The Heart In The House
by Aaron Muller
It was early in the morning when Ginny discovered that her house was alive, early enough she could convince herself she was probably still asleep, but when she poured herself another cup of coffee and the countertop sighed when she put down her mug, she knew she had to re-evaluate the situation.
At first it was the sink. It had yelled when she washed the sleep from her eyes, the kind of pained yelp of someone who had just been set on fire. On instinct, she apologized as she turned the faucet off. She laughed at herself, thinking she was just exhausted from the move. This was her first morning with running water since she’d moved in, the first time she was able to use a bathroom that wasn’t at the gas station, and she chalked the shouting sink up to the euphoria she felt being back in the civilized world.
But the countertop had sighed, as if it liked the warmth of her coffee. Wide-eyed, she backed away, heading for the cabinet, certain that this time nothing would make a peep, just the creaking of a hinge she had to fix when she renovated the whole kitchen. She opened it slowly, her hand ready to reach in and grab the cereal box just in case. When it didn’t talk or anything, she smiled and grabbed the cereal, but when she closed the cabinet again it sounded disappointed.
She called her friend Howie, and he came over with the housewarming gift of mimosa ingredients at around noon.
“So if we clink our glasses together, it’ll what, hurt them?” he asked, a clenched fist around the cork of the prosecco bottle, straining to twist it free.
“I don’t know if they actually feel things, or if they just make noises,” she told him.
“But you said the countertop liked the coffee.”
“It might have, or that’s just the sound it makes.”
“And I don’t think it’s my stuff that isn’t part of the house. The glasses won’t do anything, watch.”
They tapped their champagne flutes together and it only made the ringing sound of glass-on-glass.
She was glad Howie believed her. Or at least, he was nice enough not to say to her face that she was insane, that her breakup and sudden career change had clearly not even been the start of her meltdown, and that if it were only seventy or so years ago, she might be treated for hysteria.
Once Howie left, she made a late lunch. Every click of the stove as she waited for the flame to light sounded like an impatient cough, someone clearing their throat, before singing warmly, the heat set to medium. She turned it down to low and it dropped an octave, this new female voice, not an expert, but not altogether tone deaf. She turned it up to high and it struggled up to a new register.
“Gas range,” she said to herself, and laughed. “Would you shut up?”
She poured some olive oil into the pan.
When she slid the mound of ground turkey onto the pan, the stove got quiet, certainly not wanting to upstage the meat. As she cooked she found out that the magnetic knife-holder above the stove had a different word depending on if the knife she took from it was serrated or not, and that the sink in this room had the habit of grinding its teeth.
After she ate, she grabbed a notebook and started inventorying the sounds.
-pre-furnished lamp gasps like you’re fucking it when you switch it on
-closet doors murmur shyly about something
-North-facing window “tsks” like I’ve done something wrong
-bathtub sounds kind of horny
-showerhead also horny (how am i supposed to bathe?)
-toilet gulps like it’s chugging beer
(I only have my own desk in the office and it doesn’t make any noises except the creaking because it’s old and I need a new one)
-carpet says it’s lonely
She was tired by the time she remembered that she had an entire basement and attic to appraise, so she gave up for the day. She watched television on her couch, feet curled up beneath her because the floorboards had a whole lot to say.
Ginny’s new job required travel, and she was glad to get away from her living house for a few days. But she had plants that needed watering, so she asked Howie to house-sit while she was away.
“Can I have a guy over?” he had asked.
“Whatever,” she said. “If you hear anything that’s not on the list, let me know.”
When she arrived at her hotel, ready to crash into a silent bed without even hitting the minibar, she noticed she had a missed call from Howie. She called him back immediately.
“Is everything okay?” she asked.
“It’s great. It’s just weird.”
“Well, you know how you weren’t sure if the house has real feelings?”
“Like the horny shower, maybe it’s just like that and doesn’t change?”
“Well I have Rich over and the guest bedroom carpet hasn’t made a peep.”
“What I’m saying is I don’t think you should renovate the kitchen.”
The contractor, a local man, came on the following Monday to look at the floor, the counters, and the cabinets so that he could give Ginny an estimate on how much it would cost to redo the kitchen.
“Do you know who lived in this house before me, by any chance?” she asked him, twirling some hair around her finger in an attempt to subdue him.
“Nah, it’s been on the market since it was built. They didn’t tell you anything about it?”
“I was just kind of eager to buy something.”
“Yeah, it’s brand new.”
“But the kitchen…”
“No accounting for taste.” He ran a calloused hand down the orange tile wall. It hummed. “Miss?”
“Sorry,” she said, trying to imitate the sound. Her mouth opened and closed like a guppy fish as she struggled to come up with a reason. The contractor smiled and took off his baseball cap.
“You free after this?” he asked. She studied him for a minute to figure out whether or not she was free.A few hours later they had sex in the shower, and it didn’t moan at all.
He stayed the night.he told him about the house.
“The crazy ones always are good in bed,” he said. She shoved him gently in the chest.
“Oaf,” she said. “So anyway, the kitchen.”
“You’re all business.”
“No I mean, if you redo my kitchen, would it be like killing someone?”
He took a breath and looked up at her ceiling. She wondered what it might do if she poked it with the end of a broom.
“The orange is pretty ugly. Aren’t some crimes justified?” he asked, and then they had sex again.
The contractor, whose name was Joseph, came back a few times without all his tools, but with wine and fancy cheese instead, and Ginny began to consider loving him. She had him come with her into the basement so she could continue her inventory.
“I still haven’t heard anything, Ginny,” he said as they descended the unfinished stairs into the dark. “Even when I measured the dimensions for the cabinets. It didn’t make a sound.”
“Maybe it’s shy, I dunno.” She groped for the string that turned on the lone hanging lightbulb at the bottom of the stairs. It made a hissing noise, like it had stubbed its toe.
“You okay?” Joseph asked, putting a hand on her shoulder.
“That wasn’t me,” she said, and then she tugged on the string again. The lightbulb said it was sorry.
“What the fuck,” Joseph said.
Ginny turned the light back on and wrote about it in her notebook.
The basement was fairly empty, and didn’t smell like gas like other, older basements did. Joseph walked around and mused about how easy it would be to finish and put in another bedroom and bathroom, or even make into a whole other apartment she could charge rent for.
“How much of a discount do you give someone to live in a house that’s also alive?” she asked.
“Like fifty bucks,” he said with some certainty.
“That sounds fair.”
They looked for clues as to why the house was the way it was, but there was such little dust to brush aside, so few stray planks of wood to move and reveal the secrets that lay beneath. She wanted it very much to be like a proper mystery, to find some explanation in the deed or the floorboards or the attic. But there was nothing. It just was.
After a few months, she really couldn’t stand the look of her kitchen anymore. Howie and Rich, who were now together-together, came over to talk about the morality of it.
“I mean, it doesn’t bleed, right?” Rich asked.
“But it has feelings,” Ginny reminded him.
“So does a Tamagotchi, if you think about it,” he reminded her. “It’s programmed to have something like feelings. Maybe this house was built like that.”
“Like a Tamagotchi?” Ginny asked.
“So like, the battery dies on your Tamagotchi, and you’re sad about it, but you just get a new one and it’s fine.”
“But what if the kitchen screams when we tear it up?” Howie asked. “Or rather, when big, strapping Joseph tears it up?”
Ginny rapped on the counter with her knuckles. It grunted like it wanted to live.
“I just can’t stand looking at it anymore,” she admitted. “I live here. I should want to have my eyes open in the kitchen.”
“Just blast music really loud while he’s working,” Howie reasoned. “That way if it yells no one will think you’re murdering someone because they won’t be able to hear it.”
They agreed, but not on something soothing, something that might serve as a comfort to the house to give it a false sense of calm before its execution.
Ginny put on a teenage relic. One of her best mixes, burned onto a blank disc labeled with purple marker.
“‘Ginny’s awesome mix,’” Joseph read, placing it into the stereo. He looked at the hand-written track listing. “Awful lot of Kate Bush for someone who claims to be awesome.”
She briefly considered dumping him for besmirching Kate Bush, but then he smiled and the house sighed at the airy piano that swelled from the speakers.
Having no idea how she could even begin to help, Ginny stayed in her office while Joseph began his work in the kitchen. She sat at her desk, the one thing she knew would be quiet while she worked, and listened to the muffled music that came through the floors. She heard the dull roar of power tools,the practiced scraping of some sharp instrument to strip away the tile, nothing human except for singing and the occasional grunt from Joseph, which she knew was him because she had heard him grunt like that during particularly sweaty lovemaking.
She curled her toes into the carpet, an old nervous habit, and she heard the first little whimper that always came before a great big sob.
“Ah, shit,” she said, pushing out her chair. It was then that the walls began to wail. She covered her ears. They shrieked like an infant keeping up its parents in the middle of the night. Endless, ear-splitting cries..
Ginny had always hated hearing people, and babies, cry. It reminded her that she, too, was capable of crying. It made her remember times that she had cried, and how she had felt while crying. Her bottom lip trembled like it always did, and she headed for the open door to leave her office, pressing her hands hard against her ears.
“Joseph!” she yelled, over the sound of the mix CD melding with the screaming. Beneath it, a power drill was still whirring wildly. “Stop!”
She rounded the corner into the kitchen and saw at first, on the floor, an abandoned drill spinning aimlessly and unattached. When the rest of the kitchen came into view, when she could see the unscrewed cabinet doors and the stripped tiles on the wall, she also saw Joseph, head held to the clicking gas range.
“Fuck!” she said. “Stop! Stop it!” she pleaded with the house, watching the mirage-like blur from the stovetop rise into Joseph’s face. She wondered at first if he was already dead, if the house was just keeping him upright to make sure he breathed in enough carbon monoxide to kill him, but nonetheless she grabbed him by the shoulders and pulled him away. They landed on the floor with a crash, in a heap.
“I’m sorry!” she yelled, trying desperately to be heard over the sobbing. “We’ll stop!” She crawled across the floor for the spinning power drill, and turned it off. “See?” The house’s wailing had taken its toll, and she too was crying. “Please…” She looked back toward Joseph, who was breathing but still laying on the floor.
The sobbing stopped. The clicking of the stove stopped. Kate Bush kept singing.
Joseph sat outside for a while, breathing some fresh air and regaining his senses. Ginny paced the backyard, shaking her head.
“We hurt it,” she said. “Oh my god, I’ve never hurt anything before.” Her body still wiggled with the remnants of crying. She didn’t want to stop crying. She didn’t deserve to stop crying. “One time I hit a squirrel with my car and I never forgave myself.”
“It’s alright,” Joseph said slowly, and then he took a deep breath as if to reassure himself the air was clean. “We didn’t know what would happen.”
She slumped down to sit beside him and lowered her face between her bent knees. Joseph put an arm around her.
“What do we do?” she asked tearfully.
“I don’t know,” he said. He was silent for a minute. Some birds chirped and chased one another around the crab apple tree on the far side of the yard. “I don’t know.”
Ginny wanted to be alone with her house for a while. She was worried for Joseph, certain that he wouldn’t be forgiven very easily for what he’d done, and there were so many things in the house that could hurt him.
She walked up and down the upstairs hallway, running a hand softly against the wall. The house sighed like a girlfriend who says nothing’s wrong but there is something wrong, only she won’t tell you.
“I’m sorry,” Ginny said. She pressed both hands to the wall, leaning her forehead against it. “Who made you, huh?” This place was designed to be broken. An ugly kitchen, an unfinished basement. Someone had built a thing that they knew would be torn apart. Something that was created just to suffer. Ginny didn’t bother with the how of the situation. There didn’t seem to be a point to wondering. It just was, and she felt too guilty to think about it any farther. “Why would someone do that?”
She spread her arms, sliding her palms along the wall, turning her head until her cheek was pressed against it. She stepped as close as she could, her belly touching the wall. She could feel her heartbeat through it, echoing between the wall and her body. She wondered if the house had a heart somewhere. Maybe in the water heater. Now she knew she couldn’t take it apart to look. How was she supposed to fix things? How would she build her dream-come-true deck overlooking the backyard?
She had come here because it existed. It was there, and she wanted to be where she wasn’t. She figured any house would be a good house, as long as it was an escape. So she had come here.
The house didn’t have that luxury. It had to be alive, beholden to a stone foundation keeping it in place.
She kneaded her fingers into the wall a bit, feeling the bumps in the paint. She tapped her knuckles against it, searching for studs, for seams. The house didn’t cry when she felt its bones. It seemed to breathe, to exhale, at her touch. Like peaceful snoring. Like her head on Joseph’s chest at night.
She could live with an ugly, undone kitchen, she supposed.
It was growing bolder. It was speaking in full sentences, like a growing child, which was something she never wanted. Thinking they were building a rapport, she had begun to bring things into the attic, things she could never imagine herself using but felt that she needed to keep nonetheless. One time when she pressed her hands flat onto the attic floor to pull herself up from the ladder, the floorboards said that they were in a great deal of pain.
“What hurts?” Ginny asked, sitting on one of the many boxes she’d stored there.
The house didn’t seem to have the faculties to tell her. Like it couldn’t explain anything beyond its body, beyond hurt.
“We hurt your feelings,” Ginny concluded. They had said that the kitchen was ugly, and had torn into it violently while an awesome mix CD was playing.
Ginny laid down on the floor of the attic for a while. She ignored a call from Joseph. Then two calls. She texted him to say she needed space.
He called again and this time she answered.
“You’re being a fucking bitch, Ginny.”
The house was quiet without Joseph coming around.. There was no lack of sound, as the house kept sighing and gasping and shouting and talking like it always had, but the house was the sort of quiet that really meant empty. Howie and Rich had come by a few times lately, but they hadn’t stayed long, apparently having grown weary of watching Ginny turn the faucet on and off.
“Can we have something to drink?” Howie asked as she stood in the kitchen, running the water cool. It laughed, and so did she.
“You can have some water,” she said.
“I mean like…” Howie said. “Like a drink.”
He helped himself to some wine that was left in the fridge, about a glass worth, and split it with Rich. They kept their knees bent, feet tucked underneath them as they sat at the table. When they had to walk on the floor, they tip-toed.
“Ginny…” Howie said, shrugging into his jacket. His voice was quiet as Rich tied his shoes. “Are you going to move? What’s even keeping you here?”
“Nothing’s not keeping me here,” she told him. Sure, she had broken up with Joseph and hadn’t been to work in weeks, but that was no reason to uproot herself again. She thought about how well that had gone the last time she’d done it, and could feel the angry carpet prickle against her bare feet.
“You can always stay with me,” he assured her.
The house turned the doorknob. It was time for him to leave.
She found that its most tender parts were ceilings. She thought about how the ceiling is the part of a room that no one touches unless they’re batting away the cobwebs, and that this is why the house cooed so lovingly when she brushed the featherduster around its corners. One afternoon, when there was no dusting to be done, she set up a big wooden ladder in the living room and climbed up so that she could reach the ceiling properly. She climbed up high enough that she could press even her forehead to the surface, spreading her arms out like she so often did on the walls, as well. They breathed together and she twisted her feet around the rungs of the ladder, squeezing every muscle in her legs so that she wouldn’t fall. Her neck ached after a while, being so bent, but she stayed.
She strained her eyes to look at one of her outstretched hands, and found that her skin was paler than usual. Maybe being in this position had taken all of the blood from her fingertips and she really ought to get down and start dinner, if that was alright. She wiggled her fingers and watched as the movement shook some dusty plaster from the ceiling. Her skin was so eggshell-white and smooth. She tried to move her elbow and her joints felt dry, like something painted but not glossed. Her skin was the color of a base coat. Something plastery was stuck to her hair, and she felt the rhythmic pulsing of the spinning ceiling fan in her chest and in her belly. It was far away and clean, not spitting any dust toward her, but she thought about it and came to the conclusion that dust wouldn’t really bother her as long as someone swept it off once in a while, just to prove that she was loved.
The house had a heart. Four-chambered, like a number of bedrooms. After a while, Ginny’s neck stopped hurting and she found that she could relax her stance on the ladder without slipping off. Nothing really hurt anymore, at all, until it got very hot beneath her feet. She could hear the low whipping of flames as they climbed the old wood, could hear it spreading from the epicenter, from the oily match that had been tossed through the window by a jilted lover.
She couldn’t scream for long before her lungs filled with smoke, and her only protest was coughing, squirming. Not trying to free herself, because she had accepted that there was no self to free, but in a vain attempt to get the house to run, or to turn on its faucets and drown out the fire as if any amount of water they could produce would make a difference.
When she died there was nothing left.
A plastery ceiling-woman, she couldn’t make any tears to turn into steam in the heat.
Aaron Muller is a local of Poughkeepsie, NY, where he lives with his husband and their two cats. He is a Cum Laude graduate from the SUNY New Paltz creative writing program, and is an MFA candidate at Bennington College in Vermont. Aaron is represented by Kent D. Wolf of Neon Literary.