Key open the front door. The old door used to stick, need a good shoulder. This one’s deadbolt slides open with the sound of television fuzz. This one swings open nice and slow. Doesn’t make a sound. Bumps itself to a stop on a new rubber-tipped doorstop. Doesn’t reach where the doorknob dent used to be before the spackle and paint.
The realtor said he wouldn’t get the price the house deserved if he listed it as is. As was. The toilet wasn’t “fixed” right way back. The dining room ceiling’s water damage needed replacing. The kitchen backsplash was very 90s. The floors, 80s. The carpets were patched by dog piss cleaning chemicals. So, subway tiles in the kitchen. Herringbone-patterned hardwoods everywhere else. Fresh ceilings, new plumbing—that’s a house he could sell.
Eyes sagging, stomach sick; “Let’s do it” never carried so much weight.
Mom used to make one of the foyer tiles crackle despite her slippers. Never missed it. Same one every time. That tile had been scraped up by a crowbar with the rest. Step on that spot where the tile used to be, where Mom used to walk, and there’s nothing. Rock back and forth on the balls of your feet, nothing. I could stomp on it, and it’d just be rubber slapping Tigerwood.
The yellow splotch of kitchen ceiling’s gone. That had been painted over in a nice Eggshell. Every five years or so, Mom would tell Dad it was time to spruce up the house with new paint. “With my luck,” Dad used to joke, pointing at that tobacco stain, “The smoking’ll ruin the new paint job before it gets to killing you.”
Mom would follow up that up with, “All part of my masterplan of using the secondhand to kill you off first so I can collect on your life insurance policy.” They’d laugh. They might’ve even laughed about it turning out not to be the smoking that had almost killed them if they’d made it. No way of knowing. I almost laugh at almost-almost being able to hear them. Dad in the living room watching birddog training tutorials. Mom sitting right here, in the now-empty space where someone’s new kitchen table’ll go, smoking and doodling on an old grocery list.
Mom and Dad’s ass-printed leather couch had crushed four round circles into the living room Berber over its twenty years. Now there’s no couch, no carpet, no parents. Just the space where they’d been. There’s a joke in there somewhere. Something that ends with an orphan walking into a haunted bar for the boos.
I can’t touch the ceiling anymore. Seems that half-inch of carpet did make the room a whole lot smaller, just like the realtor said. The absent TV stand stretches the room out nicely. The missing old-timey, suitcase-looking coffee table adds the openness the space lacked. That thing always reminded Mom they never went away anywhere—it’s almost like they took it with them. Wherever they’ve gone marks the farthest Mom and Dad have been from home since Disney World in ’98. Ba-dum-bump.
Shouldn’t be, but the upstairs creaks. Spots up there used to groan anytime someone made their way to the bathroom. Or to the spare room Dad called the storage room and Mom called the junk room. Or to the spot where Dad could reach up and pull down the attic door but Mom couldn’t because she was too short (or     Dad was too tall; everything was always someone’s fault). Or to my old bedroom.
Mom could explain away every sound the house made. Makes. “That’s just the house settling,” she’d said. And, “That’s just the water heater,” she’d said. And, “That’s just the repairs Dad made to the upstairs plumbing.” She’d said “repairs” with finger quotes.
But to an eight year old, those sounds were ghosts.
They’re ghosts to an adult orphan too.
“Bullshit, ghosts,” Mom used to say. “Just wait ‘til this house falls down around us. We’ll all be ghosts then, and you can blame your father.”
“Blame me?” Dad had said. “Hear how heavy-footed your mom is, son? No house could handle that much stomping.”
Their conversations never went exactly like that, but they always made sure they were in earshot of one another, hurling barbs and following they up with winks or elbows—or sometimes, “Relax, I’m just playing around.”
Once I get upstairs, there’s no more creaking or groaning or anything. There must’ve been plenty of sounds up here a few weeks back. Coughing, gasping for air, trips back and forth to the bathroom, thumbs on phone screens texting, “Yes, we’re both fine.” And, “No, the symptoms haven’t gotten worse.” And, “Of course we’re okay. Nothing to worry about.”
Now, nothing.
Only a whine like a dial tone beneath the silence.
The storage room is empty, neat, vacuumed. Mom and Dad’s room still has indentations in the carpet from where the bed used to be before they’d both died in it.
The house settles again.
Or the pipes groan again.
Or, something.
Creeping, careful, listening, there’s more nothing in the hall. Step nice and light past the empty junk room. Past the second bathroom. Underneath the attic door.
Nothing, everywhere.
Except there is something in my old room. Where Mom straightened my tie before prom. Where Dad helped me install a window unit once the summers got too hot for a fan. Where Mom found the thong my high school girlfriend let me keep. Where Dad stumbled his way through The Talk years too late. Where the wall behind the door had been covered with pencil, and pen, and Sharpie, marking when I was four-foot-two, and four-foot-nine. Five-foot-five—Mom’s height. Six-foot-one—Dad’s.
All of the measurements are gone.
Painted over.
My back against that wall, I reach up and over my head. I scratch my thumb into the surface. I scratch until strips of thumbnail tear away with the paint. I scratch until the dug-out strip of drywall is highlighted with red. I scratch until it feels like my teeth’ll shatter if I keep grinding them. I swipe a line for Dad’s six-one. I swipe a line for Mom’s five-five.
The blood’ll brown.
The damage’ll go unnoticed behind that door for a little while.
Some kid’ll find the marks and tell their friends stories of bullshit ghosts without ever knowing it was us.
But it was us.
And we’re still here.
I make as much noise as I can on my way out, just in case anybody nearby had popped in to check on me.