"Twenty-three, twenty-five… Aha! Welcome home kids!"
Our rusty-green station wagon pulled excitedly into the short black driveway, relieved to be at rest after the hours of constant highway travel it had been subjected to. Mom brushed back a remaining bead of sweat of from her forehead (a remnant of paranoid concentration), and happily threw the car into park. It sighed with gratitude, and sank down into a numb slumber.
I looked out my window. Eleven-Twenty-Seven Smithson Lane didn't look very inviting. Even the neighbours were trying to run away from it; long forgotten "For Sale" signs stood guard outside of houses Eleven-Twenty-Nine and Eleven-Thirty-One.
Eleven-Twenty-Seven itself still had it's "For Sale" sign up― the "SOLD" sticker clinging helplessly to the cardboard that it was forced to adhere to; the vibrant red letters faded with time. I could tell that it didn't even want to be here; it looked so miserable just hanging there.
Two loud slams made the station wagon wiggle in its sleep and startled me into fumbling my seatbelt open, to join my mom and sister outside the car. Apparently observing the house from a distance wasn't good enough.
They stood in awe of the front porch. If we had all the time in the world, I'm sure they wouldn't have hesitated in worshipping it, throwing themselves at its feet and revelling in its suburban glory. I shuffled over beside them, and warily lifted my eyes, hoping desperately to see what they saw instead of reality.
It was made of grey concrete, matching the four stairs that led up to its cold embrace and the adjoining short path that made hesitant contact with the barely-there black driveway. The path and the porch were both cracked and worn, and nota pleasant sight.
I repressed a groan, and looked up to see the rest of the house. Standard issue red bricks glared back at me, and a messy black roof scowled at my presence, making the beige garage door look like a grimace. The oak tree that rose out of the unkempt front lawn seemed to bend over me, sizing me up from a safe distance while making it evident that it could easily take me if it were to come to a fight between the two of us.
Tougher than what I was used to, I was crushed into despair at seeing this intimidating city tree. Its looming shadow was the final straw.
Live here? I was sure that I couldn't do it. I'd camp out in the car if I had to― I'd breathe in the little bit of country that existed in the dust in its seats, even if it killed me. I'd― Mom and Minnie sighed in oblivious content beside me, calling me back to their presence.
I needed to rein in the sudden angry despair that I felt consuming me; it wasn't good for them to see it. I had to deal with this house pleasantly, for their sakes.
I put on a tiny, unconvincing smile as I looked at the weather-worn window shutters framing the empty eyes of the house. If I needed to put on a show, I would do it.
"Looks like it might need a paint job," I struggled to say lightly. It didn't matter though; they were lost in their own blissful worlds.
I sighed almost inaudibly, and looked back up at the empty windows.
A dark shape flitted by the corner of the window on the far left, on the second storey― the closest window to the oak tree. I blinked.
What was that? A prickling sensation worked through my entire body, instantly cooling my anger and heightening my despair into something else; the hair rose on the back of my neck, and skimmed down to the ends of my toes. I looked back at Minnie and Mom, but they were just as content as they always had been; they hadn't seen anything to upset them.
I looked back at the window. There couldn't have been anything there.
…There shouldn't have been anything there.
A chill ran down my spine. The moving truck with the few appliances that we were bringing here hadn't arrived yet.
I looked at the window again, but it was empty. They were all empty now.
My hands were shaking. Was it fear that now overtook me? I didn't think I scared that easily.
No, it wasn't quite fear; it hadn't progressed that far― but it was oddly frightening in itself, this sensation. I didn't get it; I hadn't seen anything, I convinced myself― nothing had changed. The house was exactly the same as it had been five minutes before. I was being paranoid.
I felt my pulse quicken with a shot of adrenalin; this wasn't normal. My breathing picked up its pace, and my skin went clammy as I shuddered against my will. I could feel my senses heightening as I instinctually tensed myself to flee; there was something wrong with this house, and it was scaring me.
This sharp and sudden contrast in emotion to the desperate anger that I had experienced before threw me into a blind panic. I was reacting to this house in a way that I didn't expect, and I didn't know why. I hadn't seen anything; of that, I was determined.
Get a hold of yourself.
I had an imperative desire to leave. I couldn't calm down; I was never one to believe in intuition, but this sudden change in feeling couldn't be explained any other way. My intuition was playing games with me.
The house was empty. There was nothing to worry about. All I saw was a shadow from the tree; the window was right beside it, so it was possible. I could imagine the house's echoes; it was empty. Nothing to worry about.
It should probably stay empty too, I couldn't refrain from the thought; the sense of foreboding chilled my hands. I looked back up at the tree again, and shivered as the branches bent lower, reaching out to me against the breeze.
I shook my head.
It was just a house. Being confined to a car for four hours straight must have made me nervous with exhaustion. I'd have to leave my appraisal for a time when my emotions were more under control.
"Shall we?" asked Mom, dangling the key to the front door in front of Minnie and I as she might a carrot in front of a horse.
"Yes!" exclaimed Minnie. She darted to the trunk of the car and quickly tossed out our suitcases, dragging them to us impatiently.
I grabbed my backpack out from beside my seat in the car, and closed the door that I had left open. I slowly let the bag fall to my shoulder. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn't shake the feeling of fearful apprehension that had settled on me― and fuelled by my regrouping, albeit nervous frustration (why did I have to live here?), it was starting to make me nauseous.
"Aldan, you may have the honour," The key was handed to me.
Me, of all people. Minnie was eager; Mom was excited; even the oak tree seemed to perk up, stretching out farther as if to take the key from me. But I had to open the door now.
I had to― for Mom, and in an indirect way, Minnie too.
I swallowed back the bile in my throat that had risen as an instinctual warning, and began to step up to the house.
"Oh, don't be melodramatic," said Minnie as she rolled her eyes at me, running up to the porch and impatiently crossing her arms, forgetting all about her suitcase on the driveway.
I could feel Mom's stare on my back, wondering at my slow pace; wasn't I happy here?
My immediate reaction was to pause, but in my current state, I knew that I wouldn't be able to continue moving forward if I did. All of that macho bravery that I was supposed to pride myself on was gone. I took another step along the cracked concrete path, and took a deep breath as I lunged myself boldly into what I hoped looked like an enthusiastic sprint up the steps to the porch. I hoped it camouflaged my trembling.
Minnie laughed with my mom as I fumbled with the key in the lock, slightly breathless even though I had run a very short distance. I told myself not to panic, and turned to face them both, drawing in a breath.
"Just open the door! No build up!" …Minnie was impatient.
Mom glared at her, but clapped her hands all the same in encouragement.
"C'mon, c'mon, c'mon, c'mon!" Minnie tapped her foot on the concrete.
They couldn't stand still if they tried.
In spite of myself, I was smiling (I knew that I hadn't seen anything; I was sure of it) as I turned back to the door, twisting the handle down. Twisting it open.
"Welcome home," I said, ushering them in. My hand shook as I directed them, but they didn't notice. They giggled and stepped ahead eagerly.
I felt the bile catch in my throat as I closed the door behind me; this couldn't have been a game. My intuition was real; it was alive and scared out of its mind.