Jacob Mertens' Abandoned House

The girls wandered the abandoned house, moving through the hallway upstairs. Wooden planks sagged beneath their feet, groaned and gnawed as they passed from one room to the next. As they inched forward, they imagined the old house giving way, and falling through the decaying floorboards until they hit sodden earth beneath them.

What a morbid idea, one girl thought. She supposed the others had thought the same, but maybe they hadn't. Maybe it was just her, and maybe they found the thick smell of water vile. She had loved it. She breathed in deep nostalgic draughts of dust and rainwater and was reminded of when she was a kid, crawling into an old doghouse in her backyard. That is until she was too big for it, until it clawed at her dress and her mother asked how she had gotten so dirty. The other girls may not have had doghouses that smelled of dry rot. They may not have dug with their fingers in the dirt, feeling earthworms squirm underneath.

The girls all walked through the house so quietly. It made her feel restless, she was used to them talking. Their talk had its own rhythm. It was brief and succinct, almost beautiful. She wanted to say something herself but it felt wrong. No, instead she listened as they shuffled across the second floor. She trailed her fingertips across peeling wallpaper, lagging a couple steps behind them. Was she the only one distracted by thoughts of the smell, of the doghouse, of the previous occupants of the house? Was it only her? Were the girls thinking of the empty bed frame? Were they thinking of a young woman sitting on a yellowed mattress smoking menthol cigarettes? The rustle of the box-spring and the woman drawing the smoke in deep, feeling it tear into her lungs like fiberglass until she coughed and coughed and evaporated into the walls? Or downstairs, where a bleary eyed drunk stomped around, shaking the old bones of the house? Could they hear him yelling nineteen-forties monologues about the war and God’s nature? She decided they were silly thoughts, and probably just her own.

Whose thought had it been to come in here? It wasn't hers. She had remained quiet, as she usually did. She followed the rest of the girls as they climbed through the broken window downstairs, and she followed them now. They had allowed her to come because they liked her, not because they knew her, but because the few words she offered were always kind. She had a warmth that the others were drawn to, but they thought little of her, one way or the other. If she was not too distracted by her thoughts she could see it. She watched their eyes and saw how little they actually looked at her. Even when everyone was quiet like they were now.

At first it had bothered her, but she became used to it. It was comforting being around them, though she could not say why. However, as the girls walked into the last room she stopped. It was as if a thought had come to her and then left her immediately. No, not another half imagined ghost shaking its chains against the wall. Not some memory that pulled her away from the old house and the girls crowded around the small bedroom. Not anything anymore, the thought was gone. She stayed in the hallway, gripped by a feeling of unexplainable sadness. Her insides were wrenched with grief and for some reason she caught herself smiling. She thought she heard the girls talking again, but she did not care. The house had nothing left to offer her, its poetry needless.

So she left.

Jacob Mertens is a freelance critic and fiction writer. He also acts as Review Editor for Film International.