The fire begins in the basement.
Does it hurt?
Yes and no. This is, after all, what I wanted.
And I’m beyond hurting now.
But the fear is almost like pain. It is driving, immense. This body, our last body, our final chance, will be burned to dust.
What will happen to me then?
From the kitchen, to the pantry, to the dining room and the hall; up the stairs, a choking smoke, darkness, soot, and stifling heat.
From the attic to the roof, from the roof to the basement.
Sandra wants to place a bet on whether or not Richard Walker will die at home. I don’t know when Sandra became so crazy about gambling. She wasn’t a gambler when she was alive. I can say with authority that it was one of the only vices she didn’t have. Nowadays it’s bet you this, bet you that.
“He’ll croak right here, you’ll see,” Sandra says. And then, “Stop crowding me.”
“I’m not crowding you.”
“You are. You’re breathing on my neck.”
“I’m telling you what it feels like.”
Richard Walker moans. Is it possible that now, after all these years, he can understand us?
Doubtful. Still, an interesting idea.
How do we speak? In creaks and whispers, in groans and shudders. But you know. You’ve heard us. You simply don’t understand.
The day nurse is in the bathroom, preparing Richard’s pills, although she must know—we all do—that they can’t help him now. The bedroom smells like cough syrup, sweat, and the sharp, animal scent of urine, like an old barn. The sheets have not been changed in three days.
“So what do you think?” Sandra presses. “Home? Or in the hospital?”
I like making bets with Sandra. It breaks up the space—the long, watery hours, the soupiness of time. Day is no longer day to us, and night no longer night. Hours are different shades of hot and warm, damp and dry. We no longer pay attention to the clocks. Why should we? Noon is the taste of sawdust, and the feel of a splinter under a nail. Morning is mud and crumbling caulk. Evening is the smell of cooked tomatoes and mildew. And night is shivering, and the feel of mice sniffing around our skin.
Divisions: that’s what we need. Space and lines. Your side, my side. Otherwise, we begin to converge. That’s the greatest fear, the danger of being dead. It’s a constant struggle to stay yourself.
It’s funny, isn’t it? Alive, it’s so often the reverse. I remember feeling desperate for someone to understand. I remember how fiercely I longed to talk to Ed about this or that—I don’t remember what, now, some dream or opinion, something playing at the pictures.
Now it’s only the secrets that truly belong to me. And I’ve given up too many to Sandra already.
“Hospital,” I say at last.
“I’ll bet you he croaks right in that bed,” Sandra says, gleeful.
Sandra is wrong. Richard Walker does not die at home. Thank God. I’ve shared the house with him for long enough.
For a time, the house falls into quiet. It is ours again, mine and Sandra’s. Its corners are elbows, its stairways our skeleton pieces, splinters of bone and spine.
In the quietness, we drift. We reclaim the spaces that Richard colonized. We must regrow into ourselves—clumsily, the way that a body, after a long illness, still moves in fits and shivers.
We expand into all five bedrooms. We hover in the light coming through the windows, with the dust; we spin, dizzy in the silence. We slide across empty dining room chairs, skate across the well-polished table, rub ourselves against the oriental carpets, curl up in the impressions of old footprints.
It is both a relief and a loss to have our body returned to us, intact. We have, once again, successfully expelled the Other.
We are free. We are alone.
We place bets on when the young Walkers will return.
Minna comes through the kitchen, flinging open the door as though expecting several dozen guests to jump out and yell, “Surprise!”
“Jesus Christ” is the first thing she says.
“It isn’t,” Sandra says. “It can’t be.”
But it obviously is: there is no mistaking Minna, even after so many years. Sandra claims it has been exactly a decade; I think it has been a little longer than that.
Minna is changed, but she is still Minna: the tangle of long hair, now lightened; the haughty curves of her cheekbones; the eyes, vivid, ocean colored. She is just as beautiful as ever—maybe even more so. There’s something hard and terrifying about her now, like a blade that has been sharpened to a deadly point.
“Jesus Christ,” she says again. She is standing in the open doorway, and for a moment the smell of Outside reaches me: clover, mud, and mulch; honeysuckle that must still be growing wild all over the yard.
For a brief moment, I am alive again, and kneeling in the garden: new spring sunshine; cool wind; a glistening earthworm, turned out of the earth, surprised.
A girl, probably six, barrels past Minna and into the house.
“Is this Grandpa’s house?” she asks, and reaches out toward the kitchen table, where a coffee mug—one of the nurse’s mugs, half full, which has begun to stink of sour milk—has been left.
Minna grabs the girl’s arm, pulls her back. “Don’t touch anything, Amy,” she says. “This whole place is crawling with germs.” The girl, Amy, hangs back obediently, while Minna takes several tentative steps into the kitchen, keeping one hand in front of her, as though she’s walking in the dark. When she is within reach of the kitchen table, she makes a sudden grab for it, letting out a noise somewhere between a gasp and a laugh.
“This thing,” she says. “It’s even uglier than I remembered. Christ, he couldn’t get rid of anything.”
“Well, that settles that,” Sandra says gleefully. “Minna’s grown into a hopeless bitch. I always knew she would.”
“Be quiet, Sandra.” In the many, many years I have been here, in this house, in the new body, my faith in the Christian conception of the afterlife has been considerably taxed. But there is no doubt about one thing: having Sandra with me is hell.
“Any girl that pretty . . .”
“I said be quiet.” Poor Minna. I can’t say she was my favorite. But I felt sorry for her all the same.
Amy starts to come out of the doorway, but Minna puts up a hand to stop her. “Honey, stay there, okay? Just hang on a second.” Then she calls out, a little louder, “Trenton! You’ve got to come see this.”