The memories in our house run deep, like a collage of my favorite moments caught in polaroids. I’ve realized that the word our is a difficult one to escape. Since I was 20, everything has been ours: our first kiss, it’d been a twist of tongues after a few drinks and with our heads swooning, but still ours; our first apartment, downtown and small, but still ours; our first pet, a cat with a mean streak that really was only loyal to me, but still ours; our first car, an old chevy that died while he delivered pizza in it, but still ours; and now our first home that sat on a rural dirt road with no visible neighbors and whose closest access to society was 30 minutes away, but it was ours and now it’s just mine.
The house had some quirks, but it was a first home and we made it ours. The quirks of the house seemed to stem from the apparent paranoia of the previous homeowner. The house had more windows facing the street than the backyard. We figured the man either loved watching people or just hated them, it was difficult to tell which. Floodlights adorned the four corners of the roof and lit that lot like a burning candle. The master bedroom gave a view of the driveway and two-story garage, instead of the rising sun over the mountains in the distance.
Through this oddity or despite this oddity, the place called our name. It was a small house where we could see ourselves having coffee in our eatin kitchen or taking a hand in hand walk around the 20 acres. There’s that word again, our, always creeping into my vocabulary like a mouse picking up dropped crumbs along the kitchen floor.
Brett was a quiet husband, a sensitive husband and a husband that checked all the boxes. He could cook, clean, he brought home red roses and chocolates on Valentine’s day, he remembered our anniversary and he even wrote me poetry. He checked all the boxes and did all the right things and that is what everyone saw. No one saw the steep highs and deep lows that were hidden behind our closed doors; no one saw the sullen mood he got when working through a bout of writer’s block; no one saw the persistence he exuded when he didn’t get his way, which inevitably led to me giving him what he wanted. On the surface he checked all the boxes and that’s what people saw.
The first night alone is a mess of echoes stemming from past experiences; tears fighting between relief, sadness and anxiety; and a din of voices in that silence. The bedroom window looks over a mudroom with a shed roof dropping shimmering necklaces of melting snow toward the driveway in the warm December night. The leafless ash trees wave their bare fingers in the breeze and a lowly bird that didn’t fly south for the winter is pecking at the disappearing snow to uncover a handful of seeds. I’ve left the floodlights on to illuminate all of this, but it’s all irrelevant because the best position of the bed was always between the two windows that look out over the driveway and I find myself peering out in an awkward lean against my nightstand.
Ch, chkk, ch. A tap from the baseboard heaters broke the silence. My heart races and I slip my feet a little further under the layers of blankets for warmth. The bedroom light is on in the form of an overhead fan and a reading lamp next to the bed, but the hall is dark and varying shades of black seem to play in that darkness. Ch, chkkk, ch. I know it’s the baseboard heat kicking on, but it gets me every time. Still, why not take a quick look downstairs and make sure those doors are locked. My eyes widened, we never locked the door, there was no way I remembered to do that tonight.
I pulled my feet out from under the blankets and laid them on the carpeted floor. Goose bumps raised along my bare legs, still bronzed from summer weather. I made my way slowly to the door, the hair now standing on the back of my neck and my heart rapping. It’s nothing, just your imagination. I reached the door and sent my left arm out to feel for the switch in the hallway, felt it, flipped it and the hall lit up in front of me. The black banister stood out against the tan carpet, the white walls played against the wooden paddle fan overhead, and the baseboard heaters continued their noisy parade.
Thwap! An echo from the loose screen door that hung on the outside of the kitchen. Just the wind! That thing doesn’t latch well. That was true. It was him! This is the thought that surfaces in the hours after dark, rationality sneaks away and hides in a corner, while the remaining brain works to figure out which noises and shadows are real.
I knew the scope of the living room and I knew Brett’s seat, Brett’s writing seat. He had that old, padded rocker that sat across the living room looking out the picture window at the road. It was an ugly thing that I’d always urged him to get rid of, but it was his writing chair. His orange hunting cap would be pulled over his ears, too eager to get to writing to take it off. The chair would errreeeee, errrreeee, errreeee as he typed along clacking those keys as fast as his mind would move. You could tell how the writing was going by the sound of the chair and the keys. When he was stumped, you’d see him slumped over the keyboard with his forehead in his right hand willing an idea to come and the chair and keys would be silent for long periods of time. When he had an idea, oh when he had an idea, I could hear the chair and keys working in clacks and rocks that echoed through the floor. When he had something good, he’d vocalize it. I’d hear him at 1am, “Oh, that’s a good one.” Then a chhhhhhh from another beer that would sit on the end table next to his chair. He’d work this way most every night in a feverish fashion and reel off page after page of a novel or a short story in a nightly sitting, pulled from some hidden corner of his mind.
When he was stuck, really stuck, the chair and keyboard would sit silent for hours as I sat in bed waiting for the clacking and rocking to resume. At times, when he was stuck, I felt he’d lost consciousness and life in that chair and laid limp with how quiet it was compared to his normal rash of ideas. No errreeee, no clacking, no chhh, and no, “oh, that’s a good one!” just silence below the floor joists of the bedroom.
I knew as I rounded that corner and began down those stairs, I’d hear the clacks from the keys and the constant rock from the chair and I might even hear a sharp chhhh of a can opening. When I rounded that corner, I’d see that rocking chair and the orange cap peeking over the top and know I wasn’t alone, that this house wasn’t mine, it was ours. I knew as he heard the padding footsteps down the stairs he’d continue to clack away on that keyboard and pull that shimmering can to his mouth. I knew as I approached the chair with tenuous fear of his presence that he’d turn and sneer at me, “oh, this is a good one!” His face would twist into that wild look he got when he got on a really good kick, he almost became his characters and that was what frightened me the most.
I stood at the top of the stairs, with the lights carrying their way to the bottom and meeting that darkness with stark contrast. I stood silent, listening for what I knew was there, but hearing nothing. The baseboards had quieted and the house was silent, completely silent. I took the first few steps and began to see the bottom of the cabinet at the base of the stairs. To the right, we had a wall mirror that sat in darkness. The carpeted stairs felt warm on my feet in contrast to the skin on my arms. At this point, I knew that his ideas weren’t flowing tonight and that he wasn’t sitting in the chair facing the window with his head propped in his hand, but sitting in the chair facing the center of the living room, being as still as he could, waiting for me to reach the bottom of those stairs.
I was halfway down the stairs and knew the switch for the living room was all the way on the far wall. To turn this light on, I had to go across the living room in plain view of Brett, who I was sure was sitting in that chair waiting for this to play out and that small smile coming to his lips and that orange hunting cap tight around his wild brown hair, his eyes alight and dancing in that darkness.
On the last step, I gazed into that mirror and I know what I saw. It was a dark shadow in that chair and the shadow gave me a small smirk as my feet carried me up the stairs. My heart beat in my chest and the hair on my neck pulled at my skin. I felt the tension through my shoulders and even felt the pulse you get in your ear when your heartbeat is out of control. I ran all the way to the bedroom door and waited, looking through the railing to the carpeted stairs below, waiting for the lumbering of those steel toed boots and the lingering shadow that would give way to that orange hunting cap. I waited, with my heart in my throat, for two minutes with no appearance of the shadow and no thuds of boots across the wide pine floors.
The night passed restlessly. A night of seeing the clock at periodic intervals and imagining that the only times you weren’t was when your eyes were averted to some shadow that crept its way slowly along your wall. Brett had no ideas that night and sat still in his rocking chair, no clacks or rocking sounds frantically carrying through the floor joists to the bed directly above.
My heart had eased a bit when daylight streaked the carpet through the windows. My mind wondered what mirage had created his image last night and if this would be a nightly occurrence or if it was some kind of jitter that happened with the transition from the word our to the word my.
My mind carried me down the stairs wanting the kitchen and the waiting coffee pot. I neglected the intuition that was present last night and took the stairs in a nonchalant manner that resembled me before this life transition. The chair sat, as it had before, facing the living room and not the window. It was still and with no laptop. The end table was not littered with empty cans from a night of feverish writing or silent waiting. I exhaled and my mind relaxed. No need to deal with the petty complaints, the lack of attention to my needs, or the violent mood swings that seemed to present themselves only in private.
The coffee brewed quickly and I thought I’d grab the mail. The mudroom door was cold to the touch and swung out into the small room, freshly finished with shiplap walls Brett had put up and a small bench to take your boots off. I slid mine on and they were cool to the touch, as was the room, which always sat significantly cooler than the house on winter days. I made my way into the winter morning, the driveway still wore a couple inches of snow, even after the melting yesterday. I saw my tidy black Altima sitting next to the two-story garage with paint to match the house, a deep brown. The mailbox was at the end of the short driveway.
My heart stopped as I reached the center of the driveway. There were four tire tracks running along in the snow. Two were obviously to the Nissan and ran right up to the tires on the car, but two others were slightly off and the size didn’t match. Someone just turned around. That wasn’t true though because you didn’t need to pull right up to the bumper of the other car to turn around. The tracks ran a clean line to the road and turned right.
I couldn’t stop the image of the large black GMC truck from coming to my mind. The tires, I’m sure, would fit the tracks I was following. The headlights would have beamed through the darkness, highlighted my Nissan and it would have sat six inches from the bumper. How long had the truck idled in the driveway? Had he sat there for a minute? Five minutes? 30 minutes? My heart raced as the number increased in my mind. The truck had sat there, coughing exhaust into the early morning hours and Brett sat in the truck picking at the small gap between his front two teeth, biting the nail on the ring finger of his left hand, or drumming the steering wheel waiting to make a move. He knew that doing something was much less intimidating than sending those tracks along in the snow, he was smart and knew I’d see them. I had eyes in the back of my head as a teacher, details didn’t escape me frequently and he knew that. He had sat there, not even thinking about getting out, just sat there and then reversed out of the driveway.
Tensions on a Saturday never felt so enduring; I’d had days at school that pulled strings in my chest: students on my nerves, teachers not doing their jobs, parents on me about a grade that hadn’t been plugged in over a weekend, but this seemed different. As the day wore on, it did ease slightly and I created a solution that made sense. A UPS or Fedex truck had come while I was in the shower before bed and hadn’t left the package because it needed a signature. I hadn’t heard the knocking on the door because of the water in the shower. Obviously, I hadn’t noticed the tracks because I didn’t leave the house after the shower. It all made sense.
Crack. A break in my slumbering state on the couch. I paused with my heart returning to my chest and my body now alert and upright. Crack. Again, that was from out back! Crack. A third one and I was sure where it was coming from and I worked my way off the couch with my mind caught in anxiety. Why is he out there? Why is he doing this to me? What did I do to deserve this? The resounding crack came again as my feet took the first two steps towards the kitchen, which had a window that overlooked the woodshed. Crack. They were coming in intervals that mirrored the rhythmic chopping Brett had done throughout the years. I remember watching him as he’d grab the round length in his hands, place it on the stump and straighten it. All the while his face stood calm against the wooded backdrop and the orange cap once again grazing his head. Once the log was set, he pulled the ax up, muscles standing out under his clothing, and sent it glittering in the sun, down toward the log and it would fall in two to the ground.
Crack. I could see him now with the strained expression as he sent that ax down across the log and split it in two. He’d be wearing that orange cap and those steel toed boots and when he felt my presence at the window, he would slowly twist his body and rest his hands against the handle of the ax and his lips would part to reveal that silent sneer that I’d seen last night, that look that said ours, not yours. He’d lean on that ax knowing he had run the blade against that sharpening stone until it was precisely how he needed it and he’d smiled at its sharpness.
Crack. The consistent cracks continued as I passed the kitchen island and was almost in view of what was out the window. My heart beat tremendously as my feet carried me along, even though I wanted to change direction, jump in my car and drive away from here as fast as I could, still they continued to carry me towards that window. I could now see the top part of the woodshed, but the cracks hadn’t sounded. Was he already leaning on that ax knowing my approach was near? Yes! Turn around! Was he walking the outside of the house ready to enter the side door to the kitchen with that sneer already present on his lips? Is that side door locked? My mind screamed, but I knew the answer was no! Still my feet carried me and as the shed came into view, I saw no Brett. The wood was stacked neatly in the shed, as it had been before and there was an unstacked pile as there was before. My mind bolted with the last image, had that ax been buried in the stump before? My mind wandered back to the last time I looked out that window, or after that time when Brett would have lumbered along the side of the house with the ax and placed it neatly in the garage to be sharpened before his next session. My mind knew that ax had been left there, but I couldn’t trust myself.
There was no Brett clacking away in the chair last night, there was no Brett sitting in his GMC in the driveway at midnight and there was no Brett chopping wood in the backyard on this December day. There was no Brett!
It’s a funny thing what light versus dark can convince you. In the day, I was so sure that there was no Brett, but sitting here tonight in bed with the floodlights blazing, the room with an extra lamp and the hallway light on, I know there is. I know he isn’t going to take the truck in the driveway tonight and I know he isn’t sitting in the chair clacking away yet, but I also know that the locks on the doors won’t do anything for me because he was the one who knew how to change them and that wasn’t something that was done. I knew now that there was a Brett and that he wasn’t in the house yet, but he would be. Would he come in through the front door? Would he come in through the kitchen door? No, he would come in through the basement door, ease it open when the baseboard heaters get to clicking and the boiler comes on to keep the home warm and he would sit in his chair. This time he would have that laptop and when those baseboard heaters shut down after reaching the desired temp, he would crack one of his remaining beers in the fridge, begin to rock and clack below me in a rush to finish what he was working on and, “oh, it’s a good one!” He’d be sitting there with that look of a maniac clacking away and rocking, always rocking and his pace would race forward like he was a madman! His eyes filled with passion would peek out from under that orange hunting cap and he would look up, just briefly when I squirmed in the bed above his head and he would get back to work feverishly clacking away and hysterically cackling with pleasure when he finished, “oh! This is a good one!” Nights like these scared me. Brett checked all the boxes on the surface, but people didn’t know him with his swings from high to low, a human yoyo.
A new start will give me reprieve, the memories run deep there, like the snow piling up outside my window. I hope that the change from ours, to mine, to theirs is one that will let me escape the unnerving clacking and rocking, the painted on sneer that welcomes me from that rocker, the distinct orange hunting cap and steel toed boots and all that belongs to the word ours.
Matt McGuirk teaches and laughs at his puns by day and scribbles stories nightly. He lives with his family in New Hampshire. Published or forthcoming in The Daily Drunk Magazine, Goat’s Milk, Idle Ink, Literally Stories, New World Writing, Sledgehammer Lit, Versification and others. Twitter handle: @McguirkMatthew and Instagram @mcguirk_matthew.
© 2021, Matthew McGuirk