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 gravel 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 remember them. In her mind, shadows slipped and crawled from every orifice of the building, slunk up the doorframe to obscure the house number; an unnatural, more-than-darkness grimed the russet siding black like soot.
Sarah was caught between two repelling extremes. Sunlight through the windshield, sustained over many minutes, had refracted her Sentra into a sauna. Yet, when she rolled her window down, a cold breeze cut straight through her shirt to her flesh. It was supposed to be June, not Junuary. She looked toward the house, then checked her watch. Back in the city she would have been done work by now, would’ve been almost home. But time meant nothing to her. Not here.
Finally, she put the car back in drive and rounded the bend into view of the house. Her mental image had been off, of course—the wood siding was lighter, maybe a puce, and the sun overhead had banished any trace of a shadow. She had counted on her memory being faulty. Seventeen years’ distance had that effect.
She got out, pushed the lock down and checked 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 it installed when she moved in during the winter for her contracting, and now that she was gone, Sarah just had forgotten to call the cable company to get it cut off, hadn’t she?
That forgetting was what had stuck her here in the first place, too, wasn’t it. She’d been so careful to not let her sister get her new cell number this year—upgraded her privacy settings, paid for a clean new SIM card and everything. It’d been such a long time since she’d had a landline, that she quite probably forgot that phonebooks still existed, or that her sister could get her hands on one.
The call had come about an hour after she got 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 was caught in a thunderstorm.
“What can I do for you?” Sarah asked.
“It’s so good to hear from you! How are you? How’s Anna? Does she want to say hi?”
“No, what is it, Diane?” The question came out louder than she should have said it.
“Oh.” A pause.
“She’s not here, I mean.”
When Sarah started to talk again, she seemed uncharacteristically subdued. “So I got a call from dad’s neighbour. Sounds like he’s worried about him.”
“Mrs. Prenderghast? What are you talking about, he’s—”
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 snort. “Vancouver. You’re in Vancouver, Diane. It’s not the other side of the country.”
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.” Sarah’s free hand wavered over her stomach, then found one of her shirt buttons and twisted it.
“You know what? I’ve tried to be a good sister. And he’s tried too. He was good when we were there.”
“Look, I—” The button pulled away from the fabric and thread, then fell to the floor soundlessly.
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 hand on her pant leg.
There was no response from within. She could hear nothing but the breeze rippling through the swaying woods.
“Hello?” she called out as she slid in through the open door. Somehow, it was even colder inside. She remembered very little of the interior from when she and Diane had lived here, but what she did recall was light—both from the sun and in the wood itself. Hardwood floors pale as butter, great wide windows that were never curtained, and soft, warm 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. There were bookcases on either side of the hall stuffed full of yellowed Louis L’Amour novels, 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 glimmer from the kitchen, and she made her way toward it. There was little in the way of scents in the house—the damp and cold combined to imbue the walls with a faint musk of mildew, but overall the place seemed sanitary, though not clean by any means. The front door couldn’t have been open for more than a couple hours.
The kitchen was only slightly less dim than the rest of the house. There was a large bay window on the back wall, but white blemishes marred the glass. All she could see through it was more forest, thin young fir trunks packed thick as timber companies were wont to plant. The beige Formica table was relatively bare, only taken up by an empty red 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 focused direct but placid at her, was her biological father.
At 63, he 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 sweater of indeterminate colour and a pair of faded Levi’s 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 burner trays coated in burnt-on charr.
Her father coughed into a hand, then plunked it down onto the newspaper.
“Sarah. Why did, why didn’t you knock?” He looked back down at the table, then gripped his knees, leaving a saturated handprint on the newspaper. Slowly, he rose, and took a step toward her. She responded by leaning away from him, her back pressed to the counter, 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.
As his back turned from her, she let herself shake involuntarily, then folded her arms. “She said a neighbour called…about something?”
“No, no…” she heard him mutter. “No neighbours.”
She started flipping through the kitchen cupboards. There were enough cans in there 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 she knew he wouldn’t have heard her anyways.
Over in the sitting room, she found him sitting on a couch that had ragged, torn up arms and no legs. They watched each other for a few seconds; the silence, like the gloom, kept expanding in her head 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 Aspirin bottle with his finger, then pushed it across the coffee table toward her.
She unfolded her arms.“That’s all you needed?” Why the neighbour couldn’t pick them up for him, she didn’t know. She didn’t wait for a reply though, 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 much 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 sole four-way stop to ask for help. A few pickup trucks came down the road but none stopped, and she didn’t pass anyone on the way back to the house.
The sun had faded, 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 patchwork swathes of firs and clearcut, it began to snow.
It seemed the closer she got back to Douglas’s house, the colder and darker it became. The snowflakes revolved before her windshield like a multitude of tumbling spiral galaxies, specks caught in her high beams glowing bright white-blue against the impenetrable gloom.
Very little of this place remained in her memory—not the layout of the town and its roads, which she’d had to Google, never having driven there before; nor 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.
When Sarah was 10 and Diane 8, 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 Nanaimo, 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 few weeks, that much could be said of him. He gave them rides down to the school bus on the back of his quad, 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.
It was in the first little while that he started telling them stories as well. They started innocently—fairy tales and fables, the common stock of childhood fantasy. But after a few months he ran out of them, had no book to refresh his memory beyond the basic Disney tales.
And then, almost four months into their life with Douglas:
Sarah and Dunnie had finished washing the dishes after dinner when Douglas got home, covered in sweat. 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’s and then Sarah’s feet, and then sat on Sarah’s bed. Dunnie shuffled her blanket to join them, but Douglas told her to stay where she was.
“Let me tell you a story. Long, long ago, there was a lord who ruled over a beautiful country. 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 merchant came to his lands and started living in my hunting.” He paused. There was something set about his face, his jaw. “The lord’s hunting grounds. The merchant lived in the forest and made such a mess of it, scattering garbage and half-eaten food everywhere. Though people told the lord he should get rid of the merchant, for the man traded a dreadful substance, he kept putting it off. He had other things to take care of. One day, he went out to confront the merchant. The man was away that day, but his wife, whom no one had seen before, was there. Unlike the ugly, monstrous merchant, the wife was beautiful, with bronze skin and smooth black hair, and I—he, fell in love with her at first sight.”
Dunnie was asleep by this point. The story was probably too boring for her. Not enough fairies.
Sarah, on the other hand, was wide awake. As Douglas had continued, describing the meeting of the king and the merchant’s wife, he had slipped a hand under her blanket to her foot. And then he asked her:
“Do you know who the wife was?”
By the time Sarah had got back to the house, the snow had stopped and begun 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 almost closed, all but a crack, and she had to put her weight against it to make it inside, shivering and shaking uncontrollably as she did so outside of the heated confines of her car. She walked through the barren, junk-filled house, proceeded to the kitchen and checked the sitting room, before going upstairs.
She could see through his 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. Her overdose just put the nail in the proverbial coffin.”
“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.” And she turned to leave.
“Dunnie,” he began, and grabbed her wrist. His hand was a vise. He made no effort to get up, however.
She whirled back to look into his eyes once more. Wrestled and tugged against his grip. She imagined he would be baring a grin at her, but she saw nothing in his bloodshot gaze. Not rage, not remorse, not even apathy. Just a void. She relaxed her hand, and slowly pulled it from his.
Sarah drove off a few minutes later, turning the heat 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 endless gloom.
I’m finishing it now, on this night. I will not spend another night in your house again, not ever.
A version of this story was previously published by the NonBinary Review in 2015, who thoughtfully nominated it for a Pushcart Prize.