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There was a brown stain in the center of the garage where he had been born. It looked like the imprint from a giant's coffee mug, but really it was a rust stain that had leaked out from under the 10-foot metal swimming pool his parents had bought and assembled before he was born. He remembered it squatting there in the upper right quadrant of the garage for years, dry and always inexplicably dirty on the inside and more the domain of spiders than anyone else, until after awhile his father dismantled it and it had lain in pieces against the wall for almost as many years until it disappeared from their garage completely.
He remembered how the car door wouldn't open all the way on the passenger's side because it took up so much of the other half of the garage. Once, when he was maybe seven or eight, he got out of the car too quickly and banged the door against the side of the pool, and his mother admonished him gently, "be careful around that. You were born in it, you know."
There was another thing his mother used to say to him often. "A place always remembers the people who were born in it. You were born here, and this place is your domain. It'll never forget you." He still believed it.
This is what he thought about standing in the center of the garage where the pool used to be, holding an unfamiliar keychain in one hand and a bundle of notorial documents in the other, hearing her voice like she was right beside him. He strode forward and dodged around the covered car his father had been restoring for years before he died, stepping over the water stain and looking out of habit for the fragments of the pool against the wall although he knew the garage had been rid of it for years.
When he was born, his mother had been an idealistic 22-year-old whose sense of spirituality nouveau was well on its way from housewife hobbyism to insanity, if you wanted his honest opinion, and she had read about home births and planet alignment and wanted her child to have a domain. So ever since he had been old enough to listen she had taken him out to see the empty swimming pool and told him that he was born in that house, he was born right there, and this place would be forever his.
It was the only thing she ever told him that he never doubted.
He ascended the two wooden steps to the door and mashed a few keys from the keychain against the lock until he found one that fit inside, and then he steeled himself and stepped over the threshold into the house his parents had owned for nearly sixty years, the house he had grown up in and which his parents had kept away from him for decades.
The first thing he did, after a cursory glance around-the house had hardly changed-was pull his cell phone from his pocket, as a text from Emily was waiting. Are you ok?
At the same time as it seemed to him a somewhat silly thing to ask, he felt guilty for keeping her worried and quickly texted back that he was okay. Just looking around.
And he was okay. He had not seen or heard from his parents in over seven years, until the day last week when he'd received a phone call from Mark Stonewallis, his mother's long-time notary (at the very least) and friend, who began his hellos with, "Well kid, your mother's died. You have my very deepest condolences." Irritatedly, and with the sort of tired fatalism of a person who has expected a chore for a very long time, and is relieved to be getting it over with, he'd booked the next plane to Boise and then driven the hundred miles south in a rented Toyota Echo to his parents' house off Highway 84.
He had done this all without the faintest trace of emotional affect, which must have worried Emily more than anything else, because his phone lit up again.
I wish you would have let me come =( With a sad face at the end of it. Emotional blackmail, he thought with a frown. She did know how to push his buttons. He texted her that it was hard-a lie-and that he would be okay, and then slipped his phone into his pocket so he could look around.
The house hadn't changed in the 10 years since he had been there for his father's funeral one day late in July. The furniture hadn't moved, but there was a packet of white plastic furniture feet sitting on the end table that suggested that someone, soon, had been meaning to rearrange.
There was a pile of flattened cardboard boxes by the door so he picked one of them up and took it to the couch to unfold it. They had replaced the couch, which irked him somewhat. The old one, the one he had grown up on, had been a brown leather three-seater with cushions so unyielding that he used the slide right off them.
His phone sprang to life in his pocket. If you need anything from me, just let me know.
His thumbs answered for him, I'm good, just looking around.
Yeah. How long do you think it'll take to clean out the house?
Not too long hopefully. A few days. I've hired a crew to help out, so I just need to get out the stuff we want-he looked at the nearly bare walls and sparse furniture and wondered where he would find said stuff they wanted-and that'll be it
If his parents hadn't had him so early, they would've been avid collectors, as even then their first house was adorned with trophy skulls from Africa, a woven rug from Morocco, and a set of curved swords from Islamabad, and those were only the things he remembered, and they had all disappeared off the walls and shelves in their time. There wasn't much left of worth in the house now.
His cell phone chirped again. Do you think it'll be a lot?
His mother had kept an orderly house in her old age. He finished unfolding one of the boxes by his feet and swept everything from the end table into it. One beige-colored vase lamp in need of a good dusting. One crocheted blue table cover which folded up to the size of a handkerchief. One packet of white plastic furniture feet. One framed photo of the family, the three of them, on the old couch. Half a box down.
He answered, No
He picked the photo up again out of the box and ran his thumb over the frame, but no dust came off it like it had from the lamp. Without meaning to, he let his eyes drift to the photo. His mother looked younger and less frazzled, and the lines around his father's eyes were not as deep. The boy in the center of the couch was smiling, and both his parents had their arms around him, but he could see the secret in his own face. Seeing the living room in the background of the picture made him realize this sparse version of it was the same room, the same house, and he felt suddenly as though he was shaking hands with an old friend. So it was alright, then. He felt relieved.
"Your domain," his mother had said. "It'll always remember you."
An interruption from his phone shook him from his revelry. I still don't get why you didn't let me come
Didn't want to bother you, Em
It would've been no bother. I had the day off. And then, And anyway, you loved this house, didn't you?
I hope someday you'll tell me why =)
He would have been around four or five when he first discovered the depth of his connection with that house. It would have been late, perhaps around ten or eleven at night. He remembered because his stomach had been rumbling, and he always felt hungry when he was up too late, even as a child. They had been up watching Star Wars: The Emperor Strikes Back, and the VCR connection had cut out halfway through and he and his mother had had to sit on that leather couch that had barely any give while his father swore under his breath and naggled at the VCR connection until the picture flickered on again. He was sent to bed and his parents finished the movie, and he was up all night with the fire of that injustice burning in his gut. Later, the sounds of movie explosions mingled with the downstairs shouting, and for the rest of the night he must've lain in bed staring at the doorknob and held his hand out like Luke using the Force on Dagobah and willed with all the concentration in his young body for the door to lock, and it had.
Someday, maybe. Not today, though. How are you spending your day off?
His box was only half full so he got up off the couch and brought it around the house, salvaging knick knacks and baubles from shelves and tables without much thought. His box was full and he had taped it up and put it by the front door when he checked his phone again. There were two text messages waiting for him.
Nothing too exciting. Relaxing with a cosmo and some chardonnay =)
Then, earth to hubs. Are you sure you're okay?
His thumbs flew over the keypad in his response. Got caught up looking through stuff. You're drinking already?
That would keep her quiet for a little while. He ascended the stairs to the second floor, where he passed by the sparse guest room his mother had maintained, still furnished just the same as it had been when he'd stayed there 10 years ago.
His mother, much like her son, wasn't one who easily digested change.
He stopped by the room he had lived in as a child but his hand lingered in turning the doorknob. Suddenly, his stomach was in knots. He tried to hold a picture of the room in his mind. He remembered the pine-frame bed and blue bedclothes and the desk where he had slouched through high school. But he could hardly remember any dimensions.
He opened the door. Nothing had changed, but he blinked a little at how small it was. "Your domain," his mother used to say. But it seemed different. He remembered sitting in the center of his bed while the walls grew and the ceiling shrunk away, revealing the stars. He remembered how loud it had been, loud enough to drown out any other noise in the house. He remembered the summer wind coming in through the ceiling he had peeled away like the top on a sardine can and the walls so high that no one could climb them.
The house was his, and it listened to him. Emily wouldn't understand that.
It took four steps to get to the master bedroom from his own. He recalled standing in his doorway very late at night, so late that to be caught would be an unprecedented disaster, holding out his hand and willing the hallway to grow, putting yards and yards between himself and the doorway at the end of the hall until all the shouting that was coming out of it was hardly audible. You would have been able to walk down that hallway for minutes without coming to the door.
For a long time, starting around the age of six or seven, he had experimented with his mastery over the house. He created hidden doors and rooms to sit in for hours, but he didn't remember where they were anymore, or if they were anymore at all. He used to make the walls bow to him and the windows raise their shades in salute. He could bring cabinets and drawers down to his level and raise steps in their bathroom to get to the sink.
That was why his smile in those days had always been a little smug, his eyes always a little bit more secretive than the eyes of the average child his age had any right to be.
His parents were none the wiser to his ability, which he considered a triumph over his father's somewhat overzealous oversight and his mother's maddening belief that, as mother and son, she would always know what was going on in his head as if his stream of consciousness was an FM radio signal being beamed directly to her dental fillings. His secret communion with his environment became central to his quiet, young rebellion.
His phone came to life again. Wow, yeah. Don't need to get mean with it. See, you get so snippy when you're upset.
He brought another box into the master bedroom and loaded it with his mother's jewelry and paintings and the orange and maroon quilt that had arrived in the house when he was a teenager.
Look, I'm sorry for calling you snippy. I know it's a weird time. Forgive me? <3
He balanced his box on his hip and texted, Of course, em as he headed down the stairs.
Next time, please let me come along. She left you the house, didnt she? I'd like to see it.
Well? Are we going to keep it?
What a question, he thought, frowning as he hiked the box back into his arms and continued down the stairs. I haven't decided yet, he texted back. He set the box near the door beside the first one.
He couldn't remember properly when he had stopped using his connection with the house. In middle school, he had found other, more efficient means of escape, such as video games and dinners at friends' houses, but when he came home he always knew that the house remembered him and he'd be able to pick right up where he left off. When he left the house at the age of seventeen, it had been more than half a decade since he had peeled back any ceilings or bent any walls.
He fished the keychain out of his pocket and started trying the keys on the locked deadbolt at the front door, feeling his phone vibrate in his pocket as he did. He cycled through the keys a few times with growing annoyance, picking them at random, before he felt a swell of frustration rise into his throat and he flung the keys at the table and wrenched out his phone and texted, without even bothering to look at Emily's last message,
Goddamn notary forgot to give me the key to my own front door. what an asshole
Emily responded seconds later, Don't be mad, I'm sure he just made a mistake. You can call him tomorrow
He sat down at the kitchen table and stared at the locked deadbolt. Every other deadbolt he had ever seen had a simple latch on the inside, but his parents had had theirs replaced with an interior lock before he could remember, and they'd always kept the key hidden and out of reach.
This would have caused problems for him, had he not been born in the house.
Once, when he was eleven years old, just at the start of fifth grade, his father had caught him standing in the hallway outside his room at two in the morning. His father had wandered out of the master bedroom with scowl and a hostage pillow clenched in one red fist and he had seen his son there holding onto the door jam. He immediately started back inside his room but couldn't get the door locked fast enough, and his father tore the door open and seized his son's wrist dragged him bruisingly into the hall-he thought about his mother, who must have heard and willfully ignored the commotion-but he jerked his wrist out of his father's grip, which left a red mark there for days afterwards, and he barreled down the stairs and to the front door with its infuriating deadbolt, his father thundering after him, and willed the lock to slide back and the door to open.
And it did.
His father tripped on the last step and he rocketed outside, beyond his father's reach, into the still-summer night. He'd hidden in the bushes around the side of the house with his father crashing around feet away for hours with his slippers and a flashlight. The next morning when he came back inside, the matter was not discussed.
He chewed his lip thinking about it, feeling his phone vibrating in his hand. He put it on the table and held out his hand like Luke on Dagobah and stared at the locked deadbolt and tried to remember all the covenant and power he had shared with the house ever since he had been born in the metal swimming pool in the garage, tried to concentrate all the power of his will and his anger at Mark Stonewallis the notary into the palm of his hand, but the lock hardly noticed.
He went to the door and jiggled the door knob. Nothing happened.
Huffing, he tried to deny the devastation building in his gut. He went and found the keys where they had skittered to the floor and ran his thumb along the nick they had made in the table. It was one of many, but only a few of them had come about by his actions. He put the keys in his pocket and took the boxes through the garage door and loaded them into the trunk of the rented Toyota. He glanced at the new message from Emily and then put it away, not answering.
No, there was a reason why he had asked her not to come, and why he would never tell her the stories about the house he had grown up in. He knew what she would say, delicately, with a glass of wine in her hand and a very earnest expression on her face, about his connection with the house. She would tell him how smart he was even when he was young, and how much imagination he must have had. She would say that there's an explanation for everything under the sun, and if he just thought about this, he would be able to see one for this, too. And it didn't have anything to do with star alignments or home births in swimming pools.
If she saw signs of anger, she would stop. But the critique would come anyway, just as delicately, at the next opportune moment. She would tell him the cabinets and sinks and counters that had stooped to accommodate him were the result of thoughtfully placed stepstools-hadn't he found three in the garage?-and hallways that lengthened to protect him were the result of dreaming or vertigo, and the ceilings that opened to expose him to stars and breezes were, quite simply, open windows and a child's optimism, didn't he see?
"And the locks?" he would ask, sarcastic and defensive.
"Maybe they were just unlocked," she would say with a shrug. "You said your dad drank. Maybe he forgot some nights."
He reached into his pocket for his cell phone. I don't think I'm going to keep the house.
Why not? Came Emily's reply, predictably horrified, You can't just give it up, you've lived there all your life. You were born there.
He was born there. It was his domain. It was never supposed to forget him.
Biting his lip, thinking for a moment, he tapped out a bitter reply, That doesn't mean anything. He shut the trunk and put his phone away.