Better than Hollow

There are no haunted houses. There are only homes that have lost the sense of themselves as shelters and fallen into codependence with their previous owners. They languish in heartache, having given up their souls to someone else – someone who took the keys with them when they left, and let the lights go out on the shadows within.

The Faley house had been shuttered for years, then boarded when the windows were broken out, until even the boards rotted along with failing floors scattered with fallen plaster. It slept, the house, and the garden grew wild and desperate, and dying of hunger overtook the walls. Children didn’t venture there, even on a dare. That was unusual but not surprising. The town itself was dying – drying up with the work from the plant – and anyone that could was taking a job elsewhere – in nearby Jackson mostly, but a lot of them were moving farther up North to Holden where a new factory had been open for two Summers already.

That left the elderly, rocking in chairs on creaky porches, and not at all interested in a crumbling relic of stone and cement. They remembered, of course, what it had been. Once a place of light and parties that drew every decent family in the town, and the not so decent ones at special events that only happened on certain nights. It had been a fine home in its youth, with Turkish carpets that cost more than most people’s houses, and an eleven-tier chandelier imported from Belgium.

Nothing terrible had happened there, at least not like a murder-suicide or black magic or untoward things done to children. The house had simply died of contempt. The contempt and neglect of owners who moved away, and left it forlorn and empty, but never had the decency, it seemed, to pass it on to caretakers or new residents. It was simply left aside to wither which, of course, is what it did – like memory itself, if you let it.

It was just an ordinary Tuesday when a confused delivery driver, newly on assignment and not originally from anywhere in the triune states, dropped a mismarked package to the doorstep, not even bothering to care that no one could live there, or perhaps not thinking at all – maybe just harried by new geography and a sense, like outsiders always had for a few years, of never being entirely welcome. Maybe he felt he was in the wrong part of the country. A lot of people felt like that, who weren’t raised there. It was kind of like not being sure what to do with your hands when you talked.

The locals had started calling them the triune states, because the one the last president came from didn’t count. He’d been an embarrassment to everyone, and they weren’t about to claim him as a neighbor if the could help it. Most blamed him for the plant closing, though if you’d asked the company that moved their operations overseas, they’d have said it was just time to go. It wasn’t any one thing factoring in, and they had to do it when someone was in office. Besides, the government didn’t run the company. They’d have had charts and reasons for running out on the town, but sometimes a place just stopped being home, for a lot of reasons. Or sometimes you weren’t sure why you had to get away, and all the reasons in the world were just a facade over the face of instinct, raw and uncertain. Companies could be like that as easily as people.

The house wasn’t concerned so much with politics or geography, with the passage of time, or even with the rest of the town. A freshly wrapped box was on the porch, addressed to a name that wasn’t familiar and, with a sense of possibility, it yawned through a rotted chimney, let a bit of mortar out of the cracks as it stretched, and finally pushed open the eyelids of its two main windows, the desiccated boards falling into the silently clamouring shrubbery below. Waiting was nothing if you knew, just knew, that someone was coming to warm and brighten you at last.

Asher Black - writing chopsBut the box stayed there. It stayed three days, then a week, then another week. Packages addressed to living people usually didn’t do that. Not unless they went out of town and forgot to have someone pick up the parcels. And there was just the one package. It wasn’t as if an entire suite of furniture and accessories was arriving. It sat there and no one came, not even to say it had been a mistake.

A month went by, and the house bled dust and decay. To be alone, and yet not alone, was a Hell reserved for the lonely. A last consolation tied up in string and brown paper, an object of life to make you feel broken in two, and yet you didn’t break like that. You went on falling to pieces without end, awake for it, when sleep would be welcome if you knew it could last forever.

And then there *was* someone. Climbing the steps, looking from side to side, making sure no one was around. There was the warmth of tender flesh, the breath of a living soul, and footfalls. And the steps were wary but wanting all the same. They were steps that would go right into you, right into the place you kept yourself, the place you’d fallen in on, if you let them. And you would. You wouldn’t resist at all, because there, finally, was some touch, some hand on the latch, long since stripped of its need for a lock. And when they pushed, you’d open.

Only when you did, and you felt someone standing in the very center of you, filling the the forgotten void, you wanted to swallow, like a cat holding something small and wiggling in its mouth. You wanted to just gulp and let a living soul fall headlong into that place in you that once knew light and laughter. You knew if you didn’t, you would be alone with your own thoughts, as twisted as the garden outside your walls, turning in on you as you turned in on yourself. You can almost hear the wind whistling through your lips if you say the word slowly – desolate.

So that’s just what the house did. It swallowed.

For some years it slept then, a full belly, a warm, bloating presence. And a gift you didn’t even need to open to understand what it was. It was an appetizer, a prelude. And with it someone who, even if they didn’t really want *you*, wanted what you had, what you might have, would enter inside like a thief just to see if there was something they could raid and own and maybe even love for a while. And that was better, wasn’t it, than nothing inside you at all. It was better than being hollow.

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