The real estate agent, with his waxy hair and perma-smile, keeps stopping to listen, waving his hand, saying, “That’s just the house settling.”
We think the house seems more than settled and wonder why he’s calling so much attention to the sound and look at the handsome dark wood trim and how many closets are hidden within closets and we stare out the picture window at the woods butted up against the backyard and we probably wouldn’t have heard a thing if he hadn’t mentioned it.
But we do hear a noise, and now that we’re listening, it is unsettling how much it sounds like moaning, but not the bellow of someone in pain, more like an incantation, some sort of ritual snarl.
So we look at each bedroom carefully, hoping to be proven wrong about this place, hoping to find something that convinces us the house is not, in fact, exactly what we’ve been seeking and we ask the agent if we have to worry about crime living so near the woods and he explains that the woods are bounded on the other side by a beach and there is nothing to be afraid of but waves, and we smile politely but, in our minds, we think, A wave can overwhelm and a wave can take away.
We snag on that, but the agent barrels forward, hustling us to the unfinished basement and pretending not to hear the sound in an obvious way and he disappears around a corner and we follow him, only to find him gone.
James and I look at each other, concerned, until a section of the wall spins around, and there stands the agent, face plain, matter-of-fact, saying, “Secret compartments. There are several of them in this room alone.”
He emerges and squats down, lifting up a three- by- three section of flooring to reveal a small, finished crawl space below us, an empty concrete cube, and he reaches above his head and punches up a drop tile to expose another pocket above, lit well, plaster painted a clean, pale blue, and then I reach high above my head, trying to push against other tiles, but they all stick firmly in place.
“Why?” I ask.
“Well, the previous owner seems to have been a bit of a homebody,” he says. “We’re not sure of the original purpose of the rooms, but they do make for a ton of extra storage space.”
I squeeze James’s hand and he squeezes back because we have this way of feeling the same about the unexpected, and I know, like me, he is excited about the secret passages, this being one of the places where we are seamed together, just one instance where we twist in the same spot, mirroring each other and meshing at once.
A stain stammers on one of the walls, a wet grayish blotch, like new papier-mâché edged in black, and I ask the agent about it, and he says, “Water damage, from a leak at the top of the foundation, but it’s been fixed.”
Another crush of our hands together, and we wind our way back up the stairs.
The agent asks us what we think and we don’t actually need time to decide, but James is doing a great job of remembering my instructions. We will not act too eager. We will hide our excitement until we are alone and can take our time to discuss with reason and mea sure. “We’ll think about it,” I say. “But we’ll let you know soon. We know how quickly a place like this can disappear.”
“Ah, yes. Of course,” the agent says. “No rush. You’ve got my number.”
In the car, James says, “I don’t think that house is going anywhere. No rush? That’s unusual in real estate, right? Especially when it’s so cheap. People should be crawling all over each other to get this place. I know foreclosures can take some time, but No rush? That seemed weird.”
“I had the same thought. I say we make an offer right away, but we lowball it.”
“You’re speaking my language,” he says. “Underestimation is my middle name.”
I tell myself not to discredit my husband’s ability to predict the odds, that I’m trusting my own instinct, not his. I tell myself we can win even if he agrees with me.
Months before, Julie and I sat in our apartment in the city. We sprawled on the couch. She rested her feet across my lap. I gripped her bare kneecap. I watched a baseball game with the sound turned off. Julie read. She shifted her leg away and I startled at the reminder that we’d been touching. We fit together effortlessly.
This was true until it wasn’t. I had made a series of small mistakes. I insisted that none of it had affected her directly. I had only gambled away the money in my private account. I had not touched our joint nest egg or her personal savings. “It’s only a matter of time, though. What if we leave the city?” Julie said. I could feel her desperation in the suggestion. She was willing to try anything. I wondered what I’d done to deserve such devotion. “We could buy a house, get a fresh start. You won’t be tempted to visit your old haunts. We’ll have some security.”
I paused. What I said next was true, but it felt like the farthest I could stretch. “I can imagine that. Let’s look into it.” I watched a new energy course through her. Julie had not heard maybe. She had heard yes. She pulled her already-messy blond hair into a loose knot as I’d seen her do so many times before washing the dishes. Julie, with her pragmatism and will, started imagining what she might like to do somewhere else. She had a job title that meant nothing to people outside her office. She worked in product development. She decided what to manufacture and how quickly. I wrote code for start-ups, but it was sloppy work. I repaired holes in the code with duct tape. They triggered breaks elsewhere in the structure. I gambled with a similar flare. I made outlandish bets. Sometimes I took intentional losses because I got tired of playing. The therapist said I tired out on the anticipation. He said gamblers play until they lose because they want to feel something, not necessarily a win.
We talked about the sort of place we’d like to go: another city, another country, somewhere more remote. We didn’t want to live in the middle of nowhere, but we could stand a smaller menu of everyday options. We readied ourselves for a place where we’d get to know the business owners and ask about their children. I liked watching the goofy grin stretch her full lips thin and wide, the way her sleepy eyes lifted, when she said, “We can offer our leftovers to the neighbors.” I couldn’t help but smile back. It was such a silly, simple thing to visualize. “You’re okay with a small town?” Julie asked.
I said, “If we check out a town and it feels like it will be an endless trip through airport security, maybe we look somewhere else. They can’t all be bad, though.” We agreed to stay close enough that we could return to the city whenever we wanted to escape.
“Maybe we shouldn’t do it if we’re talking about our home as a place to escape from,” Julie said, screwing her mouth up with worry. I laughed, though. The matter was settled.
Julie hunted for jobs a couple of hours away. She found an opening at a company where an old classmate of hers worked. Julie emailed me opportunities in the same area. I told her I wanted to find a house first. Once we knew where we’d be based, I could focus on where I’d push off to each day. I watched those three little half- moons form between her brows as she clicked from the Help Wanted page to the real estate section.
We find the house quickly. Buy it from the bank. Cheap. I commit myself to finding gainful employment so that we can make the move. We drain the joint account on the down payment. I’ll need to pay my half on everything else to be sure we stay above water. In a town this small, only a couple of jobs match my skill set. On my way back to the city from an interview, I stop at our new home. It stands at the end of a cul-de-sac, bordered on the east by the woods. The houses across the street are modest, maybe two or three bedrooms at most, nicely mown lawns. No bikes or scooters left in the driveways. The next-door neighbor’s home looms big and Victorian like ours. It needs paint and some woodwork. Ours has been better kept up. The street is quiet, peaceful. I remind myself it is the middle of the day.
I forget and then remember to turn my key the wrong way in the door. The lock has been installed backward. I wonder if this is something I will get used to. Maybe I will become an engaged and invested homeowner. Maybe I’ll clean and repair things I’ve ignored as a renter.
The entryway fits two people at most, with a built-in mirrored hat-and-umbrella stand positioned across from a mirrored closet door. Standing here between the reflections, I watch the small hall extend out in a prism on both sides. I realize Julie had been right. I should have gotten a beard trim and a haircut before the interview. I hope the project manager I’d spoken to didn’t think the same.
Beyond the entrance, the living room waits, warm and inviting. I lift a window seat to find nothing at all. I pull at the glass door of one of the library cabinets. It sticks, making a clashing cymbal of sound when it finally budges free.
The living room winds around a wall into what we’ll set up as the dining room. Dark wood paneling blends into a heavy- based hutch. We are most excited about all the furniture already built into the walls. It means we won’t need to acquire as much to make the transition from our small apartment.
A swinging door opens into the kitchen, filled with ancient yet well-maintained appliances. Julie has already complained that they are bound to cost us a fortune in utility bills.
I head up the stairs. To the right is what will be our bedroom, a guest room, a closet, and the master bath. To the left, more doors: another guest room, another bathroom, the entrance to the attic. I hear a louder humming up here, as if the light were trying hard to reach the hallway. I see a shadow fall through the doorway of one of the guest rooms and feel a surge of fear. I edge toward the room, but find it empty. Relief replaces the dread. Just a bird flying too close to the house, I tell myself.
Out the window, I see the next-door neighbor sitting in his living room, framed by his home. The man sits very still. I lean in with worry. In a moment he turns his head. He looks directly at me, as though he feels my stare on him. I give a quick wave and he shifts his gaze away.
I go home. I get the job. We pack up our life.
We carefully unload our car full of breakables alongside the movers strapped with three times as much as we can carry. As we pause between loads to look up at our new home, the neighbor’s front door eases open with a stiff, loud scrape. The sound draws Julie’s eye. “That’s him, huh?” she asks, craning to get a better look.
Julie moves to raise her hand, but the door is already closing. She can have a sweet, useless way about her when she thinks it might serve her. After this failure, she sets back to work, lifting the next bulky box and stepping toward the house carefully, her view obstructed.
We show the movers where to put boxes. We stray from room to room, evaluating our purchase again with our new homeowners’ eyes. All of it belongs to us now. I point to the basement wall. The stain has pulled itself wider. I ask Julie if she thinks so, too, and immediately regret it. We stare. The spot seems to inhale a little, lungs expanding.
“Could we have thought it seemed smaller because we were so eager? I knew that inspector wasn’t very good,” she says. Julie places her hand on the discoloration. “It’s dry.” She leans her face into the wall. “It smells like mold. Chemical, bitter. Do you think a leak might still need fixing?” She pushes her nose around with the back of her hand.
I feign indifference. I want to take back the worry I’ve caused.
“You’re the one who noticed it, but I’ll call someone to take a look,” she says, already annoyed.
“I can call someone.”
“But you won’t. It’s better if we acknowledge that now.” She mashes her nose again, trying to stop the itch.