The bank didn’t pay for the oranges. They should have — offerings were clearly listed as a reimbursable expense — but the turnaround time and degree of nudging needed when Agnes submitted receipts made the whole process prohibitive. If she bugged Trask too much around the wrong things she might lose the job, and with it the gas card, which was worth a lot more money than the oranges. Sucking up the expense was an investment in staving off unemployment.
Plus, she liked the feeling that since they came out of her pocket, it was she that was stockpiling favor with the spirits, instead of the bank. What did JPMorgan Chase need with the gratitude of a piddling household spirit in one of the hundreds of thousands of falling-down buildings that dotted its asset spreadsheets? All her boss cared about was keeping the spirits happy enough that roofs would not collapse or bloodstains spread on whitewashed walls when it came time to show the place — or a hearth god or brownie cause a slip or tumble that would lead to a lawsuit. The offerings came from her, and with each gift she could feel their gratitude. Interaction with household spirits was strictly forbidden, but she enjoyed knowing they were grateful. As now, entering the tiny red house at 5775 Route 9, just past the Tomahawk Diner. She breathed deep the dry wood-and-mothballs smell. She struck a match, lit the incense stick, made a small slit in the orange peel with her fingernail. Spirits were easy to please. What they wanted was simple. Not like people.
Wind shifted in the attic above her, and she caught the scent of potpourri. A sachet left in a closet upstairs, perhaps, or the scented breath of the spirit of the place. Agnes knew nothing about this one, or any of the foreclosed houses on her route. Who had lived there. Where they went. All she knew was the bank evicted them. A month ago or back in 2008 when the bubble first began to burst. Six months on the job and she still loved to investigate, but her roster of properties was too long to let her spend much time in each. And the longer she stayed, the harder it was to avoid interacting.
When she turned to go, he was standing by the door.
“Hello,” he said, a young man, bearded and stocky and bespectacled, his voice disarmingly cheerful. She thought he was a squatter. That’s the only reason she spoke back.
“Hi,” she said, carefully. Squatters weren’t her job. Trask had someone else to handle unlawful inhabitants. Most of the ones she’d met on her rounds were harmless, down on their luck and hiding from the rain. But anybody could get ugly, when they thought their home was threatened. Agnes held up an orange. “I’m just here for the offerings,” she said. “I won’t report that you’re sleeping here. But they do checks, so you should be prepared to move on.”
He tilted his head, regarded her like a dog might. “Move . . . on?”
“Yeah,” she said, and bit her tongue to keep from warning him. The guy Trask uses, he’s a lunatic. He’ll burn the place down just to punish you. She knew she should have been sympathetic to all the people overcrowded or underhoused because the banks would rather keep buildings empty than lower the prices. But nobody knew better than Agnes that when you broke the law, you had to be ready for the consequences.
“Oh!” he said, at last. “Oh, you think I’m a human!”
She stared. “You’re . . . not?”
“No, no,” he said, and laughed. A resounding, human, manly laugh. It reverberated in her belly. “No . . . let’s just say I can’t move on. This is my house.”
“I’m so sorry.” Agnes bowed her head, panic swelling in her stomach at her accidental disobedience. If Trask knew they spoke, she could get fired. “I meant no disrespect.”
“I know,” he said. Spirits could see that much, or so the stories went. Beyond that it was tough to tell. Some were all-knowing and some were dumb as boxes of rocks. What else did this one know about her?
Agnes had given up long ago trying to figure out why household spirits manifested differently. Sometimes it made sense, like the Shinto-tinged ancestor embodiment in the house where a Japanese family had lived, or the feisty boar-faced domovoi in a rooming house they had seized from a Russian lady. Others resisted explanation — who knew why an ekwu common to the Igbo people kept a vigil in a McMansion six thousand miles from Nigeria that had never been occupied by anyone, of African descent or otherwise . . . or why a supposedly timeless spirit would manifest as a scruffy hot man with a sleeve of tattoos like a current-day skateboarder? Weird, but no weirder than the average manifestation.
“Thank you for the orange,” he said, and crossed the room to take it out of her hand. She could smell him: He smelled like any other man. She could feel his heat. His hair was brown red. His glasses magnified his eyes slightly, making him look a little like a cartoon character.
“You like oranges? It’s usually a safe bet. Some houses like some pretty wacky shit, though. I don’t kill cats for anybody.” She realized she was doing that thing. The thing where she talked too much. Because she wanted somebody — a man — to like her. For an instant she did that other thing, where she immediately hated herself for this, and then realized none of it mattered. This wasn’t a man. It could never leave. It knew nothing of the world but what it found between these walls. And she had to go. Now.
He peeled the orange. She half-expected his hand to pass right through it, but that was silly. She knew spirits could affect the physical world in ways far more varied and impressive than any human. Once she watched a building burst into sudden, all-encompassing flames, reducing itself to ash and windblown smoke in four minutes.
“I like oranges,” he said. “Also whiskey. Could you bring me some of that, next time?”
“Bourbon, rye, scotch — single-malt, blended . . .” She recited the names like a list of lovers, men who had done her wrong, men who she still loved and would take back in an instant. She had no intention of bringing him booze. But saying the names made her blood thicken and her mouth dry.
“Bring me your favorite,” he said.
“That’s maybe not such a good idea,” she semi-whispered.
He shrugged. “Whatever you like.”
She wondered if she could trust the sadness in his voice. If spirits really were all that different from men. If, at bottom, they wanted something, and once they had it they were through with you.
“Why don’t you stay?” he said, his eyes wide and throbbing with loneliness.
“I’ve got two dozen houses left to visit today,” she said. “And then I’ve got to turn the keys in. Otherwise, the other maintenance workers won’t be able to get in.”
“After, then. Come back here. You’re nice. I can see it.”
“I wish I could,” she said. “But there’s people expecting me.”
He nodded, and handed her half the orange.
A door slammed, upstairs, in the long seconds that came next. The spirit’s head whipped to the side, his lips curling into a snarl, and for an instant Agnes saw the face of something savage and canine.
“The wind,” she said.
“Sorry,” he whispered, human again, pale and embarrassed. “I’ve been very on edge lately. I don’t know why.”
“I’m Agnes,” she said, telling herself she had imagined the momentary monster-face. The next house was 12 Burnt Hills Road, and she hated that one. The spirit manifested as the house itself, floorboards opening like mouths and bricks shifting as she walked through.
“Call me Micah.”
He wiped one juice-wet hand on the hem of his flannel shirt, then extended it. They shook. She bowed her head again, and he laughed protestingly. Then she left.
It was a lie, of course. No one was expecting her. No one cared where she was.
• • • •
Her mother gave her a stiff-armed hug, her hands slick with tuna fish and mayonnaise.
“Wouldn’t have been smoking if I knew you were coming over,” she said, stubbing out a Virginia Slim she’d just lit off the stove burner.
“It’s fine, really,” Agnes said, sitting down at the kitchen table. The tiny trailer never failed to make her feel immense. “Can I help?”
“Boil me some water.”
Two days later, and Agnes couldn’t stop thinking about the man — the spirit — in the tiny red ranch. Even though her job was keeping spirits happy, she had only cared about them insofar as it might help her keep her job, and maybe one day get a better one.
Her mother tore plastic wrap roughly off the roll. “You never come by without a reason.”
Agnes almost said she simply missed her mother, but the woman was too sharp for lies. “I wanted to ask. About our house.”
Her mother snorted cruelly. Pear-shaped, crookedly ponytailed, smelling of church-basement bingo, her mother’s mind still terrified Agnes. The woman probably knew lots about household spirits and how they worked, from all those endless Sunday services and prayer groups. All Agnes remembered from church was that God was the prime spirit, present in all things and tying it all together, and Jesus was his emanation. Just like Micah was the emanation of 5775. Anyway Agnes should have known they couldn’t have a civil conversation. Her mother had spent six months waiting for an apology, and Agnes didn’t believe she had anything to apologize for.
“I wanted to ask about the spirit.”
“It wasn’t actually Ganesha, mom. It just took that form.”
“Took that name, too.”
“Fine. But you never wondered why it took that form, and not another? Considering we’re not Hindu?”
“You could have called,” her mother said. “If you just wanted to ask me stupid questions.”
“I’m sorry to bother you,” Agnes said, and stood up. “I actually thought you might be happy to see me.”
“You on something?” She looked at Agnes for the first time since she’d arrived.
“No, mom.” She looked around, debated asking about the trailer and its spirit, but the subject was a sore one.
She wondered if her mother knew. Where she slept at night.
“Better not be,” her mother said. “You don’t want to lose that job.” She stirred a third spoonful of powdered milk into her instant coffee. Her face was hard as winter pavement. “Considering what you had to do to get it.”
• • • •
“There is a crisis,” Trask said, clicking through pictures on his computer. Graffiti someone spray-painted onto the back of the bank — bloodsuckers, vampires, profiting from crisis. “A crisis of accountability! These people did it to themselves. They signed mortgages they didn’t understand . . .”
Agnes discretely texted herself the word accountability. She had lost the thread of what he was saying, as often happened during their supervisory meetings. Trask didn’t mind when she texted, when they talked. He did it himself, incessantly. Work is more important than etiquette, he said.
“How’s everything out on Route 9?”
“Same old,” she said.
“No signs of dissatisfaction?”
“I heard singing in a couple. That could mean —”
His hand flapped impatiently. “It’s in the reports?”
Around her, the bank bustled. Trask watched the two television screens mounted on his wall. A new stack of spiral-bound printed reports sat on his desk.
“What’re these?” she asked.
“The central bank has a big analysis division, and they’ve been looking at trends on underoccupied homes. These reports are . . . actionable.”
He was doing that thing, the thing people had done to her all through school. Trying to make her feel stupid. She didn’t mind it, coming from him. Trask trusted her.
Once, at a party, someone found out she worked for the bank and started yelling at her about how they had been thrown out when her husband got hurt on the job and couldn’t work. Agnes had kept her mouth shut because the girl was a friend of a friend, but she agreed with Trask: These people did it to themselves. The world didn’t owe you a house. The world is a swamp of shit and suffering and you have to bust your ass to keep your head above water and sometimes you still drown. Sometimes you drown slow. Like Agnes.
“You were late today,” he said.
“I know. I didn’t remember what day it was until it was almost too late.”
“You need to start using a calendar app.”
“I know,” she said.
“I’ve showed you how like ten times,” he said, swiveling his monitor to show her the calendar in his browser window, synched to his phone.
A map of the county hung below the televisions. Hundreds of pushpins peppered it, showing homes the bank owned. Lines divided the county into five transects, each of which had its own spirit maintenance worker. Hers was Transect 4, the westernmost one, the space least densely settled, the one that required the most driving. She scanned the map idly, avoiding even looking at Transect 1, and the pin that stabbed through the heart of the house where she grew up. The house her mother lost. The house that got her this job.
Agnes picked up a crude jade frog from his desk, weighed it in her hand, felt the tiny spirit inside. Could it see her? Know her heart? Every object had a spirit, and while stories said that long ago the trees talked and mountains moved to hurt or help humans, only homes still spoke. For the thousandth time, she thought of Micah.
His snarl, his momentary monstrousness, did not make him less appealing. It made him more so. Being with so many bad men had hardwired fear into desire.
“Lunch meeting,” Trask said, rising. “File the hard copies?”
Alone in his office, she wrenched open the bottom drawer of his filing cabinet. She flipped through folders, added incident reports and travel logs. Rooting around in the filing cabinet made her feel frightened, like a trespasser. Every time, she had to fight the urge to browse through things that had nothing to do with her. To learn more. To understand. Trask would not tolerate that kind of intrusion. One more way she could lose her job.
But then — there. 5775 Route 9. The house where Micah lived. Was lived even the right word? Micah’s house. But that wasn’t right either. The house didn’t belong to him. It was him.
Cheeks burning, she pulled the folder from the cabinet. Deeds, contracts, mortgages, spreadsheets — all the secrets and stories of the house, encoded in impenetrable hieroglyphics. Resolve settled in her stomach, bitter and hard. Like when, ages ago, in another life, another Agnes had decided for the thousandth time to return to whatever bar or trailer park would best get her whatever illegal substance her body was enslaved to then.
She looked around, wondered if anyone else could see the guilt on her face. Trask’s computer screen was still on, logged in to the property management system. Because he trusted her.
Did banks have household spirits? Places where no human had ever lived? Lots of people spent more time at work than at home, but work was different. What difference would that difference make? Once, she’d slept in a hotel. Its spirit had been flimsy, insubstantial, shifting shapes in an abrupt and revolting fashion. Even her car had a spirit. It never spoke or showed itself, but sometimes its weird jagged dreams rubbed up against her own while she slept.
Agnes shut her eyes and listened. Felt. Called out to the dark of the echoey old space around her.
And something answered. Something impossibly big and distant, like a whale passing far beneath a lone swimmer. Something dark and sharp and cruel and cold. She opened her eyes with a gasp and saw she was shivering.
Smiling and confident on the outside, screaming on the inside from joy and terror, seeing in her mind’s eye exactly how this course of action might cost her everything, Agnes took the folder to Trask’s Xerox machine and began to make herself copies.
• • • •
He was waiting for her on the porch of 5775. He hugged his knees to his chest like some people held on to hope. When he saw her, his face split into a smile so glorious her own face followed suit.
“Hi,” he said, rising, T-shirted, eyes all golden fire from the last of the evening sun.
“Hello,” she said, and held up a bag full of fast food. “Hungry?”
He clapped his hands, his face all joy. “You’re here early,” he said. “You usually only come through here every couple of weeks.”
“You’ve been watching me for a while now,” she said, handing him the bag.
“I don’t know. Something wouldn’t let me stay silent.” He opened the bag, stuck his face in, breathed deep. Happiness made him laugh. Agnes wondered when she had last heard someone laugh from happiness.
She had made the mistake of visiting 12 Burnt Hills Road right before. It had spoken to her, its voice like bricks dragged across marble. It said I want to show you something, over and over. She did not let it.
The file on 5775 had told her nothing. The house was fifty years old, had been owned by a perfectly banal couple who left it to their son and his wife, who sold it to a woman who couldn’t keep up with her mortgage when she got laid off when the school districts consolidated, and had been evicted four years prior. No Micahs anywhere.
He ran down the hall, and came back with a bed sheet. This he spread on the living room floor, and sat on. “Instant picnic!” Micah said, his enthusiasm so expansive she barely felt the pain in her knees when she squatted beside him. Sleeping in the fetal position night after night was beginning to take a toll.
While he took the food from the bag and began to set it up, she watched his arms. Pixelated characters from the video games of her youth adorned his arms, along with more conventional tattoo fodder — a castle; a lighthouse. “How long have you looked like this?” she asked.
“I don’t know.” He ate a French fry, then four. “Forever? A couple months?”
“The band on your T-shirt didn’t exist when this house was built,” she said. “Or do you have a whole ghost wardrobe upstairs somewhere?”
He shrugged. “No. I don’t know why they’re the clothes they are.”
“Did you ever look like something else?”
He laughed. Micah laughed. “Sometimes I think so. Did you?”
“Not that I know of. So there’s not a household spirit Book of Rules?”
“Not that I know of.”
They ate burgers, drank sodas. She had so many questions, but what happened inside her chest while she watched him eat answered the only real one. He bit off giant greedy childish bites, and barely chewed.
It made sense that after being empty for a long time, a household spirit might become something different. And lose track of everything it had been before. She asked, “Do you remember the people who used to live here?”
He nodded, eyes on her, lips on his soda straw. “Well. Sort of. I feel them. I can’t really remember them, but they’re there. Like . . .” Like a dream you’ve woken up from, she thought, but didn’t say out loud.
“I’m not supposed to interact with you,” she said. “I could lose my job.”
“What’s your job?” he asked, all earnestness.
“I make offerings at houses where nobody lives.”
He nodded. The last drops of soda slurped noisily up his straw. “They must pay you well for that.”
“But what you do is so important!”
“I’m an independent contractor — basically a janitor,” she said, and thought back to the old maintenance man at her high school, muttering prayers and burning incense beneath a defaced wall once he’d washed away the graffiti. “My mother says we’re all doomed,” Agnes continued. “She says these empty houses are going to add up to a whole lot of angry spirits. She says all the oranges and incense in the world won’t make a difference. When people move back in, the spirits will have turned feral.”
Micah wiped grease from his lips with his sleeve. “There’s a lot of empty houses?”
Agnes nodded. Obviously Micah didn’t watch the news or read the papers. She had been imagining that he knew all sorts of things, through spirit osmosis or who-knows-how. “Chase owns hundreds, in this county alone. Bank of America —”
“That’s sad,” he whispered. His face actually reddened. He was like her. He felt his emotions so hard he couldn’t hide them. The air in the room thickened, grew taut. The hairs of her arms stood on end. His didn’t. At any moment he could start flinging lightning bolts, she thought, or burn us both to ash. She put her hand on his arm, and the crackling invisible fury ebbed away.
“What’s it like? When there’s no one here?” She was thinking of him, but also thinking of Ganesha. Alone in her old house. The rambunctious thing that had been her only friend for so long, who played strange complex storytelling games with her and gave her spirit candy when she made a wise decision. She could taste the anise of it, still, feel it stuck between her teeth like taffy, although even if she ate it all day it would never give her cavities or make her fat. She had spent years trying not to think of Ganesha.
“It’s horrible,” Micah answered.
Agnes scooted closer. He wasn’t human. He could kill her just by thinking it. He was a monster, and she adored him. She took his face in both hands, moved them down so the roughness of his stubble felt smooth, and kissed him.
“I need to go,” she said, hours later, when she woke with her head on his bare strong chest and her body gloriously sore from the weight of him.
“No you don’t,” Micah said, his hand warm and strong on her leg. Somehow, he knew. That she had no home, that she slept in her car. He sat up. His eyes were wet and panicky. He kissed her shoulder. “Please don’t go,” he said. “Why do you want to leave?”
Because Trask sends late-night goons to check for squatters sometimes.
Because I might lose my job if I stay.
Because this is not my home — I didn’t earn it, didn’t pay for it, can’t afford it.
Because I don’t deserve a home.
Because love makes me do dumb things.
“You’re like me,” Micah whispered, and his whispers vibrated in her ears even once she was back in the Walmart parking lot in the cramped backseat of her car under a blanket: “You’re on your own. We’re what each other needs.”
• • • •
Trask said routine was the key to success, which is why every morning Agnes woke and went to Dunkin Donuts for coffee and an unbuttered bagel and a rest room wash-up and tooth-brushing. Which is what she did the morning after making love to Micah. This time, though, when she emerged from the rest room and a woman was waiting for it, she didn’t think to herself: Oh no, what if she guesses what I was doing in there and immediately knows I’m homeless and pathetic, but rather: What if she’s doing the same thing as me — for the same reason as me?
Which is maybe why, this time, she broke the routine slightly and instead of heading straight to the bank for her day’s assignments Agnes drove east into Transect 1, feeling her chest tighten, struggling to breathe deeply against the weight that could not possibly be guilt, because she had done nothing to feel guilty about, because she had done the right thing — Trask said so —
And found the deep raw crater, lined in red clay like a wound in the belly of the universe, where the house she grew up in used to be.
• • • •
“Agnes?” Trask said, looking confused. “Everything okay?”
“Hi,” she said, stopping herself from apologizing for disturbing him. An unscheduled visit was an unprecedented breach of propriety. They texted, or they talked in supervisory meetings. She had never just shown up before. “What’s happening to the houses in Transect 1?”
“We’re demolishing them, Agnes.” His voice now was like when teachers wanted to shame her into silence.
“I told you. Actionable recommendations from the central analysis division. Even with emanation placation measures in place, we’ve been noticing some disturbing patterns.”
My mother was right, she thought. They’ve gone feral. His computer made soft pinging noises as the day’s pitches arrived. Every bank routinely made offers for every other bank’s underoccuppied property, usually for ridiculously low amounts, knowing they’d be rejected. Fishing for hunger. Trying to “assemble development portfolios” and other concepts she had not initially understood.
“But people could be living there,” she told Trask, knowing, as soon as she said it, that the argument had no financial weight and was therefore worthless.
• • • •
“What do you mean, you can’t step onto the lawn?”
“I just can’t,” Micah said, grinning, face glistening with French fry grease and her kisses. He leaned over the porch railing; reached out his arm to her.
“But it’s part of the property,” she said, stepping just out of his reach.
Micah shrugged. “Property is a legal fiction,” he said. “Words on paper don’t change anything. A house is a house.”
“A legal fiction,” she said, and texted the phrase to herself. “I thought you didn’t know The Rules.”
“Some things I just know,” he said. “I don’t know why I look like this, but I know what I can’t do. And I know that when you’re here, it feels right.”
“But this is crazy, isn’t it? You and me. A spirit and a person? I’ve never heard of that.”
“Me either,” he said. “So?”
“We can’t . . . be together.”
“We’re together now.”
“This isn’t my house.”
“Why not?” His eyes were wide, sincere, incredulous. She wanted to eat them. She wanted to have them inside her forever.
“Because it costs money to buy a house. I don’t have money.”
Micah nodded, but she knew he did not understand.
Back in the car, she stared at the wooden block studded with keys. Her roster for the day: three dozen homes, defenseless.
Agnes had made mistakes before. She’d shattered friendships. She’d had a drink when she knew the whole long list of horrible things that would come next. One thing was always true, though: She knew they were mistakes before she made them. She decided to make a mistake and that’s what she did. The hard part was figuring out the right mistake to make.
• • • •
“Twice in two weeks,” her mother said, stubbing out her Virginia Slim. “You hard up for a place to take a shower?”
“Happy to see you, too, Mom.”
Her mom sat back in her chair and sighed, a long aching sound. Her eyes did not seem able to open all the way. Walmart had demoted her from the cash register to the shoe section. They talked in terse, fraught sentences until the water boiled and the instant coffee was prepared.
“I’m sorry, Mom.”
“Sorry for what?” her mother muttered.
“Sorry for what I did. To you.”
Her mother’s mug clinked against the counter. Now her eyes were wide. “What did you do?”
“You know what I did. We both do. You even said so, the last time I was here.”
Agnes nodded. She owed her mother this much — to spell it out, to look her in the eyes. “I told the bank you were still living there, in the house, after you’d stopped paying the mortgage. After you’d been evicted. I got you kicked out.”
Her mother’s eyes were harsh, unblinking. Agnes took a sip: The coffee was so strong it hurt to swallow. “Do you know? What they did to it?”
Her mother nodded. “I drive by there, sometimes.”
“I didn’t think I did anything wrong,” Agnes said. Her voice felt so small. “I thought you were in the wrong, to keep on living there when you couldn’t pay.”
Agnes shrugged, opened her mouth, shut it again.
Her mother took her mug, added hot water, handed it back. “Last time you were here, you asked why the spirit took on the shape of Ganesha. I said I didn’t know, and I don’t. But I have a theory. When I was a little girl, our next-door neighbors were Indian. They had a Ganesha statue on their porch. They had a girl my age, we used to play together. She always made me rub the statue’s stomach for good luck. I think when a house finds its perfect owner, it takes on the shape that owner needs to see.”
Agnes sipped. Diluted to human strength, the coffee wasn’t bad.
• • • •
12 Burnt Hills Road again. She lingered, left an extra orange. The house frightened her, but sometimes being frightened wasn’t bad. Sometimes fear brought you where you needed to be.
Agnes, it said, when she turned to go. This time the squeal of glass and wood, grinding together: All four windows in the front room trembled together, spoke as one.
“You know my name?”
We all know your name.
The empty ones. I want to show you something. Will you let me show you?
Press your hands to the brick, the voice said, and she did. Shut your eyes, it said, and she did.
Laughter. A little girl ran into a swathe of sunlight. Herself, age five.
“No,” she whispered.
Agnes at ten, Agnes at twelve. The house. Her house. Each room, each smell. Christmas cooking and make-up and wet paint. Her mother’s smile growing slimmer and the rest of her less so as time sped by. Ganesha, scrambling from room to room with one long undiminishing mischievous giggle.
Joy, then. Ganesha’s joy. The bliss of wholeness. The ecstasy of love, of family. Home meant love, meant wholeness. Shrinking, suddenly, when Agnes stormed out at age sixteen. After that a bereft, endless wondering. Where did she go? Why was she so upset? How have I failed her?
Her mother standing alone at the top of the stairs. Cigarettes. Burned TV dinners.
“Please,” Agnes said, too loudly, knowing what was next.
The house, empty. Ganesha stumbling. Shrinking. And then weeping, as pain began to break him apart. Hands growing twisted, pudgy child-fingers becoming cat-sharp claws. Pieces of trunk sloughing off. The transect maintenance worker brought oranges, but they did not stop what was happening to her friend. They merely channeled off his anger, his rage, his ability to lash out. When the wrecking ball came it was almost a relief. Ganesha went gladly, already mostly gone. Something bigger was there, though. A bigger, deeper something that was Ganesha but wasn’t. It shrieked. She wept, hearing it wail.
The windows went still.
“I thought you were all . . . on your own. Separate. Micah didn’t know what was happening to any of the other houses.”
A rippling shifted through the walls, and when the voice came again it came from a crude and jagged mouth that opened in the bricks above the fireplace. Autochthonous sentient structural emanations are complex. The spirit that takes on physical form, the thing that humans interact with, is only one piece. There is another piece. One that grows out of the earth the house is built on. One that springs from a common source with all the other autochthonous emanations in the area. These pieces are rarely aware of each other. Until they need to be. Do you understand?
“Sure,” and Agnes was startled to see that she did. She thought of how her mother understood God. She thought of the thing she had sensed, for an instant, in the bank. Something bigger and colder and crueler and more terrifying than a human mind could ever comprehend.
We saw you, Agnes. We saw what was inside of you. We knew that you were the one who could help us.
• • • •
Trask was stressed out about something. His forehead had extra lines in it; his eyebrows were arrows aiming at each other. He was immersed in his phone. When she logged the block of house keys back in, he left the key in the cabinet lock. Like he always did.
“Are you going to demolish all of them?”
He looked up from his phone, his face contorted briefly. By what? Hate, she thought at first, but that wasn’t right, whatever it was had no such intensity. Apathy, maybe, but that was only half the story. Trask took two reports from the top of the stack and flung them at her. “Read it yourself if you’re so nosy.”
He doesn’t care about you, she realized. He never has.
He thinks you’re stupid.
Agnes filled paperwork with scribbles until Trask left the office to take a call, and then she opened the cabinet and pocketed the key to Micah’s house. She dumped the rest of the keys from Transect 4 into her backpack, and put the block back in the cabinet, and locked it.
After thirty awful seconds, Agnes unlocked the cabinet again and took the keys to the rest of the Transects.
Trask’s screen was still on. She stared at it. Her plan was a terrible one. She could destroy the keys, but how much time would that buy them? Trask would learn what had happened soon enough, and he didn’t need a key to knock a building down. She’d be out of a job and those spirits would still get destroyed.
Agnes sat down at his desk. He didn’t leave her alone with so much power at her fingertips because he trusted her. He did it because he didn’t think she was smart enough to do anything about it. He gave her the job not because he liked her or saw potential, but because she showed him how desperate she was. How hungry. Hungry enough to betray her own mother for a shit job with no health insurance.
She clicked over to the window where the day’s offers had piled up. One by one she clicked yes, selling off a couple dozen buildings with Trask’s credentials. And then she made a series of offers on the Bank of America properties scattered throughout the county, offering ten million dollars for each of them when most were barely worth ten thousand.
Then she opened his calendar and typed in an appointment for him, tomorrow at twilight, at 12 Burnt Hills Road, with the plumbing maintenance foreman.
Trask might wonder what that was, how it had gotten there; he might even call the plumber to confirm. But most likely he would not. He was a man who trusted his calendar.
Would it kill him? she wondered. The thought of being a party to Trask’s murder did not disturb her as much as it should have. What she’d mistaken for officious mentorship had been contempt, combined with a love of feeling smarter than someone. More importantly, she’d do anything to keep Micah from going through what her home had gone through.
Chase would dispute the sales she had approved as Trask, and the offers he’d made, but Bank of America would take them to court to get them to honor these entirely legal contracts.
Later she buried the backpack full of keys in the red raw clay where her house had been.
• • • •
“That’s the last of it?” Micah asked, when she set the milk crate down on the porch.
“Such as it is.”
“You were living there?” he asked, wrinkling his nose in the direction of her car.
“Who really lives, anyway,” she asked, squatting to kiss his mouth. He handed her a glass of iced tea.
She took a sip, then drained the glass. “This is seriously the best iced tea I have ever had in my life.”
“I know,” he said. “And it has the added benefit of not having any calories.”
He put his arm around her. Night was coming and so was November. His heat was so strong and clear she didn’t believe it wasn’t real.
That morning, she had visited 12 Burnt Hills Road. Trask had been missing for two days. She expected blood and carnage, but the inside of the house was as it had always been. Wind wailed, weakly, somewhere.
The police came, said the stones above the mantle.
“They would have seen the address in his calendar,” she said. “I’m sorry, but there was no way for me to erase it after he saw it . . .”
He is well hidden. As is his vehicle. They found nothing, and departed. Touch the stones, if you want to see.
She didn’t, but she did. And saw him get out of his fancy truck, call out for the plumber, pat his pockets for the keys he knew he had not brought because the plumbers had their own set. Saw the front door creak open. Saw Trask step inside. Saw stones and wood and brick crawl together. Saw windows shatter into long cruel talons at the end of stumpy fingers. Saw the seat of Trask’s trousers darken.
“This is temporary,” she said, thinking of the cold cruel immense entity she had glimpsed at work. With Trask missing and the police involved, the court battle would drag on for a while. But not forever. “Eventually, the bank will move forward with a way to do what it wants.”
Yes, the house said. And so will we.
She didn’t ask What about Micah? His shape, his personality — is he part of you? Did you use him to manipulate me? As long as she didn’t know the answer, she could pretend it didn’t matter.
Micah startled her back to the here-and-now, carrying a radio on an extension cord. They danced to the Rolling Stones on the porch of the house that was hers, but not. Later, they lay in a bed so big she could not believe her stupidity — to think that this had been here all along, empty and waiting, while she slept in a car in the Walmart parking lot. Because of Trask, inside her head, and the bank and the school and everyone else in this world who said you only deserved what you could pay for. When she wept, he woke up. They spooned together.
Agnes fought sleep, not wanting to be anywhere else. She counted questions instead of sheep.
When we fight, will he accidentally incinerate me? When he is angry or sad, will blood drip from ceilings and swarms of hornets spell out hateful words on the wall?
She wondered if she would still have her job, without Trask. Probably she would. For now. Both banks would want to maintain the properties while they fought over them in court. She could fix the place up, get real human food, buy Micah the punk rock records he liked. She could lay low, but eventually there would be a confrontation. Ownership would be settled. Someone would come, looking to knock it down or clear it out. But wasn’t that part of what it meant, to have a home? The knowing that it could always be taken away from you? That’s what she never grasped, those long nights in her old house aching to be anywhere else. She had taken “home” for granted, something unbreakable and allotted to each of us, because that’s the way the world should be. And once it was gone she believed everyone deserved the same pain she and her mother went through. Ganesha was dead because of the lies she believed, and her mother’s heart was broken.
But now that she knew something could be taken away, she also knew she could fight for it.
“I love you,” she whispered, to him, to her home, and fell asleep marveling at how easy both things were to claim once you let yourself.