My father died with a hammer in his hand. He’d been married three times but his longest, most successful marriage was to a farmhouse born in 1770. If he could have left the old bird his pension and stock options he would have. By the time he’d wrangled his affairs into some semblance of order the house hadn’t grown sentient so it was my name he wrote down as beneficiary.
I never planned to keep it. The house was a marriage and full-time job rolled into one. But three days after the funeral, a week before the realtor was set to stage the place with rugs, drapes, and other coverings that might disguise the truth behind such empty phrases as “pre-war charm,” the house spoke.
The first thing the house said was so mundane it almost didn’t register that it was the house that told me. “Light’s still on in the bathroom.” The light was always on in the bathroom. I’d been doing it since I was a kid, even when I was no longer afraid of the dark. I picked the hammer back up, determined to put the finishing touches on the built-ins that did my dad in. But then the house spoke again. “You’ve got to watch your carbon footprint.” I put the hammer down slowly and raised my hands above my head as though I’d been caught in the middle of a heist.
“What did you say?” I asked. I scanned the ceiling to see if I could make out a face in the lines of chipped paint.
“I said, you have to watch your carbon footprint,” the house said. “We’re all living on borrowed time.”
When I told my wife what happened she nodded her head gravely, like she’d been expecting the news. “That house is haunted,” she said. “I’ve known since the first day I set foot in it.” My wife fancies herself a part-time medium and I almost always take her word for it, but I knew in my bones that this was an entirely different beast.
“No,” I said. “It wasn’t a ghost. It was the house.”
“What’s the difference?” she asked.
I went back the next day to see if the house would speak again. Dusky light streamed in through the bay windows. I opened a bottle of red wine and splayed my dad’s September copy of Architectural Digest on the coffee table, hoping the house would pick up on my tacit invitation for conversation. When my fishing attempt yielded no immediate results, I read aloud. I’d barely scraped the surface of an article on tile trends through the decades when I heard it: “Not that one,” the house said. “Read the article on DIY decks and patios.”
“We’d need a permit,” I said coolly, as though the house and I regularly batted ideas back and forth.
“You won’t be able to pull off a wrap-around, but I’ve seen what you can do with a hand saw. You could do something classic. At least a platform.”
Blood rushed to my cheeks. I took a gulp of wine before I could say anything stupid. The house had seen me. “I could try,” I said.
“Good,” the house said. The lights flickered. “That’s good.”
That night I called the realtor and told her to take the listing down.
I broached the subject with my wife over coffee. “We can’t afford the upkeep,” she said. “Lord knows the kind of money your father poured into that place.”
“I’ll do the upkeep myself,” I said.
“We can’t afford the property taxes. They’re skyrocketing.”
“Just think of it as an investment. By the time I’m done putting the final touches on the renovation it’ll be worth double what we’re asking now.”
“That’s not realistic.”
“Well, we can’t sell it. The house is talking.”
“You should stop listening,” she said. “It’s very hard to keep talking when no one is listening.”
The deck took about a month, start to finish. I got most work done in the early morning before the waking world resumed its motion. In that no man’s land the house and I went deeper.
“What do you think about in the dark?” the house asked. I put down the worn piece of sandpaper I’d been using as a prop.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“At night, just before you fall asleep. What do you think about?”
I closed my eyes and imagined myself in bed on the verge of sleep, my wife’s warm body pressed against me. If the house had asked me the same question weeks ago that’s what I would have said: my wife’s warm body. The new answer tumbled out: “Firm oak and pliant pine.”
I found excuses to stay later and later.
“Fridge is leaking. Must be trouble with the breakers.”
“Lights won’t go off in the bathroom.”
The house and I stayed up bucked sleep like newlyweds. We talked until morning about our hopes and dreams and fears. I laughed and sang and wept. The lights flickered. I brought over clothes, towels, a toothbrush. I stayed later and longer until one morning I woke up and the house felt like home.
I rolled over onto my back. “How long have I been here?” I asked.
The house did not answer.
I reached for the cell phone on my nightstand but couldn’t remember the ten digits that would connect us.
“My wife,” I said. “Good God, my wife. I need to get back to my wife.”
The lights flickered. “What do you know about landscaping?” the house asked.
I sat up in bed and peered out the window. The hedges were overgrown. The mulch was faded and littered with weeds. “Nothing,” I said.
“Good,” the house said. “I’ve got a feeling you’ll be a natural.”
Evann Makati Normandin is a 29-year-old editor working in educational publishing residing in Harvard, MA. She completed her BA at Middlebury College in English with a focus on literature of trauma and traumatic memory, and her MSc at the University of Edinburgh in English with a focus on trauma and post-apocalyptic fiction. Her work has been published in Broadway World, Rewire News, Slush Magazine, and the Journal of Compressed Creative Arts. She recently attended the 2021 Yale Writers' Workshop and is working on a novel.