The House Behind Us by Matt Coleman
Some clouds drift down into the tops of trees and houses like ghosts or Spanish moss. They hang and haunt and blot out stars. Not that stars don’t shine above such areas; they do. Stars swirl somehow through the fog as if they had walked out of a Van Gogh painting. It’s only, from a distance, with the ability to see both stars and fog, the separation looks either beautiful or terrifying. The fog appears to be pulled across the horizon like a funeral shroud. And those stars peer through it in the same way little kids watch for movements in the shadows.
The house behind us had clouds like that. We used to marvel at how they never glided over the ivy-clad chain link and into our towering pines and overgrown Bradford Pears. We used to sit out with cicadas and count constellations we didn’t know the names of. The sprawling fog above the house behind us framed them. We almost expected to read a title and artist sprawled across the sprawl.
Fog became commonplace. We came to accept it, and we would wrinkle our brows at guests who questioned it. Eventually, their expressions of wonderment sounded like questioning the sky. And we answered with shoulder shrugs and vague dismissals. Our lack of alarm about this one peculiar feature started to bleed over into widespread acceptance. The house behind us became nothing more or less than the disturbing painting, the unsightly yard, the stranger at the airport.
Black house, blue mist, purple sky, white pinholes of star. We glanced and never thought. And we certainly never paused to think about our thinking. We stopped questioning the house behind us. Almost.
Almost is such a simple word. It’s like someone took two words with opposite meanings and pushed them together to make a new meaning. There’s probably a word for that, too. Almost is a word which can bring anticipatory joy. -Is it time to go to the movies, Mom? -Almost, dear. Instant excitement.
On the other hand, it can bring about fear (-Is it time for my brain surgery, Mom? -Almost, dear.). Relief (-Is it over? -Almost.). Sadness (-Is it over? -Almost.). Prayer (I thought a semi-truck was going to hit us. It almost did.). And while prayer may not be an actual emotion, it almost is. And if almost doesn’t count in a discussion about the word almost, then why even have the word?
-We almost never saw anyone come out of the house behind us.
No one sat out on the porch with a cup of coffee. No one tossed a football or set up a badminton net or played in a sprinkler. We did all those things that summer. But the house behind us stood quiet.
One night, however, a light sprung on in its middle. As suddenly as a match strike, the house behind us lit up like a paper lantern. We all stopped and stared. Without communicating it, we each knew we were making a mental inventory of the couch, the chair, the side table, the floor lamp, the umbrella stand next to the front door, the bookshelf.
We had squinted enough to see a set of encyclopedias and an old leathery Bible before the doors opened. They didn’t fly open. More glided. None of us saw a person. Only the doors. Easing open. Retreating from the night air, slowly enough to flow with the soft breeze, but with enough force to not have been caused by it.
Crickets echoed in the silence. Our hearts vibrated against our ribs in harmony. And the air hung like molasses, thickening with the palpable scent of pine sap. We could feel the cool droplets of sweat trickling down our temples. Everything intensified in the moment. And we waited.
Then, through the crickets and the fluttering of bats, we heard a creaking. It sounded mechanical and rhythmic. The sound flew up in pitch, from a groan to a squeak, in quick staccato beats. And from the darkness of a hallway into the lit up middle of the house behind us, we saw, for the first time, the old man. He hunched—body, face, spirit, and soul. Everything about him drooped into a bitter frown. His mouth was slightly crooked and he walked with a limp. In front of him, he pushed an empty wheelchair.
The wheel squeaked out into the sort of courtyard of a back porch. The old man hobbled behind it down a narrow walkway from the doors into a circular patio in the middle of the yard. Concrete benches made a broken circle around the decorative brick floor. An old fire pit sat at its center. The ash in it had been long neglected and had evolved from aromatic soot into calcified slosh. The man rolled the chair to the patio, parking it at an angle beside the fire pit. Then he walked away.
He shuffled back into the house and the doors slowly shut without so much as a click. The man’s crooked shadow disappeared back down the hallway and the light followed him. The house behind us returned to a state of blackened windows and nondescript features. Outside, it started to rain. And it continued for days—a steady, drizzling rain that kept the world moist all the time. It was the best kind of summer storm. The temperature dropped by fifteen degrees. Plants soaked it up. So did the wheelchair.
Every day we checked for it. And every day it was there, sitting on the patio like a licked-clean fishbone. It built up a glisten of rainwater for days, shining like slobbery dew. The house it used to roll around in eyed it with hollowed out windows and unemotional brick, and every time its air conditioner groaned to life it sounded like a grumbling stomach.
Matt Coleman works in the fields of education and writing. He has worked for the National Writing Project and has taught writing for over a decade at every level from seventh grade to university level. Matt also writes for The City Life Supplement, a comedy podcast based in Chicago, IL. He lives in Texarkana, AR, with his wife, two daughters, four dogs, three cats, and a fish, all of which were alive and well when last he left the house.