. He says they will talk about it when he returns.
Jamie is out much of the next day, and the stress of his absence makes my pipes groan. With him gone, I can only guess what he is thinking. Will he insist to keep me, to live here at least part of the time? Or will it be easy for him to let me go, to find some cramped London walk-up and forget he ever lived here?
When he returns, it is with new canvases and brushes, but he is too tired to paint today. He will take a bath. Robert calls while the water is running, but Jamie lets it go to voicemail. Streaming a movie, he props his phone in the soap dish and pours a glass of wine.
I must do something. I cannot remain inert while Jamie is taken from me too. I will not be alone again. While Jamie dozes off in the tub, I shift and change. He will finally know me.
The movie ends, the credits louder than the film, and Jamie wakes with a start. Perhaps he is amazed at himself, thinking how he might have drowned, but I would never have let that happen.
He throws on his pajamas and goes to the bedroom, only it’s not there. I’ve surprised him with stairs. For a long time, he stands there, shaking, his eyes wide with disbelief. He returns to the bathroom and closes the door, as if it’s a magician’s cabinet, but when he opens it again, the stairs still wait for him.
He takes them, keeping himself steady with a hand on my wall. I lead him to the attic, only it’s transformed just for him. This is the studio of his dreams, with floor-to-ceiling windows and skylights that open up to the night sky. The dollhouse is waiting too. The boy doll still where the child left it. Jamie picks it up, and I wonder if adults like to play too. He must be pleased, I think, enchanted by what I have created for him.
But he throws the doll down and runs back to the stairs. I wind them around, wanting him to see the rest of what I have made. There are new bedrooms, just waiting for him to choose furniture, and a library with shelves that he can cram full with books. He does not stop to admire these additions, however. Instead, he rips open doors, running from room to room. “Help!” he screams, and I’m stunned. Doesn’t he like what I have done? Can’t he see that I have altered myself to please him?
He is afraid of me. I want to hold him close. I want to let him know that there is no need to run away. I would never hurt him. He should stay.
Jamie finds his way to the living room, and his hand is outstretched for the front door that he knows waits in the next room. I take it away. He bangs on the new wall, his fists raging against me. The back door in the kitchen is gone too, and so he heads to the basement, which has an entrance of its own. Once he is downstairs, I take away all the doors and windows, the stairs too, wanting him to be still and calm.
Instead, he panics, clawing at the walls. I have to take away the light. I make the floor soft with carpeting, and after many hours of him trembling like a frightened bug inside me, he settles down and goes to sleep.
I have time to think what I will do with him, and I feel sad at having scared him. Perhaps it is best to let him go if that is what he wants. I reinstall the exterior doors and reorganize myself according to my original design.
But when the last hinge is in place, I remember how it felt to be empty, to wait for the boy to return with only the memories of his footsteps to comfort me. I was built too far from everything, made too strange and ugly, and perhaps Jamie is my last chance.
When Jamie wakes, he follows the lights to the rows of preservatives. He can live off of these for a while, I think. Until I can convince him to love me. He must be hungry, but he examines an amber jar of pear butter without opening it. “I can’t eat this,” he says aloud. “It’s over a decade old. It would kill me.”
But this doesn’t sound right to me. I have kept the jars cool. Even with the ones the boy ate cleared away, there’s enough to last Jamie for months. I will not let him trick me. He puts the jar back, perhaps thinking that he will hold out until Robert’s return the next day.
Yet I have secreted Jamie away. This portion of the basement is a thing apart, deeper into myself than Robert could ever find. He will come looking for Jamie, opening every closet for a sign of him. The police will come again, only this time they will not take my boy from me, for he will inhabit the very heart of me, and he will come to love his house.
Jonathan Robbins Leon is a queer author of contemporary and speculative fiction. His work has been published by Flame Tree Press, Dark Moon Digest, and Tales to Terrify. He regards himself as an old movie buff, Shirley Jackson enthusiast, and decent Bette Davis impersonator. Together with his husband Nick, he is the caretaker of a haunted house and father of a super villain.