Sunday, October 4, 2009

The house at the end of your street

Pressed into the morning frost on a low pane of glass was the shape of a small mouth, a tiny nose, and two little eyes – as if a girl had climbed onto the porch in the middle of the night and put her face against the window to see inside. By 10 am it had melted away. A cold snap returned a few days later, and it reappeared on the other side of the house – on a glass door, just three feet high, as if the owner were barely old enough to walk.

The old tenant hunted in the garden and examined the front steps, but he could find no footprints. He drove slowly through the suburban streets at twilight, but no one looked like his evening visitor. The weather stayed warm for the next few weeks, and the face did not come back. But then he found a delicate hand print in the ash of his fireplace. He opened the flue and looked inside feeling foolish. He rubbed it away with a brush. It made him nervous. He told his grown children, and they decided it was time for him to move.

On his last day in the house, with the walls bare and the floors swept clean the old tenant took one last walk from room to room, his steps echoing back at him. He peeked into cabinets and closets; he removed a panel leading to a crawlspace and put his whole head inside. Satisfied the house was empty, he locked it up and left it behind.

Within 10 years he was lying on a hospital cot barely able to remember his own name. Before he died he gripped an orderly’s hand and whispered something to her. But he slurred his words, and she understood little English.

By then a couple had moved into his house. And when they brought their newborn son from the hospital, they woke up again and again to check on him. They did this all through that first night, and for many nights after. They felt his chest and listened carefully to his breathing, and they positioned and repositioned him in his crib. The couple left a monitor on, and they would lie awake to hear to their baby’s low sounds emerging from the device’s static like a shape coming out of a heavy snow. And once in the early morning hours the young father started awake, certain a man’s voice had come over the speaker.

“She could be anywhere,” the voice said. “She could be anyone.”

But he realized he'd probably dreamed it. And anyway, the monitor often crossed frequencies with other traffic in the area. There were many couples with many young children. Scores of monitors crackled softly out there in dark suburban nurseries, their red LEDs dim as failing stars. Mothers and fathers slept lightly. A whole world waited full of bad things that could happen. No one could stop them all.

As he drifted off the father barely noticed the sound of the young girl, singing his son to sleep.
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