Come Home

It’s the last thing I see before falling asleep. That wisp of shadow cast upon my bedroom wall. I always wonder what’s doing the casting. It can’t be the ceiling fan, it’s the wrong shape for that—but next thing I know my alarm’s ringing and the night is over.

I instinctively glance at my phone on the way to the bathroom—not the master bath connected to my room, the smaller one down the hall—and see one unread message waiting for me. I pause just long enough to delete it.

I rush through the shower, not bothering to wait for the water to heat up. I stare at the suds running between my feet before they pile up at the drain like the worst car accident you ever saw. On the other side of the shower curtain, the bathroom light buzzes. I think it’s because the bulb needs changing, but I won’t do that until it burns out completely. I kind of like the noise. Fills the space between my ears, keeps my head from collapsing on itself—

A deeper, louder buzz punctuates the morning, reaching my ears even over the rush of cold water. The phone I left in the bedroom, vibrating against my nightstand. I clench my fists, my fingernails stamping little crescents into my palms. One of these days I’m going to draw blood. Still haven’t figured out how I’d explain the scars.

From the shower, it’s downstairs for a quick breakfast. I trot down the steps, tightening my tie as I go, making it too tight because for some reason I find the sensation comforting, then slow to a halt on the bottom landing.

It’s bad this morning. After a moment of steadying myself on the banister, I take that first, dreadful step.

It’s like plunging into the current of an unfamiliar river, the depth of which can only be feared, and I can’t swim. Not in this water of changed air and quiet wrongness. I can only hope to reach the kitchen without finding a more concrete change that might break me. What’s different? My head feels like it’s shrinking, and that tells me to look for a missing noise. Ah. The grandfather clock in the living room isn’t ticking. I breathe a sigh of relief. That can be easily remedied, and even more easily explained. I make a detour to wind the clock, then head to the kitchen where I drop a bagel into the toaster.

The toaster adds its own warming hum to the ticking of the grandfather clock. My skull relaxes as the comforting noises fill it. While the bagel cooks, I sit at the kitchen table and rehearse the day’s schedule.

It’s New Year’s Eve. This year, management decided to give everyone a half day on top of the usual long weekend. I shudder at the thought. All those extra, empty hours. All that silence. At noon I have a meeting with Martin for lunch. After that, nothing. It’ll be time to come ho—that is, back here.

I could just leave, I think, not for the first time. I could.

The bagel popping from the toaster is like a gunshot. I jump from my seat and go about burning my fingers as I force down my breakfast. Choking on the last overcooked crumbs, I throw on my coat and head out the door.

My phone buzzes as I drive into work. I take it from my pocket and check the sender—not that I need to—then quickly put it back. It buzzes once more as I pull into the parking lot, urging me to read the text. I won’t. I get out of my car and stand there for a moment, shivering, hands clasped in front of my stomach. I can’t go in like this. Need to calm down, need to put that number out of my head—

“Everything all right?”

My gaze snaps across the lot to another suited figure, and my hands relax. I wave at my coworker, smile weakly, embarrassed. Thank goodness. Society. A voice not my own. The noise of life. I cross the lot and join my coworker at the door, greeting him as cheerfully as I can manage before heading inside.

“You look pale,” says Martin as he sits on the bench beside me. “More so than usual, I mean.” He raises a pair of prompting eyebrows and sips from his coffee. Drops of it cling to his mustache; they start to freeze before he takes a stab at guessing my thoughts. “That number again?”

I nod and take a bite of my sandwich.

“Can’t understand why you don’t just deactivate it. If someone’s messing with you, that would put a stop to it for sure.”

“It’s not that simple.”

“It’s cruel, that’s what it is. Bad enough this creep stole her phone, now he’s got to torment you with it. If it were me I’d have tracked the call and sent the cops after him. But you’re the victim here. Do what you want.”

We finish our lunch in the cold. He drains the last of his coffee in one great gulp, then turns to me and says, “I wondered if it would be good for you to come to my place tonight.”

My chest tightens. Leave the house?

I could do it.

Let it sit empty for so long?

I could.

What would I come back to? “I’d hate to put a damper on your party.”

“It’s not a party, really,” he says. “It would only be me and my wife. Just for dinner and to watch the ball drop. It would get you out of the house.”

Exactly. “I’ll think about it.”

“So that’s a yes.”

“No, I said I’ll think—”

But he stands up and walks away. “I’ll see you at five. Don’t worry about bringing anything.” And he’s gone before I can say any more.

Half day. Work’s done. I deposit my empty lunch bag in the nearby garbage can and head for my car, dreading what I’ll find when I get home.

I could go to Martin’s party. I could stay there, move in. I could just leave.

My phone buzzes in my pocket, reminding me why I can’t, and my stomach turns.

By two o’ clock, I’m back home, standing in front of the door, fitting the key to the lock, pushing my way inside. I don’t recall stepping over the threshold. I don’t recall shutting the door behind me. There’s only sudden darkness and the feeling I’ve entered an alien space. In the dim, afternoon light, the walls and floors and ceilings look the same, but the space between them is a different emptiness. The air’s been stirring in my absence, the currents are different. I can feel it against my face. And it’s so quiet.

I fall back against the door. The sound of my impact echoes through the house for a moment, then fades, beaten into submission by the emptiness. How many more hours of this?  Martin’s party is at five, so just—

No. I need to be home. They need me here.

I lock the front door and head upstairs. I don’t realize how shallow my breathing is until I take off my tie and relieve the pressure. As I unwind it from my neck and hang it in the closet, my eye is drawn to the door of the connected master bathroom. It’s open, just a crack.

come home

“No,” I say quickly, before clamping a hand over my mouth. I rush to the door and slam it shut. The house trembles. I stand there, hand fused to the doorknob, fingers numb, while my knees shake. I am home, I think. What more do you want? I slowly sink to the floor and drown in the silence. The silence! I can’t take it.

I regain my feet and stride from the bedroom, unbuttoning my shirt as I go. I shrug it off and drop it on the hallway floor. My t-shirt follows. Noise, I think, my head throbbing. Something to make noise.

I don’t need another shower—my last one was only five hours ago—but it’s the first idea that comes to me. The running water, the whirring fan, the distraction. Without bothering to close the door behind me, I enter the hallway bathroom and finish shedding my work clothes. The tub is still wet from this morning, but I pull the shower curtain shut behind me and turn on the water.

I’m used to redundancies like this. Anything to fill the time. Washing dishes, vacuuming floors. Anything to make noise. And I have more time than usual today. So much empty time stretching before me. All that silence to be filled somehow. Slowly, I turn up the temperature of the water until it’s steaming, then I close my eyes and just bask. No soap, no shampoo. Just warmth and noise and—

I feel the dimming light on my eyelids. I think it’s finally time to replace the faulty bulb, but…the noise. I can still hear the electricity whining in the fixture. I open my eyes. The light is still on, but something—the shower curtain is barely translucent enough for me to tell that something—is blocking it.

I yank the curtain aside, and the bathroom is bright and empty. Nothing but my clothes strewn across the floor, and…my phone resting on the edge of the sink. Blinking. It buzzes once, and the vibration sends it tumbling into the slate-gray pile of my crumpled dress pants, the pants in whose pocket the phone should have been all along. That’s where I left it, right?

I jump out of the shower, dripping over everything. “Who’s there?”

No answer. Not even a footstep. Who’s there? I scoff. Who would be there? I’m alone. Alone, alone, alone.

Reaching back behind the shower curtain, I turn off the water. Then I dry myself and return to the master bedroom. There, I collapse on the bed and lie there until I fall asleep.

When my phone buzzes, I snap awake. My neck is stiff and my cheeks are sticky. I painfully push myself up and note how dark it’s become. I must have been out for hours. A glance across the bedroom at my alarm clock confirms it: five thirty.

The air seems colder than it was. I even think I feel a breeze on my face—

The ceiling fan is on. It spins lazily above me, the narrow rod connecting it to the ceiling rocking slightly. A shiver unrelated to the cold works over me. I get up to turn it off.

My phone buzzes again as I dress, and once more as I tromp downstairs in search of supper. I drop it on the kitchen table without looking at the number. I don’t need to anymore. And besides, as long as it keeps buzzing, my head isn’t in quite as much danger of imploding.

Martin’s advice runs through my head, advice that I’ll never take because…well, as I told him, it’s not that simple. He thinks he knows the truth, or enough of it at any rate. Stole her phone? That’s what I had to tell him. The truth is…complicated. Too complicated even for me, and I’ve been living with it for a year. What could I tell him? That a small, masochistic part of me actually likes seeing that number? That after the first week, I crushed her phone under a brick? That if I did get the cops to trace the call, they’d only find themselves digging up my backyard?

The microwave distracts me. Its hum muffles everything else. I make more noise than necessary as I set out glasses and silverware, intentionally knocking them together and all but dropping them on the table. It’s a wonderful din, but one that I have to maintain. So the microwave beeps, and I rush to pull the food out and throw it on the table. I take my seat, scoop a helping onto my plate, scrape the utensils against each other to produce a metallic clatter—

I pause and look around me. Empty plates to my left and right.

Did I put those there? I must have. What am I doing?

I realize the house has gone completely quiet. Even the grandfather clock in the other room has ceased its regular ticking. I sit there with hands over my food, fork and knife poised but refusing to budge. That feeling in my head returns. The void. I feel my skull shrinking, crushed by the air now that there’s nothing to fill it. Any moment now, it’ll crack.

Something squeaks upstairs, faintly, like the smooth turning of a brass hinge or a smothered sob—

Knock knock knock

The silverware falls from my fingers with a crash and I’m thrown back in my chair. Whatever I heard, I imagined it. Aside from that pounding on the front door, there is no noise. There’s no one else here to make any noise aside from myself—and whoever’s on my front porch.

Knock knock knock

I rise from the table and make my way out of the kitchen, down the hall. I turn my head as I pass the stairs, looking up into the dark.

No. It’s nothing.

Knock knock knock

The textured glass in the front door blurs the light from outside. Something shifts out there, a fractured shape blocking the glow of the houses across the street, waiting. Just like earlier, in the bathroom.

I unlock the door and pry it open.

“You’re alive,” says Martin. “I wasn’t sure.”

“What are you doing here?” I ask.

“Came to get you. I tried calling first, but you didn’t answer.”

Then I remember. It’s New Year’s Eve.

“Well?” he prompts. “You ready?”

“I can’t.”

“I don’t seem to recall giving you a choice in the matter. Grab your shoes and coat. My wife’s waiting.” He pushes his way inside, sniffing the air. “You haven’t eaten yet, have you?”

“Not yet,” I say. “I was—”

He arrives at the kitchen and just stands there, his gaze drifting between the three plates. “You didn’t tell me it was this bad.”

“I’m not going. I need to be here.”

He turns on me and points at the table. “What you need is to stop this. Get out of this tomb and have a little fun. No one, living or dead, would begrudge you a little fun.” He turns back to the kitchen and begins clearing the table. “Shoes and coat. Ten seconds.”

In spite of my objections, I find myself obeying. After shrugging on my coat, I join Martin in the kitchen and reach for my phone on the table.

“Oh no,” he says, swatting my hand away and dragging me out by the arm. “That stays here.” He propels me down the hall and out the front door, not trusting me to myself until I’m buckled into the passenger seat of his car. I cast one final look at my house, dark and empty, and ten minutes later, we pull into Martin’s driveway.

From the moment Martin’s wife greets us at the door, I’m overwhelmed. The light pouring from inside, the smells. It feels like Christmas, but not the lonely affair I observed a week ago. This is the Christmas from my childhood, the Christmas I thought died for good last year. A pang of guilt, then I’m sucked into the warmth.

First we eat. A better meal than I’ve had in…I almost think a year, but then I realize it’s even better than that. Many years—

I freeze with a fork halfway to my mouth. What a treacherous thought. I can’t possibly eat another bite, not after such a betrayal. My hand starts to shake.

Mrs. Martin looks at me and asks, “Is everything to your liking?”

Of course, I have to say yes, both to be polite and to be honest. The food’s just so good—everything is just so good—and in spite of myself I eat another bite, and another, and another until my plate is empty and she reveals dessert.

After that, we play charades. I think Martin and his wife have an advantage over me, knowing each other so well, likely using some secret marital code to give each other hints. I don’t care. I laugh all the same, just reveling in the noise. My cheeks are strained, but I don’t want to stop. Flames crackle in the living room fireplace, filling the air with the sublime scent of burning pine. For a moment, as Martin puts on a ridiculous performance, I sit back and soak it all in.

As midnight approaches, we settle down and turn on the TV. The ball hovers over Times Square, radiant in the New York night. I reflect that, when I first heard of the ball drop as a kid, I thought it was supposed to literally plummet from the top of a building and shatter into a million pieces on the stroke of twelve. I was profoundly disappointed the first time I was allowed to stay up and watch it myself.

Now, decades later, I still find the spectacle underwhelming, but I can’t find it in myself to care.

“Ten, nine, eight…”

Martin and his wife join the thousands on the television in the final countdown. A new year, I think. A new start.

“…three, two, one—”

Chaos breaks out on the TV screen. People cheering and dancing. The three of us raise glasses of champagne and drain them, then Martin’s wife takes his face in her hands and pulls him into a kiss.

Something behind my eyes snaps. The TV continues to cheer, but softly as though through a thick wall. The light seems less warm. A draft slips over me, like the empty space on the couch to my right is sucking the air into itself, trying to become more than an empty space. The cold draws my elbows into my ribs. I’m shivering. Staring.

They break off their kiss. “Happy New Year,” she says to him. He turns to me and says, “Happy New…what’s the matter?”

I’m aware that my hand, though still raised, is now empty. A half second later my empty glass bounces off the corner of the end table and shatters on the floor.

“Don’t move,” Mrs. Martin says, shooting to her feet and bustling into the kitchen. “I’ll clean it up.”

“S-sorry,” I say, standing and inching around the broken glass. “I should get going now.”

“No need to rush off,” Martin argues. “Stay a while.”

“I can’t. I shouldn’t have—” A pressure in my head is building. I raise a hand to my throat and squeeze, only gently. “I need to get home.” I dart into the hall as Mrs. Martin returns, a bewildered look on her face.

“Wait,” Martin calls after me, nearly colliding with his wife. “At least let me drive you.”

But I’m already out the door, leaving tracks in the snow that’s accumulated since my arrival. I’ve been so cruel. What right have I to…to any of what just took place? I need to be home, home is where they need me. What if—

I reach into my pocket before remembering that my phone is still on my kitchen table. In the same moment, I remember my coat is still hanging by Martin’s front door, but I suppose I deserve this small discomfort for being so selfish.

I come to the corner and turn toward my own street, still several blocks away. It’s a ten-minute drive, at least triple that by foot. I pick up my pace.

The image of Martin kissing his wife flashes before me. A fresh wave of guilt comes pounding down. Why’d I have to leave, tonight of all nights? Why’d I stay away? I’m running now. All the houses I pass have lights on still, in spite of the late hour—an early hour at this point. When I finally come to my street, my home stands out for its shadowed countenance.

What changes, I wonder, what changes? I stumble up to the door and barge inside. It’s dark, darker even than the outside suggests, but from the kitchen down the hall comes a cold, accusing light. My phone, right where I left it. It’s buzzing in regular intervals of one-two, one-two. The wood of the table amplifies the sound into a jackhammer. I can feel it running through the floor. It’s a wonder the whole house hasn’t come down by now.

Without bothering to remove my slush-sodden shoes, I creep down the hall. Now that I’m here, urgency fades to something else, and it’s last year again, only this time I know how it all ends. There’s no accident this time, nothing to keep me late, but I’m still too late. A whole year too late.

I’m in the kitchen now, staring down at the blue-tinted screen that’s so bright I can barely make out the number. But I don’t need to. I know. My hand slaps down, covering the brightness. The phone continues to vibrate. That number. Her number.

I pick up the phone. It trembles in my hand. Tiny, violent shockwaves shaking me apart molecule by molecule. I raise it to eye level. My eyes have adjusted enough to make out the simple, binary question: view or delete?

My thumb, out of months and months of practice, hovers over delete. The vibrations infect the thumb; it now trembles on its own. Just shut it up, shut up shut up shut up—

At the last moment, I shift over and press my thumb firmly down on view.

The phone falls still, but I don’t. The vibrations take over everything as I read the words.

hear him what to do baby calling help small he wasn’t ignore yet gone wrong blood come home

I throw the phone away. It lands somewhere in the hall with a crack. I feel like the house is spinning around me. I stagger away from one wall, but the other slams into me from behind. The floor rushes up to catch me, then I’m staring at the ceiling. I know the ceiling. It’s the same ceiling I’ve walked under for years. But the air between me and it has changed. Something passed through in my absence, redirecting the flow, forming a different emptiness.

A gentle squeak from upstairs. Like a small weight settling on a spring, or the half-formed wail of a half-formed—

I struggle to my feet, and the house is merciful enough to let me stand. The squelch of my shoes reminds me that I’m tracking snow through the house. I kick them off before trudging upstairs. I don’t feel like I’m moving, more like I’m just flexing my legs and the house is moving around me. It sinks into the earth to bring the second floor down to my level, then slides along until I’m encased in the master bedroom. There, it tips just enough to send me tumbling into bed.

But instead of settling into the mattress, I catch on the edge and hang there, my limbs an awkward tangle. My gaze is captured by the bathroom door, very slightly ajar, breathing with light. It casts a blinding sliver into the bedroom.

I stagger upright and take one, two, three steps toward the radiant crack. There I stop. I can’t look. I saw it once, I can’t see it again—I won’t! But then four, five, and six bring me all the way, and with a final moment of hesitation, I fling the door wide.

The bathroom is clean and white. White walls, white tile floor, white sinks, white toilet splashed with red—

come

I stumble back, pulling the door closed behind me, but the squeal of the hinges arrests my movement. I look again at the toilet. The hinges, now motionless, continue to echo in ears that feel gummy. The house once more comes alive, sliding beneath me, bringing me closer to the porcelain bowl, glowing red from within.

And peering down, I glimpse, afloat in the bright pool, a still knot of flesh. There’s a burning pressure on my throat. My neck feels like iron as I try to look away. I squeeze my eyes shut, but not before the thing in the toilet gives a little writhing twist, reaches those tiny hands up—

My eyes fly open. I’m curled in a ball on the carpet outside the bathroom. The door is shut, and nothing but darkness leaks from underneath.

Sobbing, I crawl back to the bed, climb inside, and smother myself under the blankets. A single chance fold in the cloth allows me to see a section of wall, blank save for a wispy shadow. It’s so dark. Not even a moon to relieve the winter night. Nothing to cast such a long, slender shadow. What could be casting it? What?

I feel fingers at my throat. My own. Vision fades.

I’m on my lunch break when my phone buzzes. I excuse myself from conversation with a smile and check the number. It’s her! That’s always a bright point in the day. I hit view and read the message.

“I don’t know what to do.”

I stare at the screen in confusion, and then the second message comes.

“He’s so small.”

He? Who’s she talking about?

“He wasn’t supposed to come out yet.”

Wait, not—

“Something’s gone wrong.”

“There’s so much blood.”

The messages keep coming. Disjointed. Vague. But with each one, the impossible meaning is hammered deeper and deeper into my chest.

“Please come home.”

I shove the phone into my pocket. Someone’s staring at me—I can’t put a name to their face for some reason. I sit there, rigid as a board, breathing so hard I feel dizzy. No. I didn’t just read that. It couldn’t—it wasn’t!

“Everything alright?” asks the face with no name. Martin. His name is Martin.

“Everything…everything is…”

please come home

“I need to get back to work.” I throw the rest of my lunch into the nearby garbage can and walk away. Not toward my car; toward the office. “Everything will be—is—fine.”

everything is fine, everything is fine, everything…

The sheets around my face are wet. I peel them back and am met by that bare patch, that slender loop of shadow in the corner opposite the bathroom. It seems to drift, to rock gently.

come home

I wipe my face off and sit up. My head feels heavy. It threatens to overbalance me. I take a moment to steady myself atop the mattress before turning to check the time. Almost three. The night is dragging on. It feels forever ago that I ran coatless through the snow from Martin’s house.

A wave of pressure squeezes my skull. It’s the silence. With nothing to fill my head, the atmosphere presses in. I feel the bone cracking. I claw at my temples, trying to relieve the pressure. I need noise—any noise! The rustle of someone turning in bed, the low suck of indrawn breath not my own, anything!

I mouth a silent scream from the pain like a nail’s been driven into my forehead. The fist of silence clenches tighter. I feel like a ball of foil pressed tighter and tighter. I can’t take any more. One more tightening and I’ll be crushed. My vision goes spotty. Veins of darkness burst across my eyes as I collapse. Behind them, I have the impression of crimson flecks, little splashes of red against bright, clinical white. From the direction of the bathroom I hear the plunk of something dropped in water, the grating peal of an infant’s cry…

I rush out of the office, the phone still buzzing in my hand as I fish for my keys. My boss doesn’t stop me. The day’s almost done, and the look on my face must convey all he needs to know.

“I hear him calling me.”

Her message sends ice through my veins. Just pixels on a screen, but so much more when lit in certain patterns.

“Our baby. Help me.”

I tear out of the parking lot, ignoring stop signs. I likely wouldn’t be able to stop anyway, the way the roads are tonight. The tracks of those who preceded me cut undulating paths down straight roads. It’s stupid of me to drive one-handed, but I can’t put my phone down lest—

buzz buzz

“I can’t ignore him anymore. Please come home.”

I look up from the screen to be met by a wall of brake lights gleaming red (all the blood you weren’t here I didn’t know what to do I flushed) through the veil of snowflakes. I slam my own brakes and glide to a heart-pounding stop inches from someone’s bumper. The train of cars extends to the next intersection, where a storm of lights flashes in all kinds of patriotic colors. Fluorescent-vested officers funnel the traffic into a single lane.

No no no, I think as the river turns to a trickle turns stagnant. I have to—

come home

—get to her!

But no amount of tooth-grinding, fist-clenching, wish-making mental power can affect the flow. I’m forced to crawl along, bounded by snowbanks on either side, cars ahead and behind now. The thirty-second stretch of road bloats into a ten-minute crawl. I keep waiting for the phone to buzz again.

I finally draw even with the intersection, littered with police cars, an ambulance, and crumpled heaps of metal that couldn’t possibly hold people inside. The whole scene is lit frenetically by red and blue strobes. Two men carry a stretcher between them, transporting a lumpy form hidden beneath a sheet.

Then I’m through, the road opens up before me, and I floor the accelerator. My phone still hasn’t buzzed since her last plea to come home, and I feel my hand growing sweaty around the lifeless plastic. Come on, talk to me!

But I reach the house without further messages. My car skids into the driveway. I jump out without shutting off the engine and crash against the front door—which is locked. With a groan, I slip back to the car and get my keys. It’s snowing harder now. I can barely keep my eyes open as I run back to the door.

All the lights are off. I call into the darkness but receive no answer. All’s quiet on the first floor, so I thunder upstairs. Still quiet. I call out again. Silence. The silence seems to wrap invisible arms around me. Its hands cradle my head as I rush down the upstairs hall. The master bedroom is closed up. I burst inside. The silence starts to press…

It’s all as I left it this morning, except…my eyes keep sliding off it, insisting it’s not there. I can’t seem to register it as anything but a vague, dark shape hanging in the air over the bed.

The fan. The ceiling fan. How can it support her weight?

I take my hand from my face, expecting to see blood—but the dampness is only tears. I’ve rolled out of bed in my sleep; I can feel the painful impressions of the carpet fibers on my cheek, and one leg is still tangled up in the blankets above me. The pressure on my head has lessened. Why?

Then I’m aware of a pulsing glow a few feet from my face. My phone. There on the floor in front of me. Buzzing.

I reach forward and drag the phone closer so I can hit view and read the message: can’t ignore come home calling

I am home.

The phone’s buzzing again. One-two, one-two, one-two.

My sight goes blurry with moisture. She knows. Somehow, I can tell, she knows of my infidelity. My brief joy on the very anniversary of her—

buzz-buzz, buzz-buzz

There’s something poignant in the phone’s incessant cry for attention, something like an icy needle through my heart. I draw the phone tight against my chest and cradle it. It’s not buzzing at all. It’s crying. Crying from the direction of the master bathroom. Little, gurgling cries that trigger instincts I never had the chance to obey.

But I do have the chance. Just like she did.

Sniffing, I look up at the bare patch of wall in the corner, where that loop of shadow hangs, drifting back and forth. I climb back onto the bed and stand on the mattress. I look up at the ceiling fan. I look down at my phone.

can’t ignore blood calling come home

For the first time in a year, I hit reply.

coming

Then I go to my closet to fetch a tie.

James Colton

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