No one notices when you slip away, even in the bright orange light of a late autumn afternoon. Instead they sit on their daisy porches unaware of the chill in the air, complaining idly about the Penchant house’s awful lawn.
“It’s rats,” says one of them, sipping a sour lemonade.
“It’s this drought!” coughs another, wiping a grim, wrinkled hand over their parched mouth.
I myself couldn’t say exactly. I’d watched that house a long time; had grown up just across the street, the never-ending parade of “For Sale” signs forever planted in its front yard. One sits there now, dangling and dusty as it has been for the last six years, nothing but the neighbourhood cats willing to wind their way quickly across the lawn, whiskers high.
That’s who I’d picked as the culprits, at first.
The birds were small, smaller than robins even, but just as red-chested. I’d seen many on our street, taken at the neck or the rib cage, their eyes sunken before anything else has a chance to rot. I’d photographed them, too, a secret guilty pleasure of mine, zooming in on the hanging innards of a mauled crow—the colorful spray of a splintered magpie.
But these, these were strewn across the dried, dead lawn in threes and fours, tiny bony legs in a tangle, making even me uneasy. Like a trail, they led to the house’s back door—or so I guessed.
I’d never been in the back yard.
“You shouldn’t be getting so close to that place now Rob, yah hear?”
Crouching in the middle of the parched Penchant lawn I find each small carcass dried to the bone. Around the tiny piles, a spray of red and black char, sliming and oozy between my testing fingers. Had their bodies been burned by some savage child’s prank? I pause, wiping the sweat from my forehead, the haze and the heat of the open yard getting to me, the smell of rot suddenly heavy in the air.
Back at my place, the living room curtains closed as usual, I collapse on the couch in a fit of sweat only to wake well into the late afternoon, thoughts of a cold shower beckoning. Eyes clenched tight, face turned up under the frigid water, I cannot erase the images rising of the Penchant house as it used to be: varnished and shining and fresh and new, with white French doors and gables to match.
Dripping across the floor in only a towel, I walk to the front window and look out across my own red-dappled hedges to the real house, chalky and blue and sagging around the middle, cast in the early evening’s hazy glow. My eyes tense and heavy, my limbs baked from the shower’s hot steam, I let the curtain fall, leaving only me staring back at myself through the glass. In my reflection, I see the dark outline of my camera hanging on the wall behind me.
I keep an eye to the viewfinder as I walk across the street, clicking variously at the hedges, the lawn, the windows of the Penchant house. Beneath my feet, a jumble of broken concrete picks at the soles of my shoes, a terribly kinked and coiled garden hose nearby warranting another shutter click. Then, a brittle crunch.
A pile of bird bones is pushed to powder under my foot. Lifting it, I take another picture. And another. I pause, playing back the photos I’d taken so far, the colours in each shot sepia warm as if cast under a heat lamp. Blinking fast, I struggle to focus, my eyes itchy and dry, my tongue suddenly heavy. I fan my face with my hands, letting the camera fall to my chest on its strap.
A gust of wind passes, the flutter of feathers close in my ear. Startled, I run around the final corner into the backyard. And there it is. The backdoor. Fixed and clean and new. I rub my eyes, the evening’s orange heat causing the air to shift in front of me like a mirage. Behind it, a bright sheen of fresh blue paint wiggles in my periphery, a glass French door open and beckoning just like the old days.
Lifting the lens to the house, I take another picture and play it back, blood rushing in my ears. I look up, then again at the camera’s screen. Back and forth, my heart completely still. In the frame, the French door is nothing more than a jagged hole ripped in wood siding, the inviting kitchen beyond just a dark, dirty, wall-papered abyss. From inside, a sultry voice calls my name.
Booting up my on-screen display, I take a step forward. And then another.
The floor inside is crawling with bugs, six years of settled dust shifting between a thousand legs. Or so my camera says. On its screen: a rotting greenhouse dripping with moisture, flies buzzing and crawling and mating and dying, condensation blocking the outside world from coming in.
My bare eyes tell a different story. Tiled floors. Yellow kitchen. Bread in an old-fashioned brick oven. And a woman. A woman with red hair and eggshell skin. Turning to me, her warm face freckled and smiling, she bears a look in her eyes that sparks as if I’d seen her somewhere before. The camera screen offers nothing in her place, green and black pixels only darkening when they reach the emptiness of a basement door to my left. My eyes tell me it’s a wine cellar. My crawling skin, hot and uncomfortable on my bones, says otherwise.
“Shall we choose something special?” the woman asks, pointing to the door. That voice. Her voice. I know that voice, soft and full and sweet.
“Who are you?”
“Don’t be funny, Robbie. You know who I am.” My heart pounding, I try to wrack my brain, still staring at the empty black screen of my camera as she moves toward me, her green and yellow dress swaying out of frame. Her gentle hands on mine, she lifts one finger from the camera, and then another, until it rests again at my chest, both of my hands in hers, the blank screen buzzing.
“You can take pictures later,” she says seductively, pulling me toward the cellar.
Get out of here, someone echoes, sending shivers up my spine. It’s a man’s voice I only recognize once we’re already half-way down the stairs, her grip tight on my arm.
The voice is mine.
“Just this way,” she says once we reach the bottom, my nose full of the smell of freshly turned dirt. Behind what my eyes see as a free-standing wooden door sits a private cache of red and gold bottled wines and sherries and champagnes.
Just this way. The roundness of her words echoes through my memory, and for a moment I’m elsewhere, in an old library, the red-headed librarian beckoning for me to follow. I had brought thoughts of her home that night, remembering her dress, imagining her bare shoulders under the tungsten lights.
But that was…years ago.
Black dots erupt on the dark walls around me, ink-blots falling like raindrops from ceiling to floor, revealing the beneath. Between them, the mirage of the Penchant house falters and flails, the image of the woman in front of me warping and stretching, her plump body and chickadee face ripped and torn and oozing red-black acid.
I tear my hands from her grip, lifting the camera again from my chest and pointing it at her—through her—my feet planted, heavy, stuck. As if frozen I watch the screen, everything dark static except where she stands, waiting, watching. In her place, a patch of glowing white mushrooms encased in dirt begins to sprout in my direction, red and black ooze forming in pools around their base.
“Together Forever?” her frigid mouth whispers, the porous, elongated, octopus-like tentacles of the hallucinatory stinkhorn eviscerating their egg-like casings and reaching out for my feet, the smell of rotting flesh heavy on the air.
“It’s rats!” says a neighbour, sipping sour lemonade.
“It’s this drought!” coughs another, staring at the dark windows of the Penchant house.