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Our House


After the break-in, the front door was open and that's how we knew, as dark in there as it was on the street and as cold. Ours was an old house, every window a sunken eye, each door too small for its frame. If you weren't careful the front door would drift open a moment after you left it, the deadbolt releasing and the phantom that had been following you breathing itself inside.

Erica said maybe we forgot to lock it. I don't think she believed that.

A week after they broke in Eli hung himself, wrapped a light switch chain twice around his neck with no need for a knot because of the friction. And Rachel found herself wondering, When he stepped off the desk had the light gone off? Or on?

In the days that followed Rachel stayed home from school. Her mother spoke to her in nothing louder than a whisper, mentioned counseling as though it were one of the many sandwiches she offered to make her daughter for lunch. For her part, Rachel sunk herself into bed, crying handkerchiefs into cold compresses and remembering the last time she and Eli kissed in her attic bedroom, the long winter light turning red beyond her closed eyes.

Rachel remembered how they had shared blood. She wondered if in some cultures this made her his heir or possibly his widow. They used a needle passed once through a flame, pricked and pressed their palms until it felt as though a pane of glass separated them—a window on a train or in a visitation room—and one of them would be going away for a long time.

Rachel and Eli did everything together, all kinds: mushrooms and salvia, which was like setting fire to yourself. LSD. Pot, of course. Robotrips that ended in puddles of fake cherry vomit.

They had not had sex. He had toyed. She had teased, but nothing. Slowly its absence had evolved into a third presence that followed them around, a stray cat that rubbed and weaved underfoot and would not let them forget it.

The closest they had come was once after dropping acid when Rachel watched a gray worm drip from Eli's eye and fitfully make its way across the rug toward her splayed legs. It came so quickly—a silverfish, a cold peroxide trickle along her thigh. Screaming, she tore her button skirt from her legs and whipped it against herself, finally standing half naked before him, perfectly level with his mouth.

A moment passed then, a long minute. She thought that this was it he was going to and she wanted him to, but instead he reached for the bed and the afghan to drape around her. Then they were searching the floor for the worm, under the bed, in the closet—all the dark places evil preferred. And when they couldn't find it anywhere she knew it was inside her.

Later, much later, a detective would sit me in a faux wood-paneled room and ask if I knew Eli Ferrar. Had I ever heard of a girl named Rachel Anderson? Did either of them have permission to be in our house on the night of March 17th?

When I'd shake my head, the detective would ask me to sign a document saying so. Then he'd thank me. This, he'd explain, is all they would need.

On that night in March we did not know their names. They were as mysterious to Erica and me as our own front door drifting on its hinges. We peered into the blackness beyond and watched the moving door as though charmed. Shock is what they call it.

"They broke in." He or she. They.


Then I was running through the house as they had run—carelessly, tripping over imaginary objects. Most of what you'd expect was missing: our laptop; my acoustic guitar; a steel box that had my passport and bank statements and tax returns and social security card and photos of Erica and I vacationing on the Panhandle or in foggy Maine. My bulky cell phone from the early part of the decade lay tossed off at the foot of the bed and I heard in my head the joke that must have passed between them.

I ducked in and out of each room half hoping for a hand on my ankle—to be pulled unawares into the ring where I could win back what had been taken from us with a few strokes of measurable violence.

But there was no hand, only Erica who hadn't made it past the doorway, who stood in a mound of our winter clothes that had been dumped out of a basket. She was shaking in her coat and hat and I could hear her teeth chattering against each other like a cup of dice hitting the table.

"It's all gone," I said.

"Strange boy, Eli."

That was what Rachel's mother said about him. What everyone said. You know that boy, have seen him lurking. At Cumberland Farms and used record stores, thumbing on the overpass.

Some boys with back-sized tattoos are perfectly normal.

Some are raised by their grandparents. Though very few, it turns out, are driven back to the hospital where they were born and left standing in the lobby of the maternity ward as though there had been some mistake. He had been the wrong size or kind and they were returning him.

Erica called the police. There was a scab of emergency numbers from the seventies inside one of the kitchen cabinets but none of the extensions had changed because dispatch picked up and asked if there was anyone else in the house. Were we in the house?

"You need to get out this instant!" I heard the woman saying it over and over.

I held the door for Erica who paused to go through our stuff on the floor, putting each glove and ball cap in her hand like she was picking up after a child and then dropping the pile all at once.

"Can you believe it? They took my cigarettes."

Rachel didn't have to wonder what it was like to be left behind because Eli wore it all the time. It was a tremendous cape or a puffy coat, distorted armor that barely suggested the outline of a person somewhere inside.

His whole life since she'd known him had been an escape from the memory of his abandonment. Jumping off the bridge at Rexford—waiting shirtless for no cops and then letting go of himself into the river. She did it once with him. They held hands and she saw the water flying at them, her heart and guts folding up as neatly as clothes from the dryer as they fell through their own screams.

Or there was the night Rachel watched him put a brick and his hand through the windshield of a very old Honda Accord. Afterward they'd had to smuggle the bloody mess past her mother in a book bag. She sat across from him in the attic pulling glass out of his knuckles with a tweezers.

He chewed down on an old stuffed bear so as not to cry out. "They had a car like that."

She hardly heard him with the bear's arm crammed into his mouth. A bit of cotton cartilage poked out an incisor-sized hole in the bear's neck when he breathed and it looked to her like he had killed it that way, with his teeth.

When Erica called the police, dispatch told us to wait outside. We leaned ourselves up against the car, parked on the street, and Erica started in on how she hated other people. How hard was it to get through life without getting run over by some asshole in a hurry, speeding down a shortcut?

Lately she had been wearing an aura of hormones and was hypersensitive to other presences nearby. You didn't even have to say anything shrewd or insensitive, though if these came out they were knives. You just had to be standing too close. I was, and I could practically feel the electricity jumping off her as she kept checking the same pockets for a spare cigarette.

"It's just stuff," I said. At the same time I wondered if tomorrow my new identity would be waking up in Montreal, in a plush suite with a ravaged mini bar. "We're fine. See?" I pulled her hand in my unzipped jacket across my chest where no bullets had passed.

She kicked a last stubborn patch of snow. "Could you go in that house, see those pictures of us—our nieces, those panda bears—and just take? I'll bet you they weren't junkies or pros or anything. I bet they were entitled little pricks."

What could I say?

She was probably right. I tasted saliva and the cold curling against the roof of my mouth and wondered if tonight I'd be lying down beside my wife or a hot hissing pan or a French-Canadian hooker.

Then I saw the cruiser doing fifty backwards down our one-way street, all lights and no sirens. Like someone rewinding a film.

As terrifying as Eli's behavior could be, usually those were Rachel's favorite times with him: when they weren't fighting or sulking, just feeling, and she knew if you lived your whole life that way you didn't live long.

And though Eli never spoke of killing himself, she heard death coursing just beneath his surface—the low hum that accompanies an old bulb before a crumbling filament puts it out. Eli was waiting for broken glass to find his wrist or the river to catch him like an empty street and Rachel knew and did nothing. She knew friends were supposed to shake friends by their collars and tell them how much they meant, how much they had to look forward to, or at the very least tell Mrs. Abraham, the school guidance counselor who spent her whole day under a Suicide: The Warning Signs poster.

But Rachel wasn't a friend that way. She listened to him, went where he went, did what he wanted because she thought she loved him and, with nothing to compare it to, loved him more than anyone. She thought of herself partly as a mother, one who didn't chastise, didn't curfew, but was there to bandage his hands. The perfect mother who wouldn't vanish at the first sign of hellfire.

On the night of the break-in she had been there for him, on strange streets under a drunken parasail. They had just killed a bottle of Old Grand-Dad and decided to go out exploring, jumping over each windy shadow as it threatened to rise up from the pavement. She looked when Eli pointed at the house on the corner—quaint and rickety and floating in an island of dark silence. Not a car on the street nor a light in any of the rooms and the whole neighborhood quiet as a quarantine.

"There's one," he said, and she looked at his eyes. Gone, already inside. She hadn't needed to ask.

"One what?"

The police burst into our place like action figures too big for the dollhouse, their boots heavy and long on the wooden floors. There were three of them and they had names like TV cops: McGuire and Sally and one the other two called Rookie. He was younger than Erica and me and spent most of his time bent forward at the neck leaning into a small reporter's notebook. They were nice enough asking for our IDs and passing a pen light quickly over our eyes.

"Do you know anyone who would do you harm?" McGuire asked, his head shaved to the follicles but for a tight patch of fairway up top. "You know, have it out for you?"

"Nobody," I said.

Then McGuire asked Erica, and I looked at her like maybe there was someone I was forgetting. I wondered if for a second she thought of me, the homebody who was keeping her locked up behind a tight grid of streets and away from her true home, the rolling country east of here where you could get ticks or sunburned, but not broken into. Where your door would shut and you wouldn't have to lock it.

Since I'd known Erica she'd wanted to try her hand at farming, which you couldn't do on a patch of rented earth that collected discarded scratch tickets and the largest size soda cups from Wendy's. The city was a hundred elbows on her armrest. It was people not minding their own business.

But what she hated, I enjoyed: the anonymity of my elbow in a crowd. Walking everywhere and at night casually spying into each lit window. When we fought on the subject, she accused me of sticking only to what I knew, which was two decades of the suburbs. I, in turn, would ask how she expected us to pay a mortgage on a pitchfork paycheck.

It got bad. Some days we weren't living in the same house at all but inside the future homes in our heads, elaborately complete and opposite and only when we sat down together for dinner would we realize the distance. Then would begin the slow process of casing each other's perimeters, feeling out the right line to try first in the lock.

"You know what today is?" Eli asked.

He and Rachel were on the back porch of the old house he had chosen. The door had not been locked and no lights had gone on and now they were surrounded by someone else's junk. Wine bottles and books, kids' books—Babar and Strawberry Shortcake, books Rachel used to have.

The day we become felons, she thought, and maybe he heard her because he was wrapping his hand in a dirty rag and then punching the glass out of the door that would let them inside. And though she was right there it was a sound she heard from far off—a morning gunshot in deer season.

"It's Good Friday," he said and then she heard the deadbolt pop, the released chain jingling against the molding.

"Guess these bunnies are early," she said.

The door was open now but Eli was just standing there clenching the point of glass with his bare hand.

"Eli, what are you—" She pulled his hand away, pressing the wrist so he had to open it and show her the red dot spreading out from the center.

McGuire found how they got in. We all went to him and saw curtains billowing up from the porch door to the kitchen, the missing jigsaw of glass beyond. Here is where a hand had passed, letting a body enter.

Sally took photos with a digital camera and they looked like photos taken by accident—a doorknob, an open drawer, the bed sheet tossed back. The flash gave these shots an urgency, catching not the aftermath but the incident. Each was from the view of a dilated eye as it wavered between what to leave and what to take and how much time.

Once inside, Rachel began to feel pinpoints of numbness at what they were doing: trespassing. It was a word enunciated by snakes. And now they were scavenging in the dark through someone else's smell, pungent in its unfamiliarity. Almost like incense, almost like Indian food.

She could see the people who lived here in their photos. He was tall and skinny like Eli, but curly, and she was blonde and smooth looking, her skin weathered statue stone in the grey half-light. And there were no toys, no crib—thank God, what would she have done if there were a crib? Or if they'd been home?

She pictured herself standing behind Eli as they were found out, the popping blue veins that anger forced up from his neck. Eli didn't like to fight, but he would, and when he did, he was never fighting the other guy, but something dark and vacuous that couldn't be hit anyway. Rachel had never fought anyone except Louisa Hermes last year on the lacrosse fields. Girls weren't supposed to be good at punching, were supposed to only scratch and pull hair, but when Louisa had accused her of "fucking that psychopath" her fingers had come together automatically in a fist.

What goaded her wasn't the fucking. It was the idea that Eli was crazy, or that this was the part of him she adored. She was in love with the other Eli—not the boy who had impaled himself on a point of glass, but the Eli who came after, who patiently watched the bloom of blood like it was a ripple in a pond emanating from a skipped stone.

"No one's here," Eli said and she felt a hand on her far shoulder, his good hand. They were together and for now, this was their house.

"We're here," she said. Then they spread out to see what belonged to them.

The cops had left, apologizing a hundred times for leaving our kitchen under the dusting of black vinyl they'd used on the broken window. It had picked up a print, but the stuff was as stubborn as sap or blood, resistant to vinegar.

Erica went upstairs for tea tree oil. I went to the kitchen for bourbon and stopped at every window expecting to see them crouched and laughing in ski masks, poised to rush in and finish us off. But each time there were only trees and the shadows made by streetlights and all of it provokingly quiet.

What now? Deactivate my credit cards. Invalidate my passport. Cancel myself.

Every misfortune had its prescription: a rape was followed by shower. Overdose? Induce vomiting. TV taught you what to do. But burglaries? The best I could come up with was a Van Morrison record that I put on ridiculously loud. I thought of the flutes and saxophones fluttering through the shadowy recesses of that old house, chasing every last demon out through the cracks in the window casings.

Erica and I cleaned the kitchen floor together. We passed a bottle of Wild Turkey and slugged back each nagging why us? We were hardly wealthy. For that survey question which asks you to describe your combined annual income I always checked the second box, the first range that didn't start with a zero. Erica made the point that if they were juvies they'd probably be us in ten years.

"Assholes," she said. They were stealing from themselves.

I wondered if maybe we'd been hit because of how we lived: small, with tube television and one car, shunning material possessions at every turn. Maybe our asceticism was a magnet. Little attracted less.

"You mean we're teaching ourselves a lesson," she said. Then, imitating me: "It's just stuff, right?"

"At least you still have your identity," I said. I thought about the minutia that I'd preserved in the steel box they'd taken and wondered why. I pictured them reading the line items on a credit card statement and how little it said about me. Maybe they knew I'd spent $12.80 in gas at the Church St. Getty on the third of February, but that wasn't me—how I'd lingered a moment after the pump stopped to watch a fast-moving pack of clouds release the moon.

"So who are you now?" she asked.

I paused for a moment to look around, as if this person might be in the room. But there was nobody, just Van Morrison and his ragtag choir singing, Ev-er-y-one ev-er-y-one ever-y-one ever-y-one.

Of all the oddities in the strangers' house—shelves of terrariums and jungle plants, tiny dioramas—Rachel found herself attracted most to the fish tank. It held the only light in the place and seemed sacred to her. A board and two cinderblocks passed for an aquarium stand, and in one of the round nooks of a brick Rachel found a little pad with a sharpie in the spiral binding. It was some sort of log containing dates when new fish were added and the dead ones removed, their final resting places noted. In the azaleas. Under the pines.

Eli had gone upstairs and Rachel heard him rummaging and packing things, the distinct finality of a zipper, and it reminded her of going on vacation, the end of school and how the calendar distilled itself into a single hot day that repeated endlessly. It was what these fish had, the one day: the same company to chase, the same spidery plants to hide amongst. It was what she and Eli had: the same streets, the attic bedroom. The only difference was that she and Eli were onto the glass. It was why Eli liked putting his fist through it so often.

Rachel uncapped the sharpie and wrote a message on the tank, backwards so the fish could read it: we too are confined by boundaries we cannot see.

A day later Erica would find the note, smudged but still legible, and forget what she was doing.

"What if they come back?"

We were getting ready for bed and I had all the lights off because otherwise they could see the flat black shapes of us, pulling shirts over our heads and doing the stretches I learned in eighth grade.

"They're not coming back," I said, and I thought, what if they do come back? "They're probably pissing in their pants right now."

I knew I needed something just in case and came up from the basement with my old Louisville Slugger. It was wooden, from before the dawn of aluminum bats and short enough that I'd probably be stabbed or shot before I finished swinging, but it felt good to hold something solid in both hands as I climbed the stairs. After we got into bed, under the fresh sheets that Erica had changed I had the idea to put dumbbells against all the doors. Not that they would stop anybody. But they'd make noise, give me precious seconds to choke up on the bat and square off my stance—to ready myself for the red laces that would come tumbling like a bloodshot eye in the dark.

"What if they come back?" Rachel asked. They were in the bedroom, under the comforter and the first blanket. According to Eli, it was gross to lie on sheets where other people had slept. She was surprised at how many blankets had been made up with the covers. It must have been a very old house. A cold one.

"We'll just apologize," said Eli. "And leave." He was lying with his hands behind his head, her cheek on his chest. Every now and then he leaned forward to bat the ball end of a long cord from the overhead light and they would watch it dance across the darkness like a nervous pendulum.

"Seriously—what would you do, Eli, if you came home to find Goldilocks in your bed?"

Eli pulled an arm down so it followed the line of her torso down to her hips. "I will never live in a house like this."

She knew he was right. At least not with her. That's why this domestic aside was something to be cherished. She breathed it in, the smell of him and these foreign sheets, and floated in it. Sure, the booze was there, the adrenaline. They added buoyancy. But Rachel was exhilarated most by the quiet normalcy of the moment, Eli's hand growing heavier on her lap as they listened to the strange sounds the house made. Rachel learned how it creaked at the joints in the wind, how the thermostat buzzed before kicking on. As she rode the rise and fall of Eli's chest she tried to separate these sounds from what might be footsteps on the porch or a hand at the door—sounds the intruders would make when they arrived.

First appeared in Mixed Fruit, Summer 2011