by Hernán Guarderas
In the Pine Barrens, there was no Jersey Devil. No, the real demons lurked in those portraits of perfect suburban splendor. As far as Paul could tell, the Houses meant to eat all of humanity, but they failed because humanity, like the squirmy little vermin they were, found a crack in the foundation and escaped. Paul had not seen a neighborhood in years and he thought he never would again.
Most people in the woods no longer risked living in a structure. Four walls and a ceiling were a trap laid by whatever slumbered deep in the foundation of their home. They never realized they were food. Everyone just let the rain thump on their heads and heat burn their skin. Humanity reclaimed the wilderness as their homes. They felt the dirt and grime in between their toes. Found rivers to wash their bodies and streams to fish for food. Resigned to basic survival, some took pleasure in adapting back to their ancestral roots, but not Paul.
Paul had taken refuge in the forest like so many other survivors on the night the Houses woke up. He hated the bugs that crawled up his limbs, the dry leaves that cut him when the wind howled, and the dirt that never felt as soft as his mattress. He hated every moment of it. Most of all he hated the silence that reminded him it had been seven years since he lost his wife Anna to those residential people-eaters. Her face had warped into a featureless blob in his mind with each passing year. Time had eroded the details of her until she slowly became a shadow--a ghost that stood in the periphery.
On nights when her silhouette stood over him, he wished he could pull her from the darkness and see her face again. Hell, a photo album would have been enough to carry her memory, but on the night of his escape, he had been too scared to even give it a thought. He was no hero, just a plain old coward. He deserved his loneliness, deserved to scavenge for the scraps that other predators left behind.
There were nights he would see her silhouette towering over him as he slept. Her presence was anything, but warm. Her stare made sleep unbearable. It burned him with a white-hot rage. He couldn’t blame her for hating him. It was what he deserved for what he failed to do the night he lost her. It was the price he paid for being alive.
For Paul, it was a struggle to merely exist. The ache of being alive dug deep into his bones, gnawed at his soul, bit down into the sinew of his exposed memories. All things pushing him toward the words he had been avoiding his whole post-apocalyptic life.
“I have to go back.” He heard himself say aloud one morning. Those words hummed in his mind at a low frequency that he always failed to ignore. Shit. Paul winced at the thought. He had to go back. He could not give himself a good reason, at least not one he wanted to admit to, but he knew that if he ever wanted to have dreams without Anna again he would return to the last place he ever saw her.
His dreams no longer belonged to him. The building blocks of his imagination felt hijacked by snapshots of what he witnessed all those years ago. A door slamming on the arm of a neighbor, the blood gushing out, and ligaments crunching loudly against the frame all echoed from deep inside his past. In his own House, he could hear a completely different sound, a pleading one that sunk low into the pit of his stomach.
Every morning, the nightmares woke him with a shock. There was nothing else for him to do. He had to go back to that damned House or else he was exactly what he told himself he wasn’t every night before sleep reminded him of his cowardice.
In the early days after the suburbs grew teeth, the Houses started hunting the stragglers who thought themselves silly for allowing a nightmare to affect them so powerfully. One by one, the naive marched up to those doors and walked on into their deaths.
When people heard the blood-curdling screams from those Houses, they decided to never return. Then, the Houses upgraded their tactics. Like mirages of water in the desert, they would show folks what life was once like to lure them away from the safety of the woods. There’d be an old gardener tending to her flowers, children playing in the yard, or a man walking his dog through the neighborhood. All created with the intent to get a person back into their bellies.
Every few months, when living got hard, when surviving wasn’t enough, someone ventured back to the suburbs. Hunger begot hunger. It seemed simple enough to avoid the suburbs altogether, to know the Houses sold psychic lies, but illusions were only part of their trick. They twisted people’s emotions, pushing and pulling on them in directions that only led to one place.
“Why couldn’t we take it back? What’s stopping us?” The thought always itched in the back of everyone’s mind.
“We don’t know what it is.” Another said.
Paul always kept his mouth shut when he overheard these conversations. Hated when they tried to wrangle him into them. He’d shrug, agree with both, and be on his way back to his piece of solitude. Space was all he ever wanted because he wouldn’t have to let anyone ever know who he really was.
He gathered the few things he managed to scrounge over the years. Among them was a hammer he used to fight off other hungry scavengers. It was one of the few things he brought with him when he escaped his House. It was a wonder he brought anything at all with him. He gripped it tight in his hand, felt its weight against his palm, and slid it into the sleeve of his jacket. Knowing it was there if needed gave him a sense of security that he would need to push forward.
It was time.
He stood at the treeline, frozen for a moment. Did he really want to leave his life behind? Waking up early to find whatever morsel was left long ago by the dead? Staring into the water until his reflection shimmered away? Did he want to continue waking up to the ulcer that burrowed in his stomach? He had left his life before, he would do it again.
The brush near the edge of the treeline was thick from years of people not making the journey. Grass so high it bent over like the matted greasy mess of a teenager’s head. Beyond the grass, he could see Anna standing there beckoning him to walk toward, to make his way back home.
Sweat beaded on his brow, slid down the side of his face, but he would not stop. It flashed through his mind again, an image that seared into his consciousness. His wife snuggled on the couch watching some ‘B’ horror flick. The screen glowed brightly, but no picture formed. Just the flickering ebb of images that may or may not be there, lost to the corrosive nature of time. Yet, here it was, cast out like a lure for Paul to be dragged further into the suburbs. Every inch settled painfully in his joints, and waves of fear swelled within him until a certain kind of peace washed over.
A calmness claimed him. There was no reason to worry any longer. It felt almost like an anesthetic, or a paralytic meant to stop a creature from causing too much trouble before it was digested. No need to be alarmed there is a certain kind of safety in the suburbs. Wasn’t that the most terrifying feeling?
Clk. His boot hit something hard and flat, no longer the soft dirt he had walked on for the past seven years. He pushed the grass out of the way revealing the remnants of a sidewalk at the edge of a cul-de-sac. It was slanted by the force of nearby tree roots, but there it was, something familiar. Trees were scattered throughout those structures he had feared all this time. They looked harmless enough from this distance.
No one would have guessed humanity’s end would lie in the shelters they built. All his life, Paul never wondered if a House was alive. He feared ghosts, demons, and other of the usual suspects, but the Houses waking up to hunt people was never a fear. Paul felt like he was trapped in some bad student film. His downfall was letting his guard down which was what the neighborhood wanted. Those structures might have some food or other resources necessary for survival. What could the harm be?
He looked for a street sign, any marker that might let him know where exactly he was. None of the Houses looked like ones from his neighborhood. It was odd to see the perfectly manicured lawns, undisturbed sidings, and perfect roofs. It was like nature had not touched them, as if there was an understanding, an agreement that the Houses had their land and the rest of nature would live off their table scraps.
The sun beat down on Paul’s head and the heat rising from the pavement made him dizzy. He made his way out of the cul-de-sac and out onto the highway. Cars littered the roads. People that tried to escape to safety were unaware that their four-door sedan wouldn’t make it through the muddy off-road areas that could provide them their protection.
He wasn’t far from his House. The grocery store he frequented was right across the highway which meant there were only a few more miles until his return. The front of the grocery store had broken glass and the light that poured in exposed its empty husk. Nostalgia filled him and he closed his eyes as he continued.
There it stood. The two-story home that had been his little piece of suburban bliss appeared untouched. None of the Houses looked condemned. Paul stood at the end of the block, his nerves on fire. He took a step toward it.
The crank and whir of a lawnmower’s engine caught Paul’s attention. Kneeling down, as if inspecting the misfire, Paul’s old neighbor Alex stood up. “Paul, oh my god, Paul!” Alex began to run over to him before Paul raised his hammer. “Jesus, Paul! What the fuck? We haven’t seen you for months and you--”
“Shut up.” Paul slid his hammer out his sleeve. “You’re not real. You’re just that thing’s projection.”
“Projection? Listen, Paul, I think you’re a little confused. Why don’t you just come inside? I’ll call Anna. She’ll bring Ell--”
“Don’t!” Paul’s anger flared. “You leave their names out of your mouth.”
“Buddy, you really need to calm down.” Alex stands back. “Think about your kid, your wife. They’ve been wondering where you’ve been.”
“You’re right.” Paul lowered his hammer. “Are they okay?”
“They’re fine save for the fact that they’ve been without you for so long.” Alex inched closer.
“Oh god, what did I do?” Paul wiped his eyes, whimpering “How could I leave them?”.
Alex puts his hand on Paul’s shoulder, “We’ll get you help.”
The two-pronged side of the hammer dug deep into Alex’s skull. He stumbled back. His eyes fluttered and his lips trembled.
“I never liked you, Alex.” Paul pulled out the hammer from his neighbor’s head. “You always mowed your goddamn lawn too early, but you didn’t deserve whatever these Houses made of you.”
Paul walked across the yard, stood outside his home. This place was hell in his mind. Much of the House looked alien despite its plainness. Anna lurked inside, waiting for him, had been ever since the night the House woke up. Something inside him told him that it had been reaching out to him, stirring emotions and projecting images into his mind. It needed him in a way, to nourish itself, to complete its meal.
He stared at the door, wondering if this was truly what he wanted. Not yet. He could not remember how he escaped that night. He swore he was a coward for running and never looking back. He was sure he had made an effort to save his wife from the monster he had moved them all into.
The few steps toward the House felt wrong, like walking with boots filled with blood. Death lingered in the air. So many had died in these very homes, either in their sleep or fighting to breakout. There was a sense of ungratefulness in his decision to return. So many before him couldn’t beat it and yet here he stood. He dropped his pack and carried just the hammer as he pushed through the front door.
Paul first noticed the smell of the home. Those damned air fresheners he hated replacing, but Anna had insisted on them. It wasn’t too big a task, but he remembered bickering with her about them from time to time. Anna’s face sprang to mind immediately, the soft features he always loved waking up to first thing in the morning and the soft kisses that she slapped away for another minute of sleep.
He had often wondered if the House would swallow him whole the way it did his wife. Hammer in hand gave him comfort, but there was only dead space before him. The air felt stale despite the citrus scent that coated the edges of its musty atmosphere. To Paul’s left, an entertainment center sat complete with a big flat-screen television, but there was something off. The space under the bay windows had flowers that were perky and alive.
Photo frames surrounding the television had pictures of Paul and Anna together. Photos that brought memories to the surface, pleasant and warm. As Paul continued to examine the photos, he noticed there were photos with a little girl in them. A child? Ellie. His thoughts twisted and rushed back. He had a daughter, one he tried so desperately to forget. There were even photos that were just his wife and his forgotten daughter.
Birthdays that he never witnessed. Ellie turning thirteen, Ellie getting her driver’s license, Ellie graduating high school. Anna was always with her during those big milestones, smiling wide. They had done so much together. So many monumental events in Ellie’s life that he had missed. No, that couldn’t be possible. Ellie died, right? Everyone did on the night the Houses woke.
He picked up those impossible photos and stared hard at them. They made no sense. It was just the House’s way of confusing Paul. Serving him hope to get him to stay. There’s no hope. There’s no family.
The kitchen seemed different and when he saw the fridge he felt a pang of hunger that he had ignored for years. Part of him wanted to open the fridge, reach in for whatever leftovers were inside. Pernil topped with encurtido and a side of rice. His mouth watered just thinking about that salty pork soaking in lime juices. Suddenly, the aroma of that savory meal filled the whole House as if it was cooking slowly in the oven. The food that centered every joyous memory. Whatever guard was within Paul softened as he remembered.
Family that came over to celebrate he and Anna’s engagement party, their baby shower, and Ellie’s first birthday. It was all spiraling. Moments creating more moments. The first time Anna and he moved in together, the first meal they cooked, the first time they had sex on the floor while their couch was stuck in shipping after a snowstorm. Nausea hit him like a freight train.
The pictures wouldn’t slow down. Everywhere he looked was another reason to stay. All these little strings that tethered him to the home. He couldn’t bear to leave it again. The dread spilled out of him. He collapsed onto the floor.
“Paul.” A voice spoke from the hall that led to the bedrooms.
Paul looked up, his eyes wide, his breath short. It was Anna. Her hair was different and worry lines littered her forehead, but her eyes still had that amber ring underneath the blue. She looked scared, but a fear that came with realization more than it did terror.
“Ann. I don’t--” Paul’s thoughts were heavy and twisted. “No. This isn’t real. It isn’t possible.”
“Where have you been?” Anna kept her distance.
He didn’t realize it until he saw her caution. The sweat that stained his shirt, the mud that caked along the soles of his shoes, and how much his hair had grown.
“I don’t know. I can’t remember.” Paul kept his eyes on his wife. He noticed the wedding ring still on her finger. “That’s just a lie.”
“What’s a lie?” Anna said phone clutched in her palm. “Paul, honey, you walked out the front door with no note. No nothing. Ellie and I didn’t know what to do. How could you do that to your daughter?”
“I didn’t do anything to our daughter.” Anger filled Paul. “It was this house. It was this place. I saw Ellie. She was gone, wasn’t she?”
“She wasn’t gone, Paul. You were.” Anna stepped closer, finger hovering over the green call button. “We searched the woods, put up posters, but you were just gone.”
“This fucking house. It’s trying to get in my head. This is what it does.” Paul said to himself. It was all an illusion just like Alex outside, just like the manicured lawns, just like everything in this House. The Stepford quality of it all gave it away. Reality was out there in the woods waiting for Paul to get back to surviving. No matter how hard the Houses tried they couldn’t bring it all back even to trap more food.
Paul raised his hammer, “Back the fuck up.”
“Paul you’re scaring me. Please, honey, let’s talk about this.” She hit the green button.
“Who are you calling?” Paul grabbed the phone from Anna’s hand. He held it in his hand. What the fuck. The phone felt real enough. He watched as it dialed the police. “You really think I’m gonna fall for this? Fall for these fucking illusions. What am I even holding, huh? A fucking rock?”
He stepped toward the hall that led back to his daughter’s room and to the room he shared with his wife. The image bloomed wife’s skull half-disgested bloomed into his mind. Wasn’t even worthy of taking her whole. Her eyes were just pits of black and her jaw bone slanted on the ground. How badly he had tried to wake her, to save her before he realized there was nothing he could do? By the time he woke, she was already gone.
The jolt made him jump from the bed and rush to his daughter’s room. The hesitation froze him in place as he pressed his hand against his daughter’s door. The pause he took to forbid himself from swinging that door open, fearing that his daughter would also have that corpse-like quality, skull protruding from where the House fed on her. His little girl devoured by this building that they all shared sweet memories within. He hoped she hadn’t suffered, but he would not witness the House taking the very last thing he loved away.
Coward. The word bloomed in his head again. He always thought himself a coward for not getting that confirmation of his daughter’s death and after all that time he pushed her memory away completely. He just snuck out in the middle of the night.
No, he would no longer be a coward. He would do just what was necessary. He would take care of business. He was going to get what he always wanted. Confirmation. The hammer in his hand would smash through that goddamn door and he would see whatever was left of his daughter’s body in her bed. Wood would splinter against his might and after he knew that had made the right decision all those years ago he would leave. Skulk out to those woods and get on with his bullshit surviving. Scraping by whatever little food he could find and let the weather do whatever it wanted to him as he slept completely unprotected from the elements.
When Paul looked back up, the hammer had cracked his wife’s skull. Blood poured out over her eye and cheek outlining the place where the house had begun its meal. Was it toying with him? Was it weak? Why hadn’t it just started to feed on Paul? It made no sense to him.
The blood wouldn’t stop and her body wouldn’t disappear the same way that it had appeared. He tried to pull the hammer out, but it wouldn’t budge.
But this isn’t real.
Siren lights spun outside, but that wasn’t possible. No, it couldn’t have been possible. He ran to the rooms in the back. Ellie’s door still held the heart on it with her name at its center. As much as he wanted to muster up the courage to get through that door, to fucking open it and be done with the anchor that dragged him back here, he couldn’t bear it. That room was radioactive to him. He stared at the crack of his room, the one he shared with his wife.
The slit of light that punctured the dark revealed to him what he had feared all along. His daughter was nestled by her mother’s corpse. Little bones cuddled up against her dead mother.
Goddamn it. Goddamn it. Goddamn me. Goddamn me.
He dry-heaved in the hall, tortured by the image. It tightened like barbed wire wrapped around his stomach. She woke. Found her mother like that and stayed. His little girl had been much braver than he ever was. He wondered why she hadn’t searched for him, but he knew exactly why. She wouldn’t leave her mother like that. She stayed not only out of fear, but out of duty. A duty that Paul had abandoned.
Fucking coward. He looked down and noticed the hammer in his hand. Would he finally do it? The final act that he had put off all those years. Had he simply come home to put an end to it all? Somewhere in his mind, he felt that might be the case, but as he laid eyes on his daughter and wife’s final resting place he felt unworthy of the walls that had consumed his family. He stood up, his back to his reasons for living, and made his way to the family room.
Lights spun outside and the sirens blared. The end was here. He felt it in his bones. With a tightened grip, Paul pulled open the door to walk out on his family one final time.
Frozen by some invisible force. It wouldn’t let him free himself. Worn paint, molded ceilings, and broken windows swallowed up the details of the perfect home. He turned to see himself laid out on the ground, his arms and legs torn apart by two shadows. He saw himself whispering something over and over.
“I deserve worse.”
And then there was only quiet and stillness again.