If she had parked closer, she would have seen that the front door — wood dull and damp — hung half-open, swung inward as if on some slant. Sarah had parked around the bend at the bottom of the driveway, her view of the house blocked by the trunks of two Douglas firs. She couldn’t see the details of the house, but she could imagine them. She could imagine shadows slipping and crawling from every orifice of the structure, slinking up the doorframe to obscure the house number, and covering up the small square window off to the side. Unnatural, more-than-dark darkness clinging to the undersides of the faded russet siding, as if they were painted black.
Sarah was caught between two repelling extremes. Sunlight through the car windows and windshield had refracted the car into a sauna. Yet, if she rolled her window down to mitigate the heat, the cold November air cut straight through her sweater and shirt to her flesh. She looked toward the house, then checked her watch. Quarter past three. Back in the city she would have been done work at the store by now, would have been almost home. But time meant nothing today. Not here, at least.
Finally, she put the car back in drive and rounded the bend into view of the house. Her mental image had been off — the siding was a fake puce-coloured texture, and the house no longer had windows. Of course, she had counted on her memory being faulty. Seventeen years’ distance has that effect.
She got out, pushing the lock down and checking the rest of the doors with a glance, out of habit. It was out of habit that she had left the landline at home connected, too. Her ex had had it installed when he moved in during the summer, and now that he was gone, she just had been forgetting to call the cable company to get it cut off.
That forgetting was what had gotten her stuck here in the first place, too, wasn’t it? She had been so careful to not let her sister get ahold of her new cell phone number this year — upgrading her privacy settings on Facebook, paying for a clean new SIM card and so on. It had been such a long time since she had had a landline, that she quite probably just forgot that phonebooks even existed, or that her sister could get her hands on one.
The call had come about an hour after she had gotten home from work.
“Sarah? Sair-ey are you there?” The voice was shriller than she remembered, but it was unmistakably her sister’s. Sarah almost hung up upon hearing it. Instead, she passed the phone to her other hand and sat down on the couch.
“Sarah? Hello? You ther—”
“I’m here. Hi Diane.”
She winced. Her sister had never quite mastered the tact of talking on a phone without sounding like she had recently pounded back two beers and a vodka shot.
“What’s up,” Sarah said.
“It’s so good to talk to you! How are you? How is Brian? Is he there? Does he want to say hi?”
“No he, he’s not here. What is it Diane?” The question came out louder than she should have said it, but it conveyed her meaning better this way.
“Oh.” There was a pause. “Okay, so I got a call from dad’s neighbour. Sounds like she’s worried about him.”
“Mrs. Prenderghast? What are you talking—”
This time Diane interrupted. “No no, other dad. Real dad. Can’t remember the neighbour’s name, but…”
The rest of her sister’s sentence blurred into noise.
What the fuck. What the actual fuck.
“…so, I’m all the way over here on the other side—”
Sarah refocused and gave a barely-audible snort. “Vancouver. You’re in Vancouver, Diane. It’s not the other side of the province.”
She could all but feel her sister’s glare over the phone. “Well, I’m still farther away than you.”
Sarah paused, opened her mouth, closed it, then opened it again. “Wait, sorry, what?”
“You need to go check on him. You’re closer. You always have been.”
“Diane, I don’t want to see him.” Sarah’s free hand wavered over her stomach, then grabbed one of her shirt buttons and started twisting it.
“You know what? I tried to be nice. I’ve tried to be a good sister. And he’s tried too. He was good when we were living with him.”
“Look, I—” The button pulled away from the fabric and thread, then fell to the floor soundlessly.
“Just go do it.”
Twenty past three. Sarah checked the locks one last time, then walked up the gravel driveway. The entrance looked more grimy and dim the closer she got to it. With one foot on the stoop, she knocked twice on the door, then wiped her wet hand on her pant leg.
There was no response from within. She could hear nothing but the breeze rippling through the creaking forest.
“Hello?” she called out, sliding in through the gap. Somehow it was even colder inside. She remembered very little of the interior from when she and Diane had lived here for just a few months when she was 10, but what she did recall was light — both from the sun and in the wood itself. Hardwood floors pale as butter, big windows that were never curtained and usually open, and soft, warm yellow lighting in every room.
All that light was gone. Where before the wood floors had gone bare, now they were covered in dark brown carpeting that ran down the hall to the kitchen and up the stairs to the two rooms on the second floor. There were bookcases on either side of the hall stuffed full of old pulps and paperbacks, and shelves loaded with taped-up cardboard boxes that restricted the hall to single file.
Sarah turned and glanced back at the door. It would need to be closed, but she would do that on the way out, not while she was inside the house.
She could see a bit of light from the kitchen, and she made her way down the hall toward it. There was little in the way of scents in the house — dampness and coldness combined to imbue the walls with a faint mildew, but overall the place seemed sanitary, though not clean by any means. The front door couldn’t have been left open for more than a few hours.
The kitchen was only slightly less dim than the rest of the house, when she actually got to it. There was a bigger window on the back wall, but it was covered in white blemishes and blotches, and shadowed by the trees out back. The beige kitchen table was relatively bare, only taken up by an empty ceramic vase and a wrinkled newspaper with part of the front page torn off. Sitting crunched down in a chair next to it, yellowed eyes focussed direct but placid at her, was her biological father.
At 73, Douglas had begun to crumple, perhaps prematurely, around his edges. His skin had softened to a pale pink pallor, and his face had become dominated by three black moles on his chin, cheek and forehead. He was wearing a thick off-white sweater and faded jeans covered in dirt and grass stains.
Sarah was the first to break eye contact. “Hello, Douglas.” She looked around at the rest of the kitchen, pausing over the old, buzzing fridge, and the stove with its elements covered in burnt-on charr.
Her father coughed into a hand, then plunked it down on to the newspaper.
“Sarah. Why did, why didn’t you knock?” He looked back down at the table, and moved his hands to his knees, leaving a saturated silhouette on the paper. Slowly he rose, and took a step toward her. She moved one foot back and shifted her weight onto it, but all he did was pat her on the shoulder before stumping past her to the adjoining sitting room.
“Diane wanted me to check on you,” she called after him.
“Dunnie?” he muttered.
His back turned from her, she let herself shake involuntarily, then folded her arms. “She said a neighbour called…about something?”
“No, no, no…” she heard him mutter. “No neighbours.”
She started flipping through the kitchen cupboards. There were enough cans of food in here to last him into next century. Clearly someone was, or had been buying food for him. “You’ve got neighbours, whether you remember them or not,” she said under her breath, though he wouldn’t have heard her anyways.
Over in the sitting room, she found him sitting on a couch with ragged, torn up arms and no legs. They watched each other for a few seconds; the silence, like the darkness, was expanding and growing like a shroud of moss on the forest floor.
“Do you need anything?” she asked, finally.
He shook his head once, then slowly nodded. “My pills. Painkillers.” He poked a small white aspirin bottle with his finger, then pushed it across the coffee table toward her.
She unfolded her arms.“Okay. I’ll go right now.” She didn’t wait for a reply, just walked back down the hall and out the front door, not bothering to close it. If Douglas had survived at least a day with it open, he’d be fine for a half-hour more.
But it took her even more than half an hour to get down to town, and the stores were closed by the time she got there. There were no people anywhere around the four-way stop to ask for help. A few cars came down the road but none stopped, and she didn’t pass anyone on the way back to the house.
The sun had faded, or no, had set early, been replaced by lumpy grey clouds. And then, as she wound atop those less-roads, more-strips-of-asphalt-and-gravel that struck their way through the endless swathes of winter-ridden firs, it suddenly began to snow.
It seemed the closer she got back to Douglas’s house, the colder and darker it became. The snowflakes revolved above and before her windshield like a multitude of tumbling spiral galaxies, specks caught in her high beams glowing bright white-blue against the impenetrable night.
Very little of this place remained in her memory — not the layout of the town and its roads, which she had had to look up on Google Maps; not the irritable weather that changed its mind one minute to the next. The three months in which she and Diane had lived here had been in the spring, spent mostly inside or in sight of the house.
Seventeen years prior, when Sarah was 10 and Dunnie was 9, a social worker had determined that Douglas was finally fit to take care of them, at least for a trial session. Life had been fine in the city, and at the time Sarah couldn’t think of any reason beyond familial relation why they should leave foster care to live with him. But perhaps the system had been harder on Dunnie.
Douglas made a good effort for the first month, that much could be said of him. He gave them rides down to the school bus on the back of his bike, and cooked them proper dinners even though he was absent from over half of them. Still, the girls had few friends except each other, and even that relationship was weak.
But it was in the first month that he started telling them stories as well.
“Let me tell you a story,” he would begin.
They started innocently — fairy tales and fables, the common stock of childhood fantasy. But he ran out of them fast, had no book to refresh his memory beyond the basic Disney tales.
And then, two or three weeks into their life with Douglas:
Sarah and Dunnie had finished washing the dishes after dinner when Douglas got home, sweating and covered in dirt. He barely acknowledged them, but went upstairs and took a shower. When he got out, the girls had changed into pyjamas and were in their twin beds in the other upstairs room, on the verge of sleep. He stirred them back awake, tickling first Dunnie and then Sarah on their feet, and then sat on Sarah’s bed. Dunnie shuffled her blanket to join them on Sarah’s bed, but Douglas told her to stay where she was. And he told them a new story.
“Long, long ago, there was a king who ruled over a beautiful kingdom. He had lakes, and rivers, and villages, and more trees than could ever be counted. But he didn’t have anyone to share it with. He was all alone. One day, a travelling troll came to his kingdom and started living under the man’s,” he paused. There was something set about his face, his jaw.
“The king’s bridge. The troll lived under his bridge and made a big mess of the kingdom, scattering garbage and half-eaten food everywhere. People told the king he should get rid of the troll, but he put it off. He had other things to take care of. But one day, he went down to the bridge to confront the troll. The troll was away that day, but his wife, whom no one had seen before, was there. Unlike the ugly, monstrous troll, his wife was beautiful, with bronze skin and smooth black hair, and the man,” and Douglas forgot to correct himself this time, “fell in love with her at first sight.”
Dunnie was asleep by this point. The story was too boring, with not enough fairies.
Sarah, on the other hand, was wide awake. As Douglas had continued, describing the meeting of the king and the troll’s wife, he had slipped a hand under her blanket to her thigh. And then he asked her:
“Do you know who the troll’s wife was?”
By the time Sarah had got back to the house, the snow had stopped and started again. The house was even more cloaked in shadow, and even though she parked right next to it this time, she still couldn’t tell if the front door was open or closed.
The door was the same as she had left it, and she stepped through inside, shivering and shaking uncontrollably outside of the heated confines of her car. She walked through the barren, winter-ridden house, proceeded to the kitchen and checked the sitting room, before going upstairs.
She could see through his slightly cracked-open bedroom door that Douglas was sitting awake, tucked in under his blanket, with a space heater plugged in. He looked up at her as she entered the room, and opened his mouth to talk.
She cut him off before he could say a word.
“Let me tell you a story,” she said.
“I never knew my mother, you made sure of that. Foster made sure of that.”
“You, you—” he began.
“No, actually.” She raised her hand in mimicry of heavy contemplation. “You made sure I DID know her.”
Douglas began to get up from the bed, but she stepped forward and pressed down hard on his chest.
“In the most FUCKED up way possible.” Her words had grown from sarcasm to screaming through clenched teeth.
“Remember that story you told me when I was here last?” she asked. “I don’t remember a thing from then,” her right hand began to tremble, so she held it by her side and backed away. “But I remember that.” She turned to leave.
“Dunnie,” he began, and lifted a hand towards her.
But she was gone.
Sarah drove off a few minutes later, turning her car heater to max. She flicked her rear-view mirror away so she wouldn’t have to see the house again, but she could just imagine it fading, along with the rest of the forest behind it, into the gathering gloom.
I’m ending it now, on this night. I will never spend another night in your house again.
A version of this story was previously published by NonBinary Review in 2015, who thoughtfully nominated it for a Pushcart Prize.