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“Heritage House,” by Emily McKay

Ladybug sketch

The bodies of ladybugs are scattered throughout the house, withering into wings that still shine through coats of dust, like drops of rusty old blood allowed to dry exactly as they fell. No one has been here to grind them into paprika or bury them under the many overlapping rugs, or build any tombs. No one has broken Rutledge’s curse or admitted to believing in it. The house is in-the-family but the nearest neighbor is a wolf sanctuary on the next Appalachian ridge.

I lost my job in October and no one minded that I came here because no one was here. You can always fall back on family, especially if they’re away. I wouldn’t be long though, just needed a rent-free space while I looked for the next thing.

I perch my empty suitcase on the spiral stack of old suitcases at the foot of the spiral stair. None of them look like mine, they are dusty, they are cracked, they are crocodile, they are unrelatable and unrepeatable, they are shades of green and yellow that nobody wants anymore.

Some ladybug wings lie single and apart and glow when the window brightens, then dim in unison like gaslight.

As I turn in bed the first night, the corner of the blanket sweeps the floor and they snag their way up and across the wooly fibers, and by morning the dotted shards suspend themselves in my jungely bob of hair. There must have been an infestation once, it could have been a decade ago, could have been last week.

There’s no hot water except what I can boil on the stove, so I keep still to never sweat, never bathe. There is no one to speak to, report to, no one to impress. The stillness feels like the only way to be, the only way to ever have been, and it was just a fluke that I ever worked and smiled forty hours a week. Forty hours is too vast a period for the human brain to comprehend. I fold myself into the blanket on the overstuffed yellow armchair in the corner of the living room. Century-old chairs and couches line the walls, and footstools crowd the middle of the room like the black eye of a susan. No one can walk between them anymore. Great Uncle Rutledge—or my great great, or plain uncle braided into the family yarn? He said everything he put here has to stay here, always, and after he died, the family still listened. They even seemed to add more—I could swear that leather ottoman is new. Great Uncle Barlow thought this was bullshit and he died of a heart attack while throwing boxes of lavender soap out the barn window.

I don’t go into the barn. It’s full of blacksnakes, and even if they’re all hibernating deep in the barn by now, their paper lanterns of shed skin hover everywhere with clear eyes. Between the endless stuffed trunks and planks and piles of muted copper kettles are intractable flashes of the story my father told me as a kid, so casually it was almost involuntarily: a barn beam, barn beam somewhere, broke under the weight of his homestrung noose when he was eight years old, after the news of his father’s boozy suicide in an empty field, field emptied somewhere in New York. I wouldn’t know where, I wouldn’t go there, and I don’t go into the barn.

From my yellow chair I see a pinprick of red wriggling in a spider’s web in the fireplace, though the spider is dead.

From my orange chair I see three huddled ladybugs painted into the pale green wall. The paint is chipping and the wood underneath is damp, liver-purple.

From my green chair I see under my yellow chair, inching ecosystem of dust and contracted legs.

I sleep a few hours and wake with only the aim of sleeping a few hours.

I sleep a few hours and listen to the house for a few hours. I think I can hear it sinking for a few hours, for a few hours I can hear the waxing asymmetricality.

I sleep a few hours and I spring out of bed, pointing a flashlight around the house, peering inside the suitcases, inside the trinket boxes, inside the doll houses and the old wine crates. I open all the tiny doors and I open all the drawers in all the cabinets and bureaus and pantries. Rust and mahoghany, burgundy and vivid living beating tip-toe red. Is it an infestation if it never stops, if this is its home city?

I find a bottle of whisky from the seventies. Excellent. Finally. Sometimes I give up drinking, for up to nine days at a time, and it’s incredibly easy. I sleep well and lose weight and feel purposeful and energetic, and I wonder why I don’t do this all the time. Not-drinking is my superpower. And then I drink, and drinking is my superpower, and I sleep a few hours.

Who would have drunk the first quarter-bottle, who was here? There’s an old bottle of gin too, but it’s left a grimy line around its middle, so I put that one back. Two ladybugs sneak out between the panels over to the silverware drawer. I uncap and sniff the whisky as the label flakes in my hand: sweet, and a little buttery, potent. Probably fine.

How beautiful is the closed door of the heritage house, from the inside. The front door is the most beautiful door, I find, closing them all again, to be sure. Yes, it is the only door I can really rest my face on, and sort of hug.

I do not have and do not require any concept of what today was, or what yesterday. Today dies now in these no longer memorable spirits, today just another tired rabbit out of the magic hat.

For you too, ceiling, I feel so much affection. When you finally burst out from under your layers of mold and old rain, I will stare into a dimmer, further ceiling.

And all the magic rabbits scatter as you descend, become wild through the empty door and windowframes, even the hexagons in the wallpaper untessellate like beetles, shaking loose toward the moon.

I should be more hurt, and we should all be more hurt, always, holding our blood knuckle-white until it lets us go.

In the morning the windows frost on both sides and I wrap myself in a fringed Mexican blanket and I am heavy and slow. I wrap myself in an ivy-patterned blanket and I am heavier and slower. I wrap myself in a purple quilt and I am heavy, heavier, slow, slow, slow. There are more and more blankets, with crucially distinct textures and sizes and patterns and histories and social functions and psychological effects, I need them all and I have them, and I do not need to be any shape anymore, under here.

About the Author:

Emily McKay is a Creative Writing MLitt graduate of the University of St Andrews in Scotland, where she studied and then worked as a cheesemonger for seven years. Her short memoir, fiction, and poetry have been published in Glimmer Train (Issue 95), Shenandoah (Vol. 63, No. 1), and Welsh poetry journal Zarf (Issue 2), respectively. She has recently moved to Tallahassee, FL, where she works at a veterinarian’s office and focuses on poetry and short fiction.

Special Note:

This piece was selected as part of the “Dis/appearances” theme, guest edited by Matt Tompkins, author of Souvenirs and Other Stories and Studies in Hybrid Morphology.

Image Credit: © cat_arch_angel – stock.adobe.com

“I Will Light Your Way,” by Joe Baumann

Lamp Sketch

When Gala and I try to leave the hardware store, we cannot find an exit.

“I swear the doors were right here,” she says after we’ve paid, pointing at a long, creamy brown wall of concrete just past the cash registers. “This is where we came in. It should be where we leave.”

We sit down on some lawn chairs on clearance, oversized price tags dangling from the wicker like flattened Christmas ornaments. Other customers start to grumble about the missing doors, their arms weighed down by straining plastic bags filled with hammers and outlet covers and watering cans. One man wields a pair of fluorescent bulbs like nunchakus. A crowd begins to mass. Carts bump into one another. A woman holding birdseed sets the bag down, letting go too early. The bag splits, a mound of pellets tumbling across the slick floor like a field of flat marbles. She begins to cry, so another woman rifles through a leather purse and hands her a travel pack of Kleenex.

Gala holds up the small clay pot we have bought. We are going to start growing our own catnip. “What about home and garden? The outdoor section?”

She says it loud enough for those around us to hear, and we start an exodus for the other side of the store, Gala leading the way. When we arrive, she slumps down on a palette of fertilizer when she sees that those doors, too, have vanished. “We’re trapped,” she says.

“There are some vending machines by the not-doors. We won’t starve,” I say. “Or go thirsty. They have Coke products.” I reach into my pocket and jingle some change. “Let’s go get a Snickers bar to share.”

“How are you so optimistic?”
I shrug and look up at the high ceiling, the far away light glimmering against the chocolate-colored walls like the edges of a runway. “Why are you so worried?”

“Because there are no doors.”

An older couple is poring over garden hoses, seemingly unaware that we are trapped. I sidle up next to them and suggest the scrunchy kind because it saves so much time on rewinding. The woman smiles and thanks me for the advice, and the man tosses one in their cart.

“We just bought a house together,” he says. His hair is white and wavy, thin on the crown so I can see his mottled scalp.

“First time for both of us.” She squeezes his slouchy bicep and smiles, the wattled skin on her neck trampolining up and down. I nod and return the smile, and they continue their shopping, heading off toward the appliances, perhaps to look for a toaster or microwave oven.

“You don’t know anything about hoses,” Gala says. “But that was nice of you.”

“They were cute,” I say. “And those hoses never kink or knot. You want that Snickers?”

Gala sighs and hops off the fertilizer bags. “I guess so.”

When we reach the vending machine, I pump in the quarters but let Gala press the buttons; she’s always mesmerized by the metal coils as they turn and release candy and chips and dehydrated fruit in wrinkly bags, pressing her forehead to the glass while the machine churns. It’s a fiery momentary panic, she says, when you wonder if you’ll be one of the unlucky ones where the machinery doesn’t work and your snack is suspended in front of you, mocking you.

But our candy bar thunks down with no problem.

We start a long, lazy counterclockwise lap around the store, passing the bored toilets and blazoned rows of lamps and ceiling fans. The flooring section is abandoned.

“I could use something salty now,” Gala says when we finish the candy bar.

“It had peanuts in it.”

“Let’s get some chips.”

Past the checkout lines where cashiers avert their eyes and count their cash drawers over and over, an assistant manager is trying to calm the crowd, whose rising panic is tangible, voices mingled in a grumbling, harsh wave. The store has grown humid and sweaty-sticky, peoples’ voices throatier and gnarled, the air tinged with the sour, rank smell of body odor and anxiety. Someone is yelling about their rights being violated.

“We’re working on it,” the manager says, his bright red shirt stained with sweat under his arms, his fuzzy army-cut blond hair matted and slick. “We’ve called the police and the fire department. They’ll get this figured out.”

“See?” I say, popping open our bag of chips and holding it out to her. She pulls out a handful of flaky crisps, shaking her head all the while.

“Shoot,” she says after she swallows. “The flower pot.” She holds out her hands, upturned palms shiny with chip oil, as if to prove that she doesn’t have it. I press mine to hers and feel the slick salt on her finger tips.

“That’s okay,” I say. “Let’s go find it.”
“What if the lights go out?”

“Why would that happen?”

“Why would the doors disappear?”

“Well, we can just get another one. Or maybe we could get a gardening hose. I could find those again, I bet, even in the dark.”

“Or maybe none of it will matter because we’re going to die in here.”

“We can always eat potting soil,” I say. “Or worms from the fishing department.”

“You’re disgusting,” Gala says, but she gives my hand a squeeze, and we march back to the home and garden section, the sounds of shouting, scared customers fading into a burble like a far off waterfall. I grab a cart that someone has abandoned in the paint supply aisle, filled with a pack of lightbulbs and a screwdriver and a brass bedside lamp. I wonder where its owner has gone, and what they had planned. Given enough time, I think to myself, I could use these things to turn that lamp on, push back the darkness, and brighten up our path, light our way.

About the Author:

Joe Baumann possesses a PhD in English from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. His work has appeared in many journals, including Jelly Bucket, Cleaver Magazine, Tulane Review, Hawai’i Review, and others. He is the editor-in-chief of The Gateway Review.

Special Note:

This piece was selected as part of the “Dis/appearances” theme, guest edited by Matt Tompkins, author of Souvenirs and Other Stories and Studies in Hybrid Morphology.

Image Credit: © Perysty – stock.adobe.com