Caroline sat on the couch reading a paranormal romance novel for young adults. She loved to pass her summer vacations right here in this very spot, doing exactly this, and she dreaded the encroaching start of another school year. She let her eyes chew on the words, passing each page in that lazy way afforded only to those with no responsibilities, and she let her mind revel in the imaginary world. The characters were her friends, and she had no need for a social life endured in flesh and blood.
“Goodbye, Caroline,” her mother said in passing, heading straight for the door.
“Bye, Mom. Have a good shift,” she said, peeking over the book. Her mother wore the kitten themed scrubs that Caroline hated. She thought they made her mom look like an oversized, wrinkled, grey-haired toddler. “You look pretty,” she lied. Caroline was a sweetheart, a true innocent, always kind to strangers, children, and animals. She wasn’t a saint, but she could have been, if the world had been a little kinder to her at a few critical moments.
“Thank you.” Her mother lingered in the open door, and heat and bright sunlight poured into the room like the spotlight of salvation in a passion play. “It’s a lovely day, Caroline. You should go outside and enjoy it. Take a walk. It’d be good for you. You’re locked away inside way too much!”
Caroline smiled. She hated it when her mother told her what to do. “I’ll take it under advisement,” she said, her canned response to her mom’s incessant needling.
The door banged shut, and Caroline found herself alone again with her precious novel. She reached for her diet soda and absently took a swig, only to find her gullet teased with a single swallow. She placed her book on the couch face down and open, holding her place, and went to the kitchen to get another drink.
As she opened the fridge, a waft of stale air and onions hit her nose, and she pulled a sour face. Much to her frustration, she found that her mother had yet to buy groceries for the week, and there was nothing in there for her to drink. She was pretty thirsty, and the city water tasted like hair dye, so she decided maybe she would take that walk after all.
She grabbed her keys and wallet but left her cellphone behind. She hated having the clunky thing in her pocket, and she wouldn’t be gone for long. She gave her hair a quick check in the decorative mirror that hung in the foyer. She fiddled with her feathered bangs, hating how thin her hair looked now and wondering if Rogaine really worked. She loathed her reflection for a moment longer, mentally mapping her newest wrinkles and vowing to buy some face cream soon.
Finally, and with a reluctant sigh, she left her air conditioned sanctuary. She almost changed her mind, but instead she started to walk. In the affluent neighborhoods, where no one walked anywhere, there were sidewalks along every street. However, here in the poor district, where everyone walked everywhere, residents made do with a well-worn foot path amongst knee-high weeds along the shoulder of the busy road. The hot pavement radiated waves of sunbaked misery, and with each passing car, a gust of sultry exhaust smacked Caroline in the face. Within minutes, she felt like melting rubber. Her brisk pace slowed as sweat dripped into her eyes.
As she walked, she imagined herself on an adventure. She’d always wanted to travel abroad. She’d even opened up a savings account and squirreled away enough money for a trip to India, but she hadn’t felt ready for such a pilgrimage this summer. Maybe next year.
The door jingled as Caroline stepped into the convenience store. She retrieved a diet cola from the cooler and headed for the cashier. On the way, she passed by the candy bar display and stopped. She reached for her favorite chocolate bar and then wavered. She knew her thighs didn’t need the calories, but she decided that she’d earned the treat by walking to the store, so she gave in to her desire. She made her way up to the cashier and placed her purchase on the counter.
“Good afternoon, Caroline,” the cashier said.
He looked to be in his thirties, about Caroline’s age, average in appearance, and he wore no wedding band. He always chatted with Caroline in an overly friendly manner, yet she was far too shy to ask him out on a date. Even now, he seemed to be staring at Caroline.
Caroline flushed red with embarrassment, and her eyes grew wide with concern. She patted her thinning hair and asked, “Is there something in my hair?”
“What?” the cashier asked in confusion. “No. Your hair looks nice today, as always.”
She quickly paid the man and left, desperate to be alone again, terrified of having even the most superficial conversation with any gentleman she found attractive enough to marry.
She headed back home. She became lost in thought as her imagination pondered what twists and turns were waiting for her in the novel. She liked to guess what the ending would be and compare it to the one she had envisioned. She’d often fantasized of writing a novel herself one day.
Caroline didn’t notice the house until she stood directly before it. She stopped mid chew with her mouth agape and caramel strung between her teeth like slobbery garland. How had she failed to notice it before now? It was an entire house that she had passed by a hundred times and yet had never previously observed, as if it wasn’t there earlier and had just now materialized, or as if it had not wanted to be seen and now it did. Yet there it was, just a few hundred feet from where she stood. The only thing separating her from it was the unkempt yard. A “For Sale” sign squeaked softly as it flowed with a zephyr. The dollar amount listed there was far below the fair market value.
The brick, ranch-style house looked to have been built in the late seventies or early eighties. The garage door hung cockeyed, and the shadows of the sharp angles were so tenebrous that Caroline couldn’t actually see into the garage. The inside of the house looked darker than it should have, as if all light that passed through the windows became blackness and shadows.
Dilapidated and obviously abandoned, the house seemed to mourn its empty existence. The average passerby would have taken one look at this home and assumed that something horrible had happened here, that something had made this a place where no one wanted to live, or to even remember existed, or to simply see in passing. This was a house that had been willfully ignored out of existence. Yet here it stood, rising up from the subconscious mind of society, a reminder of a terrible past, refusing to be forgotten.
The house had showed itself to Caroline. It wanted her to see it, to know that it existed, and what Caroline saw was a house with potential, a real handyman’s special. She could afford to buy this home with her own salary. She’d finally be able to move out of her mother’s. Like her, this house was a bit run down, but it wasn’t too late. She’d fix it up with her TLC and handiness.
As she scrutinized the macabre edifice, she saw a fleeting movement in the window, as if the shadows inside shifted and resettled. She swallowed harshly, forcing the candy down her gullet. She took a swig of her soda to finish the job. She wrote it off as a trick of the light, but in the back of her mind she wondered.
It didn’t discourage her desire for the house. On the contrary, it made her want it more. She had always been fascinated by the paranormal, particularly the spirit world. Throughout her childhood, her grandmother had told her many ghost stories, and whenever Caroline had spent the night at Gran-Gran’s house, she’d often heard bumps in the night. As a child, Caroline had believed, but she had grown up.
Her grandmother had passed away, the old haunted house had been sold, and Caroline no longer knew if the ghosts in Gran-Gran’s house were real or simply the product of a child’s run away imagination. She questioned if her Gran-Gran’s soul lived on. She wanted to know if there really was life after death or just nothing. In truth, the thought of a haunted house didn’t scare Caroline; it comforted her.
Caroline wanted to look inside that house and see what caused that shadow to move. Curiosity overwhelmed her, so she hurried to the window where the shadows had moved and pressed her face against the glass. As she peered within, nothing stared back at her. She pulled her keys from her pocket, turned on the mini-flashlight attached to the chain, and shined it inside. She couldn’t see much, just the hulky shapes of abandoned furniture and rotting junk. The house’s décor dated to the eighties. The decaying furniture looked to nest all manner of rodents and insects.
A glimmer caught her eye as a sunray bounced from the crystal chandelier. It wormed its way within her and beckoned her to come inside. She wanted to go home. Her feet moved as if remote controlled. Her mind failed to resist the daydream of owning this home, and the dream became obsession. She approached the front door. She pulled the storm door agape and gave the inner doorknob a twist, certain the door was locked, yet knowing full well that it would open for her.
Errrrrrnk. The squeaking sound the door made as it parted for Caroline seemed a lament, and she empathized in sorrow, for the house was indeed a piteous place.
“Hello?” she called out to the nothing and shadows.
The house replied, singing out to Caroline. An effluence of compulsive desire wrapped about Caroline’s chubby hand like primordial tendrils and drew her over the threshold.
She stood within what used to be the living room. Nothing lived here anymore.
She looked out the window and felt detached, like she didn’t belong in that world anymore. For a curious moment, she expected the whole of it to just fade away and leave her anchored inside the churning guts of this famished home.
Within these walls, everything seemed still and quiet. It wasn’t a peaceful feeling; it was the silence of dread. A cold sense of intimacy chilled Caroline to the bone, as a phenomenal sensation of being watched assured her that she was not alone. Caroline felt nervous, eager to impress, like a girl going on her dream date with the quarterback. The house scrutinized her through eldritch eyes as it judged her worthiness.
Caroline had always wanted to give paranormal investigation a try, and she’d even attended a lecture given at the library by the local paranormal society. She mimicked the many ghost chaser shows she’d watched from her mother’s couch as she called out, “Is there someone here who wishes to communicate with me?” Her hushed and trembling tone belied her bravado.
Nothing replied, and in this silence, her courage returned. She felt rather silly for succumbing to her fear.
She explored her future home, all the while envisioning what she would do with the place. First things first, she’d baptize the place in elbow grease. She promised the old house a fresh coat of paint, and her mind’s eye picked out brilliant colors for each room. She vowed to rip up the old carpet and put in hard wood. She pictured the kitchen sparkling clean and filled with modern appliances. She could imagine teaching her future daughter to bake cookies here, and she smiled. This home had potential!
A knocking sound came from nowhere, yet seemed to surround her. She spun about, seeking the maker of the noise. Her heart beat quickened, her legs weakened. Fear and excitement conflicted within her. Her legs wanted to run away, but her mind insisted on staying.
“Do it again!” she implored.
She wandered about the house again, stalking from room to room in search of the home’s secret occupants. “Rap on the walls!” she demanded, but she received no response. Gaining confidence in the home’s silence, she nearly screamed her commands. “I said make a noise!”
A loud thump nearly drove her from her skin, but she’d already made up her mind. She held her ground. “This is my home now!” she stated as if it were fact.
The house acquiesced to her affiance.
Caroline hurried for the exit, eager to call the real estate agent, afraid someone else would beat her to it. As she neared the egress, something to her right pounded on wood. She stopped and turned to face the noise.
She observed a door there that she had failed to notice before. Certainly it had been there the entire time. She wondered how she had possibly missed its presence, and in that instance, her reality changed, calling into focus a before and after picture of a mind remodeled.
The cheap door stood simple and unadorned. The white paint looked dirty, but it had not begun to peel. Not a single indication of uniqueness or peculiarity emanated from the door.
Caroline reached for the door’s knob. Her hand hesitated there, hovering just above it. The brass wasn’t dirty and tarnished as it should have been. She could see herself reflected in the shiny surface; her outstretched hand loomed large in the bulbous sheen, her diminutive form lingered darkened and distorted in the space behind it.
She debated her next movement. Most likely, she would reveal a coat closet, containing only dusts and shadows with no skeletons lurking within. Yet her guts ran screaming out the front door, knowing full well the mistake of turning that damned knob. Nonetheless, her mind needed to know.
“This is my house,” she mumbled again, “and I should know every detail of my house.” One quick peek, and then she would know. She just had to know. She had to see what hid behind that wooden plank. Her curiosity consumed her. She gripped the knob far too tightly and turned it, yanking the door outwards towards herself.
The door shook, rattling against the doorjamb with a thud, but it didn’t budge.
You don’t want this, Caroline, her inner voice warned. But she did. She wanted to open that door more than she had ever wanted anything in her life. She corrected her actions, and she pushed the door inwards this time, into the darkness waiting there.
A cold gust of wind pushed by Caroline as the house exhaled a miasmal breath. She gulped with difficulty and eyed the wooden steps descending before her. She squinted, straining to see into the murky pit below. She shined her flashlight about, but the darkness gobbled up the light like a starving beast. The hairs on her body rose to attention, saluting that which she could not see.
She licked her lips and took her first step. The wood creaked, announcing her decision. She swiped cobwebs from her face and hair as she slowly made her way downward. The mechanical scent of an old oil furnace thickened the air. Her feet found the cement floor. The firmness of the foundation surprised her, for she had expected dirt.
“Hey!” a male voice said.
Caroline gasped and nearly jumped from her skin. As she spun around to confront the menace, her flashlight’s beam found the face of a man, squinting against the brightness.
“What are you doing here?” he asked. His neutral tone was unthreatening but not comforting.
Caroline still panted from chasing her misplaced terror. “I saw the ‘For Sale’ sign,” she said as she caught her breath. “What about you?”
The young man laughed and shrugged. “Ghost hunting,” he confessed. “Silly, huh?” Breathtaking in his splendor, he looked fictitious, like something created in a computer program, an ideal form, so beautiful as if to be unreal. Without a single blemish, his smooth, flawless skin belonged on a touched up photograph. He reminded Caroline of someone she’d seen before in a painting. “What’s your name?” he asked.
“Caroline,” she replied, failing to respond to his flirting eyes. He was far outside of her league, and she’d learned long ago not to bother trying. “What’s yours?” she asked, for politeness sake.
“Dorian,” he told her.
Caroline didn’t know what to make of Dorian. Instinct told her to be on guard, for she stood all alone with a stranger where no one could hear her scream. However, she felt comfortable with Dorian in the way she’d always imagined a wife would feel around her husband, as if she’d known Dorian for years. “Did you find any ghosts?” she asked.
“Just you,” he said with a laugh.
“Anything worth seeing down here?”
The half-smile he flashed accused her of missing the obvious answer to her query. He shrugged and said, “The darkness. The shadows. There’s a black velvet painting of dogs playing poker. And one dead rat.” He winked at her as this last sentence slithered from his tongue and hung there waiting for a reaction.
She gave him none. Too long the dead fish, she had no idea how to swim. “Oh, so it’s a bore, then,” she said.
He offered her his hand. “Perhaps I missed something. Want to look around some more?”
The gesture couldn’t be ignored. Caroline trembled with fear. She thought of herself as chubby, awkward, and generally off-putting. To Caroline’s mind, even ugly men declined to hit on her, so why did this Adonis offer his hand? She looked into his eyes, and she imagined him living here with her, as her husband, and in that moment, she ached for it to be so. She took his hand and said, “I do.”
“This way,” he said, guiding her through the darkness past boxes of junk. “There’s a room where I got a funny feeling before.”
Her palm sweated as she let Dorian lead her into the dark heart of the house. Not a single window graced the suffocating room. Her flashlight flickered and went out, denying her the comfort of its glow. Dorian’s light remained, the sole beacon of navigation in this den of pitch.
He let go of her hand and turned to face her. “You’re very beautiful, Caroline,” he said. “I’ve been waiting for a girl like you.”
At that moment, all of Caroline’s fears came true. Dorian took her face in his strong hand, and he kissed her on the lips, tenderly, passionately. Their tongues entwined in a dance of aphrodisia, and for the first time in her adult life, she took the breath of a newborn babe, and she finally felt alive. Here and now, she made a connection with another being, and it terrified her.
Her fear transformed him. She found herself kissing not a man, but the cold, terrene bricks of the basement wall. The taste of moldy dirt filled her nose and throat, nauseating her. She spat out mortar grit and fallow dust. This outré twist of reality proved too much for Caroline’s sanity, and she cracked. Blood rushed through her veins, carrying waves of crimson fear to every part of her body. The world went silent. Her pupils dilated like black jelly beans, and Caroline could see nothing but the brick wall before her. It seemed to be closing in on her, reaching to embrace her. She felt trapped and flailed like a cartoon as she tried to get her legs to work.
She fell backwards, knocking the breath from her lungs. She sputtered paint chips and crumbles of plaster. She continued to scamper away, sliding on her butt like a terrified toddler. When she finally regained her footing, she sprinted up the stairs and out that damned door. She whipped her arms as she hurtled towards the fading sunlight that streamed in through the window on the front door, retching and gagging all the while. She flung open that door and escaped through it as fast as her legs would carry her.
The overgrown yard declined to greet her. Instead, she found herself back inside the basement, surrounded by the caliginous heart of the house. Dorian had reappeared, no longer masonry and mortar but flesh and blood. He put his flashlight up under his chin, as if telling her a ghost story. He gave her a seductive, lurid smile. “What’s wrong, Dearie?” he asked, bringing her Gran-Gran to mind.
Caroline screamed. Once again, she ascended the steps, faster this time, as if trying to outrun Dorian, though he did not pursue her. Once more she scurried out the front door, but Destiny always catches her prey, and just like that, Caroline found herself in the basement again, face to face with Dorian.
“Why are you doing this to me?” she cried out, her mouth dry and bitter.
Dorian rolled his perfect eyes and said, “I’m not doing anything to you, Caroline. You did this to yourself.”
“No!” she shrieked and repeated the movements of her previous egress, though the fight had already left her, and she seemed tired now. She moaned as she returned to the basement yet again. Her complexion turned an ashy pallor; her eyes conveyed how lost she felt, and utter terror was scribbled there in the lines of her visage.
She crouched down among the souring rubble and began rocking herself slowly. “What madness is this?” she blubbered. “What’s happening to me?
Dorian circled her like a hungry vulture. “We took you. It’s what we do,” he said. His voice seemed sinister now, like the hollow and guttural rasp of a rabid cockroach.
She looked up at him wide-eyed with horror. “What do you mean? Am I dead? Did I die in here? Am I a ghost?”
Dorian regarded her as a fly in a spider’s web. He doubted that the fly would ever understand its fate, but he felt obliged to try and explain. He said, “No, you’re not dead. If you were dead, you wouldn’t be trapped. But you’re not living anymore either.”
“I don’t understand,” Caroline said. Now her eyes dripped tears like the melting candle wax of a lost Birthday wish.
Dorian elaborated, his voice growing ever stranger. “Most people think of alive and dead as two separate, distinct things, but the conditions are not so clear cut. Remember when you watched your Gran-Gran behead that chicken. Remember how its body ran around for a full minute afterwards. The decapitated head of man and beast alike lives on in consciousness for thirty seconds or more, often fully aware of its situation. For reptiles, the severed parts may live on for up to an hour. In this state, alive and dead are not so distinguishable.”
Caroline pulled a panicked face and grabbed her hair with both hands, as if trying to hold her head in place. “I’ve been decapitated?” she asked.
He clicked his teeth at this. His voice clinked and chittered like the vibrating strings of a speaking piano, sounding fully inhuman now. “No. No. I’m just trying to describe that in-between state,” Dorian said. “Take, for instance, the blooming rose bud in a vase; is it alive or dead? Some might say that it is alive but dying, but that’s not necessarily true. If a little root hormone were applied to the cutting, it could sprout new roots and become reborn. Is it dying or being born? The rose in the vase is in-between, neither dead nor alive. It makes a choice. Just like you. You haven’t been living for a very long time, have you Caroline?”
“Wait. What do you mean? I was alive when I walked in here!” she protested.
Dorian shook his head. “No. You weren’t. You are a forty year old virgin school teacher that lives with her mother. You don’t go to concerts because your back hurts. You don’t go snow skiing because you might snap your leg. You don’t go to the pool because people might laugh at you. You don’t date because your heart might break. You’ve never really lived at all, and you’re already dead inside. Moreover, you still see yourself as a teenager. You still think that everything your heart desires lies somewhere in the future. You will never go to India. You’re not dead, and you’re not alive. You’re somewhere in between alive and dead, and you have been for a very long time. You are a manifestation of the passionless existence, a horror far more common than murder, yet every bit as loathsome. Now here you are, trapped in the womb of death.”
“But why?” Caroline pleaded.
Dorian brought his hands to his sides. Slowly, his chest stretched and rose, opening to reveal his beating heart swinging to and fro. “Because I like you, Caroline, and I am the house. Actually, I am many houses, one on every street, waiting for people just like you. I’m not just a house, either. Unlike you, I can be anything, for I am what I eat. I am every forgotten dream, every unpursued desire. I am not of the dead, but of the apathetic. I live in the instance of never trying, of surrender, of giving up. I thrive on squandered potential, and you smelled ever so piquant, so I took you.”
Dorian continued to change, as his features finally shifted. His face became flat and numbered, his body became square and wooden, and Caroline recognized the grandfather clock she’d inherited from her grandmother and kept in storage, a keepsake she’d saved for display within her own home. His throbbing heart swayed as the pendulum, its rhythm tempo giusto.
Dorian’s voice echoed from the walls now, distant and morose, like the recorded droning of the planet Saturn, as he chimed, “I’ll digest you slowly over a thousand years. You saw a home with potential, and now, I will be full of yours.”