“If a house is divided against itself, it cannot stand.”
For the first six years of my life, I knew that my childhood home was alive. Every creak the floorboards made when I took a step was its breath. It was my parents’ true first child, and therefore it bore the bulk of our family’s responsibility of protecting us from our surrounding environment. The organism that sheltered all of us was immensely resilient. It held us together. Our unity as a family was its sole priority, its purpose. When the rains slashed at its flesh and the hail shot at it like bullets, the house choked under the pressure and we were all plunged into darkness. But in those literal darkest of times, I needed only take a step to hear a sigh of reassurance from under my sneakers, and I knew we were safe.
The house had a diverse personality. Aside from its protective nature, its chief trait was empathy. The house agreed with all the choices we made for it. When I had a procession of jungle animals painted on my bedroom wall, it voiced no objections. In fact, the house felt that lions, giraffes, elephants, zebras and monkeys standing frozen in single file somehow brought out its wild side. We both thought that it looked like a multicolored, prehistoric cave painting. I remember feeling like Barney Rubble every time I went upstairs to play “Super Mario World” or “Donkey Kong Country,” humming The Flintstones theme with every step to my room. The house joined in, keeping time and rhythm with its breath as I trotted the whole way.
But sometime around when I was six years old, tensions were mounting within our home. My parents began acting different towards one another. I didn’t notice at first but they were even behaving strangely towards my older sister and me. My father would come home as Mom was preparing dinner in the kitchen, but once he greeted the both of us with the usual warm hugs, his energy was completely gone. The house groaned with every step he took, as if it were in pain. I wondered if it was because he wasn’t taking as good care of his firstborn child as Mom was. The house did seem dirtier; more cluttered. Mold splotched onto the walls in thick clusters and cobwebs shrouded every corner. I worried that my father didn’t even notice. He’d give my mother a small peck on the lips, then scoop his share of the night’s meal on a plate and step into the living room to watch television.
That’s weird, I thought. Mom never lets any of us watch TV while eating dinner. I remember once I tottered into the living room to talk to Dad. He didn’t seem as animated as he was when he first walked into the house from work. He suddenly looked catatonic, drowning in the blue fluorescent glow of the television’s screen. I could sense it sucking the life from him when I looked into his eyes.
No response. All I could hear were some newscasters babbling about crimes and rough weather going on outside the sanctuary of our home.
He stirred as if he were about to brush a fly off the bridge of his nose.
“Aren’t you going to eat dinner with the rest of us?”
“Oh, uh, no, I don’t think so. Sorry, bud.”
“But why not?”
“I’m sorry, pal. Daddy’s just had a very long day and he’s got a lot on his mind. Go on into the dining room and join your sister.”
“But Mom made chocolate pudding for dessert.”
“I’ll have some later, son. Don’t worry about it.”
“Why do I have to eat dinner with them if you don’t? Can’t I stay and watch cartoons with you instead?”
“I don’t know. Your mom isn’t going to let you have any of that pudding unless you eat your dinner.”
“But you’re not eating anything and you just said you’d have some later.”
“That’s because I’m a grownup. Besides, you can’t watch cartoons now. I’m trying to watch the news.”
He sighed deeply, as if irritated.
“Why don’t you want to eat dinner with the rest of us?”
“I already told you: I’m busy watching the news.”
“But the news is on every night and every morning. We haven’t seen you all day!”
“What are you kidding?” he chuckled. “I saw you and your sister twenty minutes ago, goofball. I’ll be there to tuck you in bed later tonight, too.”
“But that’s Mom’s job.”
He let out a short grunt, as if fumbling for a response.
“Hurry up and go eat your dinner before it gets cold.”
I already felt cold when I heard that remark. Dad barely noticing me cringing only made it worse. As I slumped out of the living room, I heard heavy, weak sobs. I thought it was me at first, but then I noticed there were no tears welling up in my eyes. I hesitated until I heard it again, this time articulating into a scraggly, pleading whisper: “Why?”
It was the voice of our house, and what was worse was that I didn’t have an answer for it.
Dad did not eat dinner with us for several weeks. Most nights he was secured inside the living room watching either the news or ESPN. The world beyond that room was as empty to him as his chair at the dining room table. The only nights where he wasn’t absorbing the television’s input were the ones where he wasn’t home at all. I didn’t realize it at the time, but something was hurting him. Something was burrowing beneath his flesh like the playground dirt under my fingernails. It was like a virus, infecting him with apathy for everything he once held dear.
Nothing I did impressed him anymore. If I aced a spelling test or made a new friend (which, as a child, was a hard thing to accomplish), I got minimal feedback. He was a living corpse, rotting away in our living room with only the latest broadcast to embalm his deteriorating flesh. But what was worse was the house. The more my father’s condition exacerbated, the more the house began to deteriorate as well. The floorboards grew weaker with every step each of us took. They nearly snapped beneath my feet, generating hoarse, raspy gasps of desperation.
The house couldn’t stop him. My parents had authority over it, and besides, I don’t think they noticed. My sister and I did nothing. We didn’t know what to do. My greatest concerns in life were finding ways to get cookies and when Rugrats was on. My sister’s life was only slightly more complicated, at least that’s how I saw it. I knew nothing of how hormones worked or how turbulent high school was. In a way, we weren’t that much different from our father, imprisoned in our own worlds with our own problems. But if things got bad enough for my sister or myself, we could always seek refuge in our parents’ arms. Only now, our father’s arms were useless.
My sister knew something was up, but she did not cry. I don’t think she thought she was allowed to, and I wasn’t sure if she was wrong about that. The house cried all the time, though. It creaked, leaked, cracked and so on. My nights were virtually sleepless at that point. I’d lie awake to see the walls shift with sorrow and hear the house try suppressing more sobs. On a particularly rough night, I got out of bed and tiptoed to the bathroom down the hall. The lights were out, but there was a nightlight plugged in the wall just in case.
I had to climb up on the lid of the toilet and crawl back onto the counter in order to reach the medicine cabinet back then. The house kept whimpering as I opened it and began my search. “Please don’t cry,” I whispered softly. “I know just what you need.” As my eyes surveyed the shelves, at last I found what I was looking for. I found a box of Scooby-Doo Band-Aids and hid them inside the pocket of my Aladdin pajama bottoms. All at once, the lights came on. I swerved my head toward the door and saw my father standing in the doorway. He had the same look on his face that he’d give me for sneaking candy.
“What on earth are you doing sneaking out of bed this time of night, buster?”
I swallowed hard. I couldn’t tell him about the house crying. He wouldn’t understand. He couldn’t understand.
“I was just thirsty,” I lied. “So I decided to get a cup of water.”
“What you’re doing is dangerous, bud,” he said nonchalantly. “You could fall off of the counter and hurt yourself. Next time, just ask your mom or me to help you, okay?”
I nodded nervously, hoping he wouldn’t see the bulge in my pocket the Band-Aids were making. My dad glanced down at the base of the toilet and that’s when we both noticed a small puddle of water around it. “Oh, Christ,” he muttered. Dragging his palm down his face, he asked me if I was responsible. I shook my head “no” and he gave me a skeptical look.
My eyes widened. “I swear, Dad! Honest!”
“Fine,” he yawned. “C’mon, I’ll take you back to bed. I’m too tired for this anyway. I’ll deal with it in the morning.”
As he carried me back to my room, I glanced up at the ceiling and saw parts of the white paint had completely chipped away. There were small holes and cracks speckled here and there like puncture wounds, plaster sprinkling from them in a fine dust that tickled my nose. The floorboards beneath us were so loose that when Dad stepped on them, we seemed to rise and fall like a boat on the ocean. The look on his face, however, was completely oblivious. He looked as if he were gazing through the window at the end of my room as he carried me in, staring into the house across the street. I worried that he imagined he was inside that house, living a much happier life with another family.
“Dad?” I asked as he tucked me into bed.
“Are – are you really happy here with me?”
“What, you kidding?” he slurred. “Sure I am. What would you say that for?”
“N-no reason,” I stammered. “I was just curious.”
He shrugged, and then kissed my forehead. “You want me to leave the hall light on for you, sport?”
“Nah, I’ll be okay,” I assured him. It’s the house I’m worried about, I thought. I inhaled deeply to mask my anxiety, but my lungs inhaled the stench of death. It was the house. The question was whether or not I was too late to save it.
“Remember,” Dad said, pointing at me. “If you need anything, come and get us. Your mom and I are just down the hall.” I nodded again as he flicked the light switch off and disappeared down the hall. As he headed back to bed, I heard him mumble, “I swear, this house is falling apart.”
I waited until I heard him close his bedroom door, and then climbed back out of bed. I withdrew the box of Band-Aids from my pocket and began pulling them individually out of their wrapping. The walls were moaning again as they moved in and out, like a person’s chest as they breathed. It seemed loudest in my room. I wondered if it was because I was the only one who acknowledged it. Maybe my sister heard it too. Maybe what she heard was worse. But most of all, I wondered if she too wanted to do something about it.
There were cracks spider-webbed all over the pattern of jungle animals on my wall, but they weren’t there when I had woken up earlier. I couldn’t believe Dad didn’t say anything. I pressed the Band-Aids over them like stickers as the house’s moans and sobs continued. Then I kissed one of the elephants, where the cracks were most severe. “Feel better, okay?” The sobbing faded slowly at this gesture of compassion. “Everything’s going to be all right soon,” I said wishfully. “Don’t worry. Dad will get better, and soon he and Mom will fix all of this. I promise.”
Lying back into my bed, I stared at the plastic glowing stars on my ceiling and thought, Who am I kidding? Kids don’t make promises. Those are for grownups. How am I going to fix this? I don’t even know what’s happening right now! I just hope I find out before it’s too late…
The next day, my parents asked my sister and me to join them at the dining room table for a talk. I had a plastic, red cup of root beer that I was sipping through a bendy straw, and at the time I was feeling as bubbly as it was. Hope was rising in my chest in that moment. Dad had worked everything out with Mom and they were going to tell us, I thought. They had planned something to help us bond together as a family and we were all going to be happy again. We had to be because Mom and Dad were married, and people get married to live happily ever after. There was no problem; Dad was just going through a rough phase. Besides, I had already spent a lot of my days avoiding the family and watching cartoons. This wasn’t all that different, was it?
“Honey, could you please stop drinking that and pay attention for a second?” my mother asked. “Your father and I have something important to tell you two.”
I glanced up, the tip of my straw still resting past my lips. The look on both of their faces was familiar. It was the kind either of them gave me when I asked them where babies came from or some other question I was sure they knew the answer to but didn’t know how to tell me. I turned to face my sister. She looked horrified, as if she were about to cry. I couldn’t explain how or what, but I think she knew what was coming because her lower lip was trembling.
“Kids…” my mother began. She had a solemn tone to her voice that was subtle, yet still struck a chord with us. “Your father and I are, well, we…”
“What your mother is trying to say is,” my father began, but then Mom interrupted him.
“Your father and I are going to separate for a little while.”
Instantly, my sister burst into tears. They were flooding from her eyes as if a dam had burst from within her skull. “W-w-why?” she sobbed. “Whatever’s wrong with the two of you, can’t you just deal with it or something?”
I on the other hand, was blindsided by her reaction. It just didn’t make sense. I thought Mom meant, “separate” the same way she did when my sister and I were fighting. Whenever that happened, she’d split us up and send each of us to our rooms until we were ready to apologize. Of course, Mom and Dad shared their room, so I guessed Mom was going upstairs and Dad had to sit in the corner for ten minutes or something. I just didn’t understand why they were running it by us, or why my sister was crying about it. We weren’t the ones in charge, they were. This was completely backwards.
“I don’t understand,” I said. “What’s going on? Did Dad break something?” If that were truly the case, I guess it must’ve been something really valuable to make my sister cry like that. I think I even wondered if Dad accidentally broke something that was hers.
My father sighed heavily. “No, son,” he said. “I didn’t break anything. I’m just going to be living somewhere else for now.”
Somewhere else? I thought. What’s wrong with here? Was it something I did? When was this going to happen? My cup fell to the floor, spilling root beer everywhere as my heart plummeted in my chest. I heard a scream so loud that everything in the house shook as if it were in a giant snow globe. The sound scraped the walls like knives. It was so shrill I could feel the sound waves slash at my shirt and slit my shoulder blades. Plaster fell from the ceiling like a blizzard. The windows shattered in unison. Shards scattered like ice crystals all over the floor as it rose and fell again, only stronger. Now, it was like an ocean in the midst of a hurricane. The walls and floors began to form cracks that intersected like lines on an Etch-A-Sketch. Stagnant water erupted from all the pipes, flooding every room as the screams grew louder and louder. It carried a mix of sediment and scum bearing a stench as thick as wet cement. The raw tide washed over my feet, soaking through my sneakers. Soon, we were up to our knees in it as the odor overpowered the whole house. “Mom, Dad!” I screamed. “Please, make it stop!”
The sludge thickened as we waded in it, making it harder to move. Battling the last of the house’s strength, my father headed for the back door. The water was like lime green paste, clinging to his legs as he treaded through it. The back door’s hinges were being rapidly consumed by rust, but even in the face of its demise, the house wouldn’t let my father leave without a fight.
Dad began ramming against the door with his shoulder as the slime creeped up his ankles, trying to weigh him down. It oozed under the back door like rotten sausage through a meat grinder, but only kept rising on Dad’s legs. I begged him to stop, that the house could be saved if he just stayed with us, but he only thrust his shoulder harder against the wood. After one last “thud,” a sudden crack was heard, followed by the tinkering of the hinges and the door broke off of them.
The ooze slowly carried the door across the back deck as Dad charged through the backyard. All the plants in Mom’s garden wilted as he passed them while kicking and brushing the slime off of his jeans. Dad hopped over the fence outlining the perimeter of our backyard and it splintered into oblivion. As I watched him flee the neighborhood, he shot me a glance over his shoulder as if to say “I’m sorry.” Once he disappeared, the house gave in and the slime began to reduce. The rest of us bolted outside, but it was too late. He was gone.
As we glanced back at the house in the safety of our yard, the slime inside began to bubble and combust. Flames engulfed our surroundings and licked at the debris like the tongues of some starved demon. They rapidly reduced the house to ashes as its screams faded into the depths of what I could only assume was purgatory.
It took a while after the rubble settled before my father touched base with us. He wasn’t hurt, but he wasn’t the same either. None of us were. As for the house, it might as well have never existed. The foundation, stripped naked in my parents’ separation, still stands, a morbid grave for the great protector that once sheltered our family. Suburbia never beheld a site so bleak before or since.
We’ve moved since then, but sometimes I ride my bike past the old neighborhood to see where it once stood. If I listen closely, I can still hear sobs from deep within the earth.
Val McBride studies creative writing at Columbia College Chicago and has been previously published in The Lab Review. He dedicates his inspiration to his abusive relationship with his possessed keyboard, which has taken control of his life.