Amelie Prusik was born in New Orleans and now lives in Chicago where she writes and edits fiction and teaches writing at DePaul University. She is a graduate of Princeton University (summa cum laude), Warren Wilson’s MFA Program for Writers and the author of the novel Light Sister, Dark Sister (Random House). Previous short stories and poems have appeared online in Lantern Journal and in The North American Review, America West, bosque, and Antaeus. She is at work on a new novel, Octavia Street, and a collection of short stories.
The moment Louise sees the Dutch Colonial she knows it will give her trouble. The brass number 29 on the front of the building looks askew and the left shutter hangs cockeye, giving the house a skeptical look, one Louise returns as she punches in the code and elbows the front door open. She works for a company called Spotless that cleans houses repossessed by banks—houses seized from their owners under stressful circumstances. Louise’s crew removes whatever furniture or garbage is left behind and sanitizes the house completely so it can be resold. They mop floors, wash walls, banish smells.
True, she suffers fits of conscience about rooting people from their homes and turning them out onto the street, but because she needs the job she hides her dread. A condition of her freedom from the psych facility is a steady job. For now, she lives in a halfway house, but soon that won’t be the case. The new medication helps and she attends Refocus, her Wednesday night group at Neuropsych. If she doesn’t mess up, maybe her sister Alice will take her back. It isn’t unreasonable to think this could happen as long as she follows her treatment plan.
Two months ago she cleaned a ranch house on this street. Her brain pings: 33 Detamble Street, square footage 2,230. Now comes the mental snapshot of the ranch house: three bedrooms, faded orange shag carpeting. Since the hospital, she mistrusts her weird eidetic memory and tries to shrink her powers down. Way down. Hers is not technically a photographic memory but something more particular. The exactitude of her memory is tied to dwellings, to empty houses and, in some cases, to specific empty bedrooms in those houses.
Nick and Ray climb out of the truck and pull the yard equipment down. The guys do the heavy work—hauling garbage and abandoned furniture and mowing the lawn—while Louise and Ivy clean the inside of the house. The women’s work is both creepier and more personal than the mens’. Turns out, when the bank kicks you out of your house you aren’t all that worried about spoiled milk and spinach swimming in black liquor in the crisper bin. There remain images Louise can’t forget, like the child’s bloody ballet slipper jammed in a mailbox with a note attached: Remember your humanity, bitch.
In the foyer, a moment. There is no stench of rotting food or abandoned pets. The week before, she found a starved peacock in the master bedroom of a house in Bannockburn, the poor creature’s neck twisted and mangy. Like so much of what she comes across at work, the peacock has a story that seems to have no point. She wants to formulate a philosophy of loss, but finds no heart for the project, only a burning grievance specific to her own case.
“Detamble Street.” Ivy sets down the mop and pail. “Didn’t we do a suicide on this street?”
“That was Detweiler,” Louise corrects. Goddamn memory. She’s nothing but a freak with a penchant for interiors. “Six forty-five Detweiler. The woman with the Christian Louboutin shoes?”
They both remember. Ivy wanted the shoes off the dead woman’s feet but Louise stopped her. The shoes were evidence of a crime and off-limits.
“That job so should have been overtime,” Ivy says. “We’re not a forensics shop.”
Louise agrees, but no way is she going to complain to Sherman. In a few weeks she’ll have her year at Spotless, a record of perfect attendance, no write-ups on her file. She’ll be eligible for a raise. With a year under her belt and Dr. Rebori’s blessing, her life will be redeemed. Ping! Alice will have to take her back. She is not even the same person. Of course, Alice will need to be persuaded. She’s a mother now, after all. There are safety issues, Louise.
Ray shoulders past with his clipboard and important boots. “How’s it looking ladies?” He breezes through the main rooms before they have a chance to reply and concludes there’s nothing on the promises they can’t handle themselves. The guys head for the yard.
“Don’t forget the attic,” he reminds Louise.
Ivy shoots Louise her look. Men. At every job it’s the same rush to duck the human stuff and do the landscape. Rake, mow, haul—anything to avoid the emptiness of a voided house. Louise goes into the kitchen and opens the refrigerator. The glass shelves look pristine, empty except for a carton of chocolate milk and a breakfast sandwich wrapped primly in yellow paper. Ivy wipes down the cabinet shelves, commenting how clean the house is, as if somebody plans to return. Louise already knows she is right. Ping! Her thumbs twitch. Somebody else is here hiding in the house with them. Not a ghost. They hurry to finish the kitchen so they can go upstairs and check out the closets in case there are any clothes worth dibsing, a winter coat or some sweaters. On the stairs, Ivy calls, “My turn first. In case there’s anything in my size.”
“Nothing’s your size,” Louise says. “Maybe a pea coat. To fit a pea.”
Ivy laughs. She wears a size so small it should be embarrassed to exist. Louise knows how much Ivy likes to think of herself as tiny, nearly a doll. The upstairs of the house has four bedrooms, four pastel squares: peach, lavender, mint, blue. Before they tackle the closets Louise spots a small stereo on a shelf.
“I saw it first.” Ivy says.
Louise ignores her lie and takes a rag and wipes the stereo down, coils the cord, and puts it, along with the two speakers, in a small open box. Ivy grumbles about having a prior claim but they both know she’s wrong. The rules say the spoils belong to whoever lays claim first. The stereo will be perfect for the room in Alice’s bungalow that Louise will return to, the third floor guest room with the slanted roof. Four small windows, two hundred and sixty-five square feet of living space, not counting the bathroom and closet.
“You have to call dibs,” Louise reminds.
“Dib yourself,” Ivy says.
The half-joking, half-fighting could go either way. Louise sees a flash of tears in Ivy’s eyes and recalculates. She has a hard time telling whether she really wants the stereo or whether she just wants to keep Ivy from having it.
“That’s bad karma,” Ivy says, as if she’s read Louise’s mind.
“Since when do you care about karma?”
Ivy’s plan for herself is to move to California and become a life coach. Louise pictures Ivy on the sidelines of a playing field, an expanse of green with white markers along the way, wearing a silver whistle around her neck. Shoot! Score! Ivy runs down the field calling to her players while the clock on the scoreboard advances. Time! Time will run out before anybody is ever perfect. Louise recants.
“Ivy, take the stereo.”
“Please. I know you really want it and there’s probably an extra one in my sister’s garage.”
“You’re moving in with your sister, then?”
“Pretty soon. Next month maybe. The room is being painted,” Louise lies.
The clothes they find are a disappointment, a faux fur jacket in a fizzy orange shade, a handful of mismatched socks. A tank top. Why people leave the things they do used to intrigue Louise, but now she tries not to think about the people they clean up after. Dr. Rebori says all jobs come with moral hazard but Louise wonders where the greater danger in her job lies, with caring or with not caring? Nine months ago when Louise was discharged from Neuropsych, Dr. Rebori advised her to stay away from three things: computers, drugs, and the obits. Browsing the obituaries was what led her to Cassie Foulk’s house. Six years old, drowned in a Wisconsin lake, a girl whose empty bedroom cried for someone to sleep, one last time, in her bed. Louise can’t remember when she started finding these rooms, pastel shrines with glitter and plastic vanities, untouched by parents who couldn’t bear to dismantle them. Eighty-three days post mortem was optimal. The houses were seldom even locked.
Discovered sleeping in Cassie Foulk’s bed. If the crew knew about her crime she would be laughed out of the truck. All she was trying to do (she explained to the young psychiatrist on call) was return to herself. The person she was before the world became unsteady. What was the crime in that? Cassie Foulk had been a nail biter and thumb sucker. Louise kept the small bottle of bitter apple drops Cassie’s mother painted on her fingers before bed. The small vials of our vices—she’d taken the time to nab the bottle while the police were summoned. The delay got her arrested; otherwise, she might still be on the loose, sleeping in dead girls’ beds.Ivy mistook Louise’s private smile for generosity.
They vacuum the bedrooms, kicking up dust bunnies. Louise mops the hall and squirts Windex on the windows and uses the squeegee to clean the glass. Ivy switches off the vacuum and takes her stereo down to the truck where she’ll probably smoke a joint with Nicky. Alone, Louise can feel her own hazard like a cool hand on her neck. No sign of the ghost. The last room, the smallest, feels warm with morning sunshine. Pebbles of light dance on the walls. The windows are covered with white matchstick blinds, edged with pink ribbon, a custom choice someone took the time to select. The room reminds her of the bedroom Alice slept in when they were girls, down the hall from their parents. Alice’s room was the smallest in the house, but Louise was envious of it because Alice was content there, happier at seven, in her snug bedroom, than Louise would ever be. Alice always had a knack for happiness. She liked to go to her room and sit in a small wooden rocker and play these stupid records on her record player, over and over. Apples, apples, apples… are fun to munch! Songs for kindergarten kids. While down the hall Louise’s life had already started up the slow rise of a difficult hill.
Done cleaning, she lets down the blinds. Who knows how long it will be before another family comes to live here? She gathers the mop and pail and gets ready to head downstairs when she hears a thump. Directly overhead, a few quick footsteps. Then silence. She waits, listening. Nothing. A minute goes by, then another, and Louise begins to wonder if she imagined the footsteps. Another minute slips by and then she hears a girl’s voice overhead speaking in a British accent.
“Is Michael Lockett there?”
It’s dark when the number 22 bus lets Louise off. She shifts her backpack to the other shoulder; inside is a collection of matchbook cars left behind under a bed in one of the houses. The façade of Alice’s bungalow appears dark but not unforgiving. The kitchen is in back, down the uneven alley with its moist litter of leaves, the red and gold handprints of young maples. Something in the rustle of the leaves makes her crave a cigarette; she’s already smoked three today and has learned to save the fourth for after dinner and the fifth cigarette for right before bed. In this way she survives the halfway house, measuring her time there in dry pulls of smoke to calm the panic in her veins, her fear that she will be left behind.
What Louise did to land her in Neuropsych could have been so much worse; so much that she often fails to see her behavior from the other side. Illegal trespass. With pleasure, she recalls the sight of Cassie Foulk’s knobby pine bed and, in the closet, the child’s patent leather shoes whose soles were smeared with blackberry mash. Whose white tights stuffed under the pillow were torn and stained. Cassie was a tree climber, a lover of books with broken spines. Never love a wild thing. Louise glides down her sister’s alley and unlatches the gate. She knows why she is here but not whether she will muster the courage to complete her errand. And there is the light to consider, the natural blue dimming in the far sky and the ceiling globe in the kitchen that comes suddenly on, shivery and mysterious as a moon.
Other peoples’ houses. Louise loves going past them in the dark, warmed by the fierce bright squares of windows, by the sight of shelves filled with strangers’ books. Beneath the large double window of Alice’s kitchen she stops, too close in, to see much from this angle. She edges back into the shrubbery, guided by the fatal charm of her sister’s house. There: a reclaimed pine kitchen table, three chairs, and the baby’s high chair bob into view. The microwave beeps remotely and Alice appears, pops open the door and fetches a covered glass dish. She sets the dish down on the table and retreats to call her husband Ted to supper. Louise edges closer into the golden rectangle of the room’s light. There, on the table, sits a yellow plastic dinosaur, a T-Rex in a half-crouch standing with an open serrated grin and two tiny withered arms.
“Louise, is that you?”
Alice’s face behind the window looks smushed and her voice sounds distorted, like a phrase blurted underwater. When Louise steps away from the window (to run? to give her sister a better look?) the backpack on her shoulders shifts, parting the zipper enough for the matchbox cars to rain onto the ground.
Dinner is chicken and mashed potatoes. Alice, forced to invite her, sits testily folding and refolding her napkin. Her knuckles are bitten.
“I didn’t mean to frighten anybody,” Louise says.
Ted tries to soothe the mood by bringing in stories from work. The baby, fresh from his bath, bangs on the metal tray of his high chair, his little feet pumping the air like a miniature pugilist’s fists. The three of them drop the subject of Louise and what she was doing there, why she came uninvited to stare at them from their own backyard.
After dinner, Alice puts the baby to bed. Unlike many children, he sinks into sleep without a whimper. In the hallway, Alice and Ted argue in whispers, presumably about her: make espresso and drag the evening out, or offer her a ride home and end things? Louise waits under the pale bobbing moon fixture, rolling one of the matchbook cars back and forth under her palm. The baby had been delighted with them, his cheeks plummy. At dinner, he was the only one at the table who doesn’t treat her like an unwanted guest. Ted peels off from the whispered discussion in the hallway and goes into the study to turn on the television. Alice fiddles with the espresso machine, but her heart isn’t in it and the coffee spurts out gritty. Louise spots the yellow dinosaur on the floor under the highchair and bends to retrieve it. She palms the toy for comfort.
“There’s something I want you to do.” Louise sets the plastic dinosaur on the table, realizing as she does that she still doesn’t know the baby’s name. When he was born eleven months ago she was in Neuropsych and Alice wasn’t speaking to her and somehow in the confusion of that time she’d never learned what to call him.
“Can I come back here to live? With you and Ted and the baby? In three more weeks I’ll have a year on the job at Spotless. Dr. Rebori will send a letter. I’m really okay now.”
Alice turns to stare at Louise. She’s wearing a French linen apron over her clothes and, before she speaks, she reaches around and unties the apron and takes it off and hangs it on a nail on the door. The whole time, her eyes don’t leave Louise’s face. Louise has never noticed the slight unevenness in color between Alice’s eyes. The left, sure enough, is slightly bluer. It wasn’t that way when they were children.
“After what you’ve done?” Alice asks. “You think we could actually say yes to that?”
Louise doesn’t know what, exactly, Alice is referring to. She’s done so many things not to her sister’s liking that she can’t seize on a single action for scrutiny or discussion. Sleeping in Cassie Foulk’s bed. Or the time spent in Neuropsych. The halfway house. Maybe they embarrass her. Or else some betrayal farther back. There was the time Alice broke up with her boyfriend Chuckie and he right away called up Louise, sitting in her bedroom down the hall, and asked her out and Louise said yes. Not only had she said yes and gone out with Chuckie, she’d done a lot more with him than Alice ever did. He might have gotten her pregnant, had they kept on. Louise had only gone out with him four times, and by then Alice had gone on to some other boy, but still.
“It’s Chuckie. The reason you hate me, isn’t it?” Louise asks.
Alice blinks. “What are you talking about?”
“Chuckie Steeves, remember? With the chipped tooth? I remember him like yesterday.”
“Of course you do. You would. Breeze past the whole mental illness thing and focus on some asshole kid from seventh grade. Typical.”
“Ninth grade,” Louise corrects.
“Whatever. Louise, seriously?”
“And I’m not mentally ill,” Louise says. “Anymore.”
Alice snorts, blowing a fine wisp of hair from her eyes. Louise gets up to help do the dishes and Alice lets her rinse and stack, but not load the dishwasher. Of course Louise isn’t fit to load a fancy European dishwasher and Alice is only indulging her desire to help. As if she’s actually afraid of Louise and has to humor her. This humoring is worse than anything Louise imagined might happen. Alice wipes the counters while Louise stacks the dishes and soaks the silverware. Part of that kindergarten song begins to play in her head, the one Alice loved to play over and over, Apples, apples, apples!
“If it’s okay, Ted can drive me home now.” Louise fiddles with the backpack slung over the back of her chair. Alice crosses her arms dramatically and leans back against the counter.
“Ted and I are divorcing. I thought you should know.”
“But why? What happened?”
“It doesn’t matter.”
“Still, I’d like to know. You two are my family. And the poor baby.”
“Maybe it’s just being new parents. Tiredness and all. Ted is so nice, so accomplished.”
“Ted was caught in the men’s room at some restaurant in Burr Ridge with a man’s penis in his mouth. I thought something had happened to him and sent the manager in to see if he was okay.” Alice’s tone is aggrieved, and. Louise opens her mouth to offer sympathy, but can’t seem to catch any of the whizzing and sparking sounds in her head.
“So, there,” Alice says, “is one accomplishment.”
A wild relief comes over Louise. For once, she’s not at fault. She calculates that in three and a half weeks she will be eligible for a dollar-an-hour raise. Alice wipes the counters again and fills the water pitcher and sets it in the refrigerator. The room smells gassy and sad. When she returns to this house, Ted will be gone. She’ll sit at the table with Alice and the baby— Alice will probably begin dating again and Louise will offer to sit with the baby and the two of them will sit in Ted’s old study playing with the matchbox cars, running them on the faded Tabriz. She will be more than welcome in this house because her services will be needed. She realizes she doesn’t know the baby’s name.
“What about your son?”
“Caleb? He’ll be fine. It doesn’t run in families.”
Louise stands and gathers her knapsack. Somehow the yellow plastic T-Rex has ended up inside, tangled in her things. Her sweater and books. She repeats the name to herself, Caleb. The baby’s name is Caleb. The world is not peopled with individuals for nothing.
Two days later Louise takes the train and two buses back to 29 Detamble Street. She runs her mind over the list of houses from Sherman’s roster she knows will be empty for some time. She’s memorized the address and square footage of each house: 19 Crescent Drive, bungalow (2,100) or 470 Willoughby, stucco colonial (3,500) or 1641 Raynor, white frame (1,580) that nobody is likely to set foot in until the financial crisis blows over and people start buying houses again. The mood of the country is weak-willed and angry. The crews at Spotless work overtime.
It’s nearly dark by the time Louise reaches the front door. The sky is stained rust and clouds unsettle themselves overhead. The shade on the attic window is drawn tight but Louise sees a knife-edge of light visible at the bottom edge. A hallucination? No, a light is on in the attic. All morning the voice in her head grew stronger and more richly detailed. She must still be there. The rest of the crew that day took her word for it that the attic was empty and signed off on the job. Louise knows she’ll find the girl inside.
Since breaking the primary rule at Spotless, she’s begun to feel both more and less like her old self. The coded lock on the front door releases with a sigh. So much has shifted since that day, her night at Alice’s, that she can’t be certain what she will do. For now, the stairs up to the attic are made of old, good-smelling pine. The rungs feel splintery and rough. The house was built in 1959, when honest materials were still used. She wonders what the years will bring, higher, higher, on and on. Will Ted be at Caleb’s college graduation? Will he keep an apartment in the city, after moving into his partner’s house? She has no business nosing about in speculations like this; they are what got her into trouble in the first place. What it feels like to be another person, sleep in another girl’s bed. How a man’s cheek stubble feels, a man you have never seen before. The way the light at the top of the stairs diminishes a moment before brightening. Her eyes adjust to the dim, high-ceilinged space, the wide planks gleaming with foil insulation. There is a simple door, unpainted. Open.
Four bars of digital sound, distinct in the silence, stop Louise in her tracks. The same English voice from the other day answers.
“Michael, listen. Don’t call me here.”
“No. Never call. Never ever.”
The woman glares at Louise and snaps her phone shut. She is tall and has curly hair that trails off, being curly at the ends.
“Who the fuck are you? Are you from the bank?”
“God no. I’m a trasher.”
“I recognize you. The other day you were snooping around here with your cohorts. Must feel bloody righteous, trampling peoples’ lives to shit.”
“I’m sorry,” Louise says, “You can’t stay here.”
The girl’s anger dissipates in a puff. She’s used to being kicked out of places. Louise walks to the window, raises the shade, and looks out. The house next door has enough firewood stockpiled to last the winter. A neighbor clinks by on the sidewalk with two dogs on leashes. They are shelter dogs, mismatched and happy-looking, a black curly mutt and a rangy boxer mix.
“The others will be back,” Louise explains. “They’ll figure it out.”
Her name is Phoebe Lockett. She’s nineteen, over from London to work as a nanny and goes to art school. The Bargers, the family who lived here, are long gone, two architects, kids—in a flash the place was empty and she’s left here, no family no job. She opens the dormer window to let air in. A mattress in the corner has been made up with a white chenille spread and beside it, two speckled yellow suitcases have been stacked to make a nightstand. Phoebe lights a cigarette and hands Louise one.
“Tell me where I should go,” Phoebe says. “You look like a woman who might provide a bit of advice.”
The most enjoyable time to smoke is fall. The crunch of leaves underfoot and trace of cold in the air condition the mind for winter. Phoebe sits on the bed with the elegance of a downed crane, rearranging her long limbs, resettling.
“Be a sport,” she says after a time. “Let me stay.”
If it were up to Louise, she would. Unfortunately, others are in charge. She notices a postcard tacked up above Phoebe’s nightstand, tinted in delicate colors, of cars flying up over a highway tollgate without stopping to pay. Blue and green and yellow cars, going free. Phoebe suddenly scoots up off the bed and inches out onto the ridgeline of the dormer, balancing herself by pinching her knees against the slant roof. Watching Phoebe on the roof gives Louise instant vertigo; the rafters spin into the floor, the mattress flies up the wall.
“Please,” Louise calls, “Come down from there. You’ll fall.”
“Certain providence in that.” Phoebe inches out to the edge of the dormer, airplaning her long arms and making a propjet noise with her lips, deliberately mocking. Louise lies back on the bed, trying to steady her vision and thinking of the summer she and Alice spent convalescing in Louise’s bedroom. They both had mumps then and weren’t supposed to move or read. But Louise got bored and snuck in books and together they read the same ones over and over again, listening to the drone of the ceiling fan in the stale air. It was the last summer things ever felt right. After they both recovered and school started, Louise’s life began to crumble, to curl and burn, the edge of a map held to a flame.
Phoebe scoots back in off the roof, through the open dormer. Her face is glazed with happiness.
“We all need a slice of the sky now and then,” she says, “don’t we, Louise?”
Louise explains what has to happen now. Phoebe must gather her things together and leave so that Louise can call Ray and Nick to come help trash out the rest of the attic.
“Can’t you leave me here?”
“I have an oil heater.”
“They’ll cut the electric.”
“No they won’t. They have to have service to show the house.”
Clearly, Phoebe is not new to this life. Squatting in empty houses, telling lies, scaling roofs—she’s resourceful, tough. Yet, there are things about the girl’s story that don’t add up. The Bargers, art school, London. Her accent is posh; somewhere behind Phoebe is a family that would like to have her back. It does no good, trying to understand people. Louise goes to the child’s bureau in the corner and starts pulling out clothes, stuffing them into a paper bag.
“I’m going, okay? I don’t want you to lose your job.”
Louise’s back has been stiff all day. Packing Phoebe’s things, clothes and shoes and toiletries in four paper bags, the muscles in Louise’s shoulders loosen. A spot in the middle of her back begins to warm, as if a seed were germinating beneath the skin. She reaches around and feels under her shirt and in the center finds a kind of ridge, a bump that might be the start of something growing. The skin shivers there. At first she takes it for a mole or a bug bite but no, the spot is definitely warmer than the rest of her. It feels old, primitive, fecund. Maybe she is beginning to grow a tiny withered arm there, a scrabby claw like the ones on Caleb’s dinosaur, a T-Rex arm for foraging. Louise empties some more of Phoebe’s things into a bag. Her vertigo quiets. Phoebe packs, underwear and toothbrush and soap, while Louise goes to the open window and looks out. She leans forward to position both hands correctly on the ridge and crawls forward, pulling herself, hand over hand, until she’s straddling the roof. Inching forward. She’s sweating a little but not shaking. Not diving or spinning or falling.
“See,” Phoebe says, behind her, “A different sky.”
From the roof, the world looks bigger. Since leaving the hospital, Louise has been careful not to make mistakes. But in the process, she’s forgotten how to rise, how to fly over the turnstile gates. Every day after work, she walks to the halfway house looking down at the pavement, in case somebody recognizes her and calls Hey Louise, long time no see!
In Louise’s shirt pocket is a card with the addresses of fourteen houses, empty houses that the crew has recently cleaned. None will be sold quickly; all have floored attics. Her mind runs down the list. Ping. The olive green house with a chimney made of river stones, the square gray stucco that smells faintly of dog, the white clapboard with piano windows and a view of Lake Michigan. Under her hands the asphalt shingles, a deep cinnamon color, feel gritty with the day’s heat.
Phoebe waits for Louise to creep back inside the room. Louise pulls the window shut and hands Phoebe the card in her pocket.
“Your phone number, is it?” Phoebe asks.
Louise explains the list of houses on the card, memorized from her past four months of working at Spotless. They are all safe houses. In a day or two Louise will mention to Sherman that there must be a squatter at 29 Detamble Street—some guy who broke a basement window and let himself in. Louise will break the window herself. She’ll listen with pleasure for the sound of falling glass, the sign of the house able to breathe again.
They carry the four bags with Phoebe’s things downstairs and Louise straightens the welcome mat with a swipe of her toe. She pauses to give Phoebe directions. The first house on the list is the closest, but she advises Phoebe to head for the olive green house because it’s further away, on a dead-end street, and less likely to draw attention.
“How will I contact you?” Phoebe asks.
“You won’t. Never ever call me.”
Phoebe grips the four shopping bags by the handles and starts up the street. Her lax curls bounce against her leather jacket, a stream of insouciant tendrils. How would it be to have such careless hair? Louise shuts the door and punches in the code to lock it. A stray sales flyer is stuck in the flap of the mailbox, which she removes, and stuffs in her pack, one last piece of trash to remove all trace of the Bargers, of Phoebe. How many of the other houses will Phoebe get to live in? Louise has memorized the list so when she’s out with the crew on a job she can drive by and imagine Phoebe in each one, and know exactly where she is. At night there will be lights on in scattered attics, but they will not be random because Louise has chosen them. Phoebe will go first to the olive green house, the one on Forest, the one Louise thinks of as the writer’s house, because the previous owner was a novelist. A slow and perfect picture forms of the house in early spring, the sky smudged, a London sky, with skunks out on the lawn, digging for grubs, leaving indelible claw marks in the new thatch.
The phone in Louise’s pocket buzzes. She almost doesn’t recognize the sound because she so rarely gets a call. Sherman calls her with assignment changes and complaints. Who left the water running at 414 Woodbine? Raccoons in the attic at 600 Upperline. The name Phoebe appears behind the cracked screen. Five rings, six, then quiet.
She waits for the phone to ring again, but it doesn’t. Phoebe leaves a message. Ping. When she listens to the message later, she’ll decide whether to answer. At work Sherman has been giving her suspicious looks, narrowing his eyes at her. Possibly he suspects she is the source of some trouble, without being able to put his finger on what, exactly, she has done. Then Alice calls to ask her to dinner. Louise would love to have dinner, wouldn’t she? It has never before seemed like an option to say no. Alice is a good cook. Plates with fresh greens and dabs of vegetable purée, medallions of tender meat. Four ounces of grass-fed beef, and for dessert, homemade baklava and drip coffee from hand-roasted beans. The distance between her sister’s life and her own is inelastic. Why has Louise never understood this before? Like one of those geometry problems where a point along an axis can get impossibly near, but never touch. Not even in infinity.
There are consolations. Sherman promotes her to unit manager. Her crew takes her out for margaritas.
When the day arrives to go to Alice’s for dinner, Louise wakes up early, before any of the other residents, and irons a shirt to wear that night. Down the block from Spotless there’s a bakery on the corner that sells glazed lemon knots, Alice’s favorite. Louise buys a dozen and takes the box to Alice’s and after a good dinner, after the dessert and the second cup of coffee, after everything they avoid saying to one another has been exhausted, she wanders out of the living room back into the kitchen. Untended, she slips the yellow plastic dinosaur from her purse back onto the table. It wasn’t missed—Caleb is too young for object permanence. Louise doesn’t need a rubber toy to remind her how far she’s come. Then Caleb starts to fuss, rubbing his eyes. Louise really should be going. So soon? Yes. Alice offers to drive her back to the halfway house, knowing Louise will say no, she’d rather walk to the bus stop and take the bus.
On the ride back to the halfway house Louise leans against the dark window, letting her body fall in with the rhythm of the bus, gently rocking on huge soft tires. The bus sighs when it comes to each stop. Empty and empty and emptier. Soon Louise is the only passenger. She checks her phone: seven missed calls from Phoebe.
Phoebe is still living in the attic of the olive green house, but in a month she will move to the yellow clapboard one, waking in the middle of the night to stare at the dark lake from the slice of safety Louise has given her. The months will advance, into winter, into spring, and each time Phoebe moves, Louise will be able to spot a light burning in the uppermost corner of a different house. Even if Alice never asks her to move back in with her, which is the most likely scenario, Louise will have this mental map of Phoebe’s movements, a flight pattern to navigate by.
Goodbye, Phoebe, whoever you are. At the corner of the block, where the halfway house is located, the driver stops. The rubber doors flap open. He turns around to look inquiringly at Louise. The warm spot in the middle of Louise’s back itches, as if a scab is forming there. She resists the urge to scratch.
“This your stop? Or you going someplace different tonight?”
Louise climbs down off the bus. It moves off, swaying down the dark street. The sky has an eerie metal sheen and she can smell the rubbery green of strange animals foraging nearby, a trick of mind her medication hasn’t entirely banished. She hears the trumpeting of kind, leaf-eating creatures. Her phone buzzes in her pocket.
“Louise?” The deep rasp of Phoebe’s voice is a challenge. “What if I don’t want to leave here? What if the place you sent me is perfect?”
The houses on the list in Phoebe’s pocket fade and resolve back into the two-dimensional photographs torn from the master book in Sherman’s office. He will never miss them. In spring, the lilac on the driveway side of the writer’s house will bloom and bees will ferry pollen across town over to the gray stucco three-bedroom with only half an attic. There, Phoebe will drag two hopeful lawn chairs into the yard.
The light winks on in Louise’s bedroom. She keeps her one lamp on a timer set to come on early so she never has to stumble into a dark room.
“Don’t overthink, Phoebe,” she tells her friend. “When the day comes to leave the house, just bloody go.”
Copyright © Amelie Prusik.