When the vines had been growing around the porch rail and the support posts, they looked pastoral and fun. But now, thicker, meatier shoots crept across the porch floor and extended their fingers to the front door, hoping to gain entry.
Michelle stood on the bottom step and looked up. She didn’t want to place her foot on the vines, or even near them. She didn’t want to think about what they meant — that her brother hadn’t left the house in a ver long time.
She put one foot on the step. As she studied them, the vines appeared to move, poised to wrap around her legs and squeeze the life out of her. Slowly she made her way up the five broad steps and crossed the worn planks that formed the porch floor. She touched the doorknob. It was sticky, attesting to an aversion to soap. In truth, there was an aversion to everything the world had to offer, starting with anything man-made and ending with mankind itself. There were a few exceptions — the house, for example. But now that the vines were allowed to take it over, perhaps it would be transformed into a hut of plants that ate away at the wood and paint, dropping nails like discarded chicken bones.
The door was unlocked, of course. The knob turned easily. She entered the house and despite the odor of unwashed skin, filthy clothing, and food-encrusted dishes, she closed the door behind her. The living room was dark but she knew what was there as if it were her own —the windows facing the street, one on either side of the fireplace, covered with heavy chocolate brown drapes, the soft wood floor, the two armchairs, and the wobbly round table between them.
She paused in the kitchen doorway, pinched her nose, and surveyed what was visible in the milky light that seeped through bent metal blinds.
There was a chill in the house, the kind of damp cold that reminded her of a cave, empty of sound, barely enough oxygen to support a single human life. She pulled a chair away from the table and sat down heavily. She put her face in her hands and tried to breathe something clean out of her skin.
Her brother’s presence was strong, as if he stood in the room, studying her dramatic weeping into her hands. In her mind, she saw the smirk pushing his lips to the side, marring the curve of his cheek. The house was a contrast to Danny’s lifelong pathological hand washing. He had shunned the creamy bar soap their mother provided, wouldn’t even try the pump of anti-bacterial liquid she’d bought to appease him. The only thing that would do was Fels-Naphtha, brutal, strong-smelling, and putting off the barest film of lather, reddening human skin with its ferocity. Every hour, sometimes more, he’d stood at the kitchen sink and scrubbed. His knuckles were red and cracked, there were rough patches in the webbing between his thumbs and forefingers.
The doctor couldn’t say why he did it. But Michelle knew. She knew the monstrous stories she’d whispered into his soft, tender ear while he tried to sleep. It was a compulsion she controlled even less than he did the soaping and rinsing and drying of his hands. She had to tell him her nightmares, describe the ghouls and demons that crowded her room so that she felt she was in an elevator packed to capacity, rising thirty floors, air sucked up by the shadowy figures, feeling as if the elevator rose past the atmosphere fit for human life.
She felt something on her ankle and cried out, thinking one of the vines had crept into the house and was already strengthening its grip. She pulled her hands away from her face and looked down. It was a single strand of hair that had fallen out of her own scalp.
It was disturbing that her brother hadn’t heard her footsteps, hadn’t come out to greet her. She would have to go into his room and she didn’t know if she had the strength. She should have walked with a heavier tread, should have closed the door with more force. In fact, she should have started with a knock, not simply turned the knob and walked in. He would have heard her and she wouldn’t have had to go looking for him, knowing what she’d find.
She stood and went to the sink. A fresh bar of Fels-Naptha sat on the porcelain indentation. She picked it up and held it to her nose. The odor was sharp, industrial. She placed it back on the sink and turned to face the kitchen door. She walked across the green and white speckled linoleum.
In the hallway, she stared at the four closed doors — the bathroom, the bedrooms that had once belonged to her and her brother, facing each other on opposite sides of the hall. At the end was the master bedroom. The door at the end didn’t need to be opened. Her parents had been gone for years. She passed the bathroom and opened her brother’s door. The room was uninhabited. She turned to her own room and touched the knob. Sticky, like the front door. She turned it and went inside.
The bed was bare with a soiled sheet twisted into a cord at the foot. The flattened, sagging pillow was on the floor. The stench of dirty clothes and unwashed skin was too much. She stepped back and closed the door.
Of course her brother wouldn’t come to greet her. Eventually the hand-washing hadn’t been enough and he’d . . . gone away. She was alone with the ghosts and the vines creeping around the house, waiting to secure her inside.