Heels scuffing the hardwood of the foyer, the couple dashed through the open door and out into the frosty October wind, the pungent scent of their deodorized bodies lingering behind them—lilies, aftershave, and musk all rolled into a single funk.
And Ellie Masterson, who’d seen this happen at least twice a day, simply pressed the clipboard to her chest, sighed, and let her almond brown hair drape over her face. She then left the kitchen (which was the farthest she’d made it with potential clients) and approached the front door, waiting on the next group.
“You’ve got about ten minutes, and then I’m—”
Before she could finish the sentence, two men—one wearing a fuzzy green sweater and the other a long trench coat—strolled up the sidewalk, holding hands. Ellie forced her best smile, one she hoped made her look more welcoming and less like a sixty-year-old, impatient ghoul. But with the dark eyeliner and rouge lipstick on her pale face (in addition to the knee-length substitute teacher dress adorned in bright flowers), she doubted the most sanguine display would make much difference.
There was the house, too.
And as if it knew her thoughts, the floor trembled beneath her feet, drawers flew open upstairs, chandelier lights flickered above—everything that drove the previous potentials from the kitchen and back to Watertown, or wherever they had come.
Again, Ellie sighed.
“Excuse me, are you Ms. Masterson?”
The man in the trench coat extended his hand. He was handsome, she thought, with his tanned, pop-marked face and auburn goatee. A white scar stretched from his right cheek to his chin—but that only made the flesh of Ellie’s neck flush even more: she thought scars were sexy.
“I’m sorry. Yes—I’m Ms. Masterson, but please, call me Ellie.”
Smiling, the man said, “We called about the house. I’m Blake and this is my—”
“Tim,” the man in the green sweater interrupted. He casted an awkward, wide-eyed glance at Blake, then let his gaze fall back on Ellie. “We were hoping the house hadn’t sold yet. It hasn’t—has it?”
Momentarily feeling out of place, as if she were swaying drunk in a room full of addicts, Ellie dipped her chin and tightened her lips. “Actually no: we haven’t sold it yet.”
“Great,” Blake said, his smile widening. “Can we have a look?”
Ellie nodded and, stepping to the right, ushered the two into the foyer. She then—as always—remained silent, letting them formulate their own opinion before she interrupted. It was something she’d learned the hard way: too jovial, too insistent, too micromanaging was for the mannequins on QVC, not underpaid realtors. And while she watched Blake climb the stairs, where he stopped, pointing at something near the top, a familiar sound reverberated in her ears: the staccato thumping of her own heart.
“What was that?” Tim said, stopping midway between the hardwood and the stairs.
Here we go again, she thought, and for the third time (at least since the couple arrived) sighed. “I didn’t hear anything?”
“I never said I heard something,” Tim replied. “Is there someone here?”
Ellie walked toward them. In her peripheral, a rounded ceramic plate with child’s feet stamped in red paint swayed on the imitation wood paneling. Finally, she stopped a few feet shy of the bannister. “There is an extra aspect of the house I didn’t mention in the online advertisement. But I usually wait until—”
“You’re not going to tell me what I think you are, right?” Blake descended the steps backward, while keeping his eyes on Ellie. The flush came again, and she could smell the sweat fuming from her chest—a sickly scent that stood out over the dust, cologne, and mixtures of various undefinable stenches creeping through the house.
Pursing her lips, Ellie nodded.
“Wonderful!” Tim shouted, the disgust in his voice striking Ellie like an invisible cannon ball to the stomach. “I knew there was something off about this place. The outside looks like a Victorian mansion—and the inside…it’s beautiful. But eighty-thousand: too unbelievable.”
“It’s hardly noticeable. I promise. Just—”
“Are you serious right now, lady? C’mon, Blake,” he said, interrupting her. But as he reached for his husband’s hand, the opposite happened.
“Who is it?”
Ellie met Blake’s gaze, but she quickly looked away as she spoke. “A man—I don’t know his name.”
As he opened his mouth to reply, ahead, on the wall next to Ellie, the plaster (the only place without the unpleasant paneling) started cracking, large chunks crumbling to the floor. Tim’s eyes widened, but he remained stationary, right hand clutching the bannister. However, Blake, moving past him, approached the area between stairs and wall—where a narrow hallway led to the kitchen. Through all this, Ellie continued pursing her lips, chin tilted, as if waiting for a disciplining blow. Her heart paced rapidly in her chest, and had she not grown use to the sensation, she would have feared the worst: heart attack, stroke, etc. etc. etc.
But that didn’t happen. It never did.
“Are you sure it’s only a man?”
Bushy brows drawn into a single arch, Blake shook his head. “Because, I don’t think a grown man would write this.”
On the wall, carved in jagged, mismatched letters, was a single question: IS MY BIKE GOING TO BE OKAY.
As Tim’s legs thawed, so did his mouth. “I can’t believe you knew about this and still tried selling us this house. I swear you’ll lose you license over this, lady. I swear.”
“Still think it’s a man?” Blake said. “Cause I don’t think so.”
“Are you listening to me?”
Hearing him absolutely fine, Blake reached out and traced the coarse texture of the scrawling, then lowered his head—his bottom lip trembling.
“When I was a kid, my grandfather died in a motorcycle accident, a few days before I turned eleven.”
“I’m…sorry,” Ellie said, raising her head, but only a little.
“It’s okay, really—that was a long time ago. But he loved his bike, you know?” Blake paused and wiped a single tear from his left cheek, before it could dampen his mustache. “For a long time, I wondered if he was still there. My parent’s said he was in heaven: their usual poor attempt at commiserations when someone passed. But I didn’t believe it, cause sometimes, when I was alone, I could smell the Talcum powder. He would always use too much, and the scent would follow him: a medicated, menthol odor. You know what I mean?”
Ellie understood perfectly, but for her it wasn’t a smell—it was a sound: laughing.
“I’m not smelling anything right now, though,” Blake said, “but the bike, the way this is written on the wall: a child wrote this.”
From behind, now standing on the bottom step, Tim rubbed his eyes and shook his head. “Will you come off it already, Blake? This whole thing’s a scam, don’t you see that? She probably read a few of your books and looked you up online. It’s not that difficult, with all of the sites out there offering pennies for background—”
“Tim, go outside. Smoke a cigarette or something. I’m sure you’re having a nic fit anyway, so just go.” Blake’s voice, especially on the emphasis of Tim’s name, made Ellie’s large frame shudder. She hadn’t expected the sudden severity in the man’s tone, but she was glad for it: Tim’s slender neck craned forward, and he released an exasperated breath. Then his previously smooth features wrinkled into a scowl as he descended the step, sauntered to the front door, and slammed it—rattling the blinds over the frosted window in its center.
Closing his eyes and shaking his head, Blake frowned. “I’m sorry about that. Been married only a week and I’m already kicking myself. But he’s a good man, Ellie. Just doesn’t have an imagination, that’s all.”
“No, it’s alright,” she replied. “I should have mentioned this in the description.”
“Well, it’s not exactly something you broadcast. But the message on the wall: I think a child wrote this—not an adult. What do you think?”
“Look, give me a few days to talk to Tim, and I’ll give you a call with our decision, okay? I think that whoever wrote this,” he said, again pointing to the words, “might just need the same thing I did: someone to guide them forward.”
Blake smiled and nodded to Ellie before retracing his earlier steps to the front door. For a moment, she stood there—between the wall and stairs—then wiped the tears away from her own cheeks as she ventured into the foyer, where the round, ceramic plate rested against the imitation paneling. There she stopped, facing it, her eyes drawn to the four-inch-long red footprints adorning the front.
“I think I might have found a home for you—both of you,” she said, smiled, and started rounding the corner. But the sound of someone digging into plaster, like rats chewing their way through a cardboard box, halted her progress.
The thumping in her chest returned. But this time a wave of unreality seized her vision, making everything appear sharper, louder, and more urgent. Turning on slick joints, Ellie returned to the wall, where she then took a deep breath before lifting her eyes to the letters. IS MY BIKE GOING TO BE OKAY remained etched there in deep, crooked groves. But there was also something else, directly below it:
“I told you before, a dozen times: I’m not your mother.”
In that instant, the plaster started falling again, and letter after letter appeared, each digging deeper and deeper into the wall.
“Please, you have to stop,” she said, dropping the clipboard and placing her hands to her temples, where she then squeezed, as if the pressure alone would halt the irrational fear that her head might tumble to the floor.
More pieces of the wall crumbled as the response appeared. And if there was any equivocation to the message, the startling crash of the ceramic plate shattering on the hardwood floor extinguished it. Underneath the previous MOMMY was this:
YOU COULD BE. MY DADDY LIKES IT HERE. IT’S NICE
“No, we’ve been through this,” she said, letting her eyes wander over to the ceramic shards—noticing the way each piece somehow broke into a perfect bladed shape. “I won’t. I am Not. Your. Mother.”
As Ellie backed away, now almost tripping over her feet, one final message formed on the wall, but this one went deeper: into the wooden support beams, scrawled almost irritably.
THEN LEAVE ME ALONE. GET OUT. GET OUT. GET OUT.
Blake’s hands shot into the air, palms facing the gunmetal sky, as if holding an imaginary globe. “You don’t have to be such an ass, Tim.”
“Did you not see how she acted? Could barely look me in the eyes.”
“She was afraid you’d judge her—like you’re doing now.”
Silence fell between them. The October air numbing his semi-bearded cheeks (where the hair was already growing back from the morning shave), Blake leaned against the hood of their black 08’ Honda Civic. “Look, can we agree to disagree? I’m tired of arguing.”
“Yeah, I guess. It’s just—”
Across the road, both men heard the front door of the house swing open and slam against the inside wall. Moments after that—they saw Ellie, hands over her ears, dash down the front steps, through the yard, and continue toward the road.
“What’s she doing?”
He didn’t reply, just simply watched the woman keep running until she disappeared around the corner and out of sight.
Finally, Blake repeated the question, but again, Tim didn’t answer. “I thought we were okay now? Say something.”
“We’re fine. We’re fine. But look at that. Have you ever seen anything like that?”
Even from where he stood, Blake could see the distinct shape of a boy standing in the open doorway and the undulating effect his presence had on the house: it was like an invisible finger pressing the center of an object made of partially liquefied gelatin. Everything bounced and rippled outward. And when Tim squeezed his shoulder, Blake, before breaking his stare, caught the sight of a much taller man shadow the boy’s tinier frame.
Then it was gone.
“Did you see that?”
Tim nodded. “Let’s follow the lady’s example, Blake. Unless you’re still thinking about buying the house? And you’re not, right?”
He took a step away from the car, further into the street.
“C’mon, Blake? Blake?”