To be homeless in a land of the housed, or was it homed? It was a common reflection for Rita. To her, not to be housed on her own terms was more than insult; it seemed a ridiculous waste of her energy and talents, spending every conscious moment in pursuit of a place to rest for the time when rest became compulsory, then risking it all fighting to maintain it. No one had mentioned this possibility to her in her youth, when security in her future middle age hadn’t been an unreasonable imagining.
Still, this place was a fortunate discovery. She stood there in the tall brown grass, in her threadbare raincoat and dull rubber boots. It was a wonder, she thought, as she dropped her bags in the wild untended garden, how a place like this could go lost to the city surrounding it, behind its overgrown hedges and hidden gateway. It was sure to be inventory on some realtor’s list. It was a mansion, after all. Even if it had seen better days – shutters hanging by single hinges and windows broken, the front door having been forced. It was a gothic tragedy.
She was standing next to a dormant fountain, a centre piece around which a weedy driveway arced, leading up to and then away from the grand front steps that went up to a splendid, if ramshackle, wraparound porch. The fountain was a little taller than her, made of marble, once alive with showery glistening cherubs and lavishly carved fish standing erect on their tautly coiled tails. The cherubs reaching skyward with their chubby hands, as if to touch the outer membrane of creation to exchange plasmatic sparks with God’s holy outstretched fingers. Now the pool at its base was dry and scattered with dead leaves.
Wasn’t this the very definition of fixer-upper? Where was the young couple, with more of the bank’s money than sense, to buy it and make it a home?
It was a romantic domestic idea. Just one of thousands that streamed into her head hourly. They would not cease.
“It’s a fucking dump,” said Henry. Henry was a new voice, acquired since she abandoned the olanzapine. He was a working class Londoner with a broad uncouth accent. “I’d rather live in a fucking tent.”
“It’s lovely,” Rita replied, dreamily.
“It’s a bad house,” whispered Natalie, the voice of Rita’s shaman. “Don’t go inside,” she warned. “You’ll be courting ghosts.”
“These ghosts scarier than you lot?” Rita said. She meant her collection of voices.
“Careful with that,” said another voice, familiar but without a real name, the voice of The Nun. The one that insisted Rita was possessed by demons, and that only prayer could save her. Rita ignored The Nun, slightly offended by the idea that she was possessed by mere demons and not Satan himself.
“I will go inside,” Rita said.
It was late October, cold overcast and now becoming dark. She hoisted her bags and climbed the stairs. The front door was long gone, leaving a dark open portal. She crossed the threshold and entered what must have been a greeting hall.
“It’s dark,” said Tony, her timid little boy. He needed her. The other voices bullied him. He’d disappeared while Rita was on antipsychotics, missing in some undiscoverable province of her mind, frightened and alone. But now he was back, and in her care.
“Don’t worry, Tony,” she said. “I’m here. We’re all here together.”
The house smelled of mould, though the weather had been dry for two weeks, and something else. She opened a bag and took out a candle, lighting it with a plastic lighter she returned to her pocket. The candlelight illuminated the hall and part of the larger room beyond, the tall ceilings and ornately molded plaster, pale blue paint peeling, walls stained and tagged with graffiti. Rita heard the sound of small animals darting in the dark.
“Malevolence,” Natalie whispered. Her whispers always sounded like the hiss of wind in a darkened alley, setting Rita on edge.
“It’s a bit premature for that, Natalie, you old hag.” It was Samuel, mostly the voice of calm and reason. “This place is shelter. Shelter we need, yes?”
“I need no shelter,” Natalie said. “I am energy. My shelter is the cosmos.”
“Very poetic,” Samuel said.
Rita said, “Please, not now, you two. I want to explore before we settle down.”
Rita knew she must look in every room. There might be other homeless in the house, unwilling to share. Crazed on drugs. Drenched in murder. Demons and ghosts. This was an observation she had shared with Dr. Mazari, the city psychiatrist, nervous when she mentioned it casually during an appointment.
“Why don’t we find you a home, Rita?” he’d said. “A little apartment you can call your own. Somewhere where there’s staff to watch out for you. We could get your psychosis under control. No more taking chances in derelict buildings, exploring empty rooms.” Dr. Mazari loved his metaphors.
But she said she wouldn’t go back to one of those places. Where the youngsters they hired forced pills down her throat and laughed at her behind her back, as if she didn’t know. Where she was placed in the dusty papery continuum of some weary Social Worker’s caseload. Appointments with the last one so tedious that she pitied him. His face and wringing hands exposing his anguish as he evaded the daggers of his various office quandaries and catastrophic relationships. His obvious anxieties powering the orbits of moons round the planets of his cruelly acquired cynicism.
“Tell me who’s the caregiver then, doc?” she’d said.
Dr. Mazari hadn’t answered. He’d only stared at her for a moment and blinked. He’d clearly expected her to passively agree. Perhaps he also wondered at her eloquence, as though she was incapable of having thought such a proposal through ahead of time, based on her own lived experience.
They were always happier when she raved, and she had raved more often than she liked to admit. But not then in Mazari’s office. A parenthesis had hung in the room with them, then. Something subordinate, best placed in brackets and left unsaid.
Mazari scribbled something in Rita’s thin file, and dismissed her. She never returned.
Now she climbed a curving staircase, having crossed the sagging living room. The staircase was something from an old film noir classic, where Bogart might have stood, lighting a cigarette.
The light of the candle preceded her. For the moment, there was nothing else in the world. Or perhaps there was. She thought she could hear sounds beneath the creak of each ruined step. Laughter hiding behind each squeak and scrape.
“Stop laughing,” she said.
“But you’re funny, you are,” said Malcolm. Mischief Malcolm, he’d named himself. He who admonished her for not walking in traffic, cutting herself, shoplifting or spitting on cops. “Tip toeing around,” he said, “like there be monsters here.”
“There are,” Natalie said.
“There aren’t,” said Tony.
“Yes there bloody well are, little boy,” said Henry.
“Stop it,” Rita said, a little too loudly. Adding too much credence to the reasoning behind the conversation.
She reached the top of the stairs and could see a row of doors on both sides of the hallway before her. Bedrooms, she thought. She would be exploring for a half hour, at least. She hoped her candle would last.
The walls of the hallway were stained brown with water that had leaked in through the collapsing roof, and the ceiling sagged.
The first room was large and empty, obscenely spray painted. A window let in dim light. There was a decaying shoe on the floor and putrid blankets. A fuel can, likely empty, next to a broken kerosene lamp. Closet doors opened onto empty space, where whole wardrobes once hung, worn by a warm living breathing thinking person. Where was he or she now? Had there been joy in this room?
The next room was smaller and contained a solitary baby’s crib. The moon was breaking through the clouds outside and shone through the broken window. The abandoned crib seemed all the sadder in the silver light.
“Nursery,” Rita said.
“Baby ghosts,” whispered Natalie, “the most melancholy, robbed of life before life begins.”
“They’re with God,” said The Nun. “If they are baptised, that is. If not, they abide in purgatory forever. God is good.”
“God’s a dick,” said Henry.
“Stop it,” said Rita.
There was a smell in the room, sharing the air with that of mould and the foul dry rot of the building’s timber frame. It was like what she’d encountered when she first entered the house, only stronger now. A disturbing smell, triggering something inside of her. Something prehistoric, a signal to run. But she couldn’t. There was nowhere to go.
She exited the nursery into the hall and walked toward the next room, but stopped at the door. Here the disturbing smell was overwhelming. She felt it on her skin. She heard it in her ears.
“Don’t go in,” whispered Natalie.
“She might be right for once,” Samuel said.
“Enter in prayer,” said The Nun. “You shall fear no evil….”
“Burn the fucking place down,” said Mischief Malcolm.
Rita jerked her head and shoulders, as if to dislodge the voices. They felt like they clung to her.
“Leave me,” she said, and entered the room.
The room was the same as the others, empty but for things made insignificant by neglect and decay. An empty wooden crate, used syringes, a balled-up sleeping bag. Rita tried to hold her breath, extending her arm, holding the candle out in front of her, moving it from one side of the room to the other. Until she saw the eight ball eyes and stopped. The cloudy unseeing cataract eyes, bulging in the head of a dead man. A head with a gaping bloody bullet wound, tilted over onto his shoulder.
“Monsters,” one of the voices said.
“Shut up.” Rita jerked her head and shoulders.
“This is the fucking stink,” said Henry.
“Is he dead?” Tony said.
“Dead and in hell,” said The Nun.
Rita knelt next to the body, holding the candle close for a better view. She felt the molten wax drip across her fingers and hand. Death is so still, she thought. Nothing more silent, unmoving.
She stood abruptly. Suddenly sensing someone in the room with her. She turned and looked behind her.
“It’s him,” Natalie whispered. “Where’s God now? Nun, you bitch.”
There were undeniable footsteps beyond the candle light, breathing. Rita stepped forward to illuminate more of the darkened room. Nothing. But there, just beyond the candlelight. Movement, a figure dashing to the left.
“Who’s there,” Rita hissed.
“Burn the fucking place down,” said Mischief Malcolm.
“I’m scared,” said Tony.
“Show yourself,” said Rita.
And the glowing figure stepped forward. Silver like the moonlight. Different from the ruined cadaver on the floor, but the same as well. The clothes were a match, but the face was mild young and unmarked by violence. Early twenties, she guessed.
“I’ll cast a spell,” whispered Natalie. “I’ll send him away.”
“Pray,” said The Nun.
“I’ll kick his fucking ass,” shouted Henry.
“What happened?” Rita said.
“I died,” said the ghost.
“I owed money I couldn’t pay. What does it matter now?”
“What was your name?” said Rita.
“Nigel,” said the ghost. Then, “You mustn’t stay here. There are more than me. Predatory. Watching you now.”
He’d been good, Rita thought. Bad choices.
“There is no other place for me tonight.”
“Anywhere is better. The street.”
There was shuffling in the dark. Heavy clumsy feet.
“They’ve been here a long time,” Nigel said.
“Malcolm’s right,” Henry shouted.
“Demons,” said The Nun.
“Not demons,” said Nigel.
“Do you hear them?” Rita said, surprised. “The voices?”
“Yes,” said Nigel. “But The Nun is wrong. They’re not demons. They were were human once. Worse than demons.”
A door slammed in the hall. Then all the doors slammed in the hall. Again and again. The remaining unbroken windows in the room shattered inward, spraying Rita with broken glass. She could hear low voices, murmurs and sighs. There was movement behind her. She turned to look. Nigel’s body was shifting. Awkwardly rising of its own accord. Its bulging eyes turning in their sockets.
“It’s not me,” said Nigel.
“Bloody well looks like you,” said Samuel.
“It’s them,” whispered Natalie.
“Who?” Rita said.
“They want you,” said Natalie, loudly now, with urgency. “Eat you alive. This place is hell,” she screamed.
Now Rita remembered the first room. She moved fast, keeping her hand round the flame of the candle so it wouldn’t go out. She ran down the hall and entered. There was the kerosene can. The one she assumed was empty. She picked it up. It felt heavy enough to be full. She removed the cap and sniffed. It was indeed fuel. She grabbed the blankets and ran, but was slammed against the wall by something unseen as she took to the stairs. She stumbled. But grasped the railing and continued down.
Vast patches of plaster had fallen away from the living room walls. Leaving holes, exposing large expanses of narrow pine shiplap, dry and flammable. She put her candle down and dropped the blankets in front of one of the holes, dousing them in kerosene. Then she doused the shiplap, soaking it.
Turning then, she saw her candle extinguished. The air was still. There was unfamiliar laughter, and she was thrown once more against the wall. Something snapped in her arm this time, accompanied by a paralyzing pain that rapidly occupied the full distance from her shoulder to her finger tips. She lay motionless in her agony. More laughter. Then an impact with her stomach. A boot. A kick to the belly. She knew the pain. She’d been kicked there before. Never fall down in a fight, she’d been told by someone more experienced than her. But what could she do now?
The strong smell of kerosene was sickening. Her hand felt for it, and found her plastic lighter in a pocket. She grabbed it with her good hand and heard the house shriek as she lit the blankets. The flames rose and took hold of the expose wood. The living room was immediately brightened by flame. Rita rolled onto her back and watch as the fire worked its way into the wall.
* * * * *
The glow on the north east horizon went mostly unnoticed at first. But slowly, the sirens began. And the city, early into its night, became aware that some unassigned calamity was taking place. Maybe even something that would win an editorial race to top story, to be displayed on the handheld screens of the citizenry.
“Close call,” said Henry.
“It was good to fucking burn it down,” said Mischief Malcolm.
“You’re safe now,” said Nigel.
Rita felt a clean blanket over her. There was an oxygen mask on her face. She was on a gurney. Surrounded by red and blue flashing lights. The flames of the house could be seen over the tops of the overgrown hedges.
“Not a hospital,” she said.
“Your arm’s broken,” Nigel said, smoothing the bangs out of her eyes. “And you’ve inhaled too much smoke. Don’t worry, I’ll keep this lot at bay. No voices while you’re in the Emergency Ward. Tell them that there were others in the house who started the fire. Maybe you’ll get out with just a cast and some pain killers.”
His voice was soothing. And unlike the others, he could actually be seen.