Corner of 15th and Jackson
was too late. They had seen me before I was able to turn around. I saw their
heads peek up over the hill as I rode and immediately I stopped—I had thought
in time—and attempted to escape. This was not a social time. I was not at
school or interacting with my dad’s students or friends. It was a day of
freedom. I could wear my headphones, ride my bike, exist only ethereally. It
was not a social time.
they saw me and it became social.
“D_____ , is that you?”
was frozen. Mark’s shout was a lingering taste that thickened with ease. This
isn’t happening, my thoughts whispered to me, it will all disappear
soon. I knew I had to answer but part of me held on to the pause in his
voice. Was the question colloquial? Or did he truly question if I was there?
Could I just leave and not suffer the repercussions? I knew the answer,
underneath it all, but all I desired was to fade away, to no longer exist in
the vicinity of anyone’s perception or memory. Every molecule in me pulled away
from this future interaction but the awareness of the ever-expanding silence
following Mark’s question settled upon my consciousness and I knew that it had
already been too long.
turned around and made my way up the hill, their bodies unraveling top-down as
I slowly approached. Mark stood holding his longboard and Ashley rested on her
bike, leaning her arms on the handlebars with heedless composure. I pictured
myself in the same position—casual and cool—until the perception of my true
body reminded me of the reality of this juxtaposition. I cannot emulate; I am
not the same. My body is a crude copy, resembling them somewhat in shape and
functionality but there is something subtly, obviously off. It is known to me
and it is known to others and there is nothing I can do.
up, D_____ , what’s going on?”
could see the smirk on Mark’s face and recognized at once that I was a toy. My
chest tensed but I did my best to hide the dread—I had to appear as if I was
able to play his game.
much,” I said as I attempted to position my body into something that appeared
are you doing out here? You live around here?”
eyes, as if diagnosing me, lingered over my body. I felt as if I had been set
on fire. She had not spoken and I questioned if she would ever. Was I an
intrusion? No, I had been invited. Was it the long pause before I answered
Mark? Had I ruined this whole interaction from the very beginning?
I live back down there, near 12th.”
reminded myself to keep my answers short, concise. If I did not veer off, I had
less chance of humiliation.
you always lived around here?” Mark asked.
we moved in kinda recently,” I answered, using all my effort to not stumble
over the words.
he moved here like a month ago, dude,” Ashley said. She had remembered.
how the fuck am I supposed to know that?”
Porter introduced him in front of the whole class, idiot.”
the first period, I probably wasn’t there!”
gonna fail the 7th grade, Mark, I’m serious.”
stood and observed these interactions as if I was not there. In a way, I was
not. D_______ was who they spoke of and who they spoke to. I could do nothing
to change that. My chest ached. I could feel my hands shake and quickly
squeezed my handlebars to stop any visible movement.
did you move from again D_____ ? I forget,” Ashley asked.
she have a different intent than Mark? I did not see any indication in her eyes
or her voice that I was a spectacle to poke at and prod at and eventually throw
away. But here they were together, a unit, which could suggest similar
motivations. I could not picture her being oblivious to what Mark was doing,
but then again, I was not always skilled at knowing what existed in others’
brains. Could she be here with Mark, be aware of the games he inflicted upon
me, and still not feel the same way? Or was she just better at hiding it? I
yearned for any indication that she was being genuine but I knew I did not have
the ability to judge such a situation.
then became aware of the silence following her question. This was shorter than
the silence following Mark’s first call but being there with them, already
engaging in the conversion, standing there face to face, made it a very
different silence. I pictured myself as Ashley, watching myself stand there
stunned and silent, wearing unseemly clothes that did not fit my alien body,
hair hanging like a fern in need of water. I sunk with this image, this sad
pathetic image, and pictured Ashley and Mark speaking of this interaction,
later on, laughing at the ineptitude I displayed, at how pitiful I made all
that I touched. My chest grew tighter and tighter and felt as though something
had pierced me from behind, an industrial hook, rusted and blunt, digging
through my ribs and lifting me, unable to move or speak, dangling for the
enjoyment of others, a hanging freakshow, boyish and sad, unable to be anything
resembling a human.
not far. We just lived up north, about half an hour away.”
pushed it out fast as if to counter the silence before. It was done. How long
had I remained silent? Two seconds? Five? Too long, I knew that much.
parents get divorced or something?” Mark asked.
immediately slapped Mark on the chest.
Christ, what?” Mark said.
can’t ask him that,” Ashley said, “that’s rude!”
was unsure of whether I should answer Mark’s question or not. Was it acceptable
to stay quiet, since Ashley thought it rude, or was it still inappropriate to
say nothing at all? I watched them interact, trying to find any more indication
of an expected response.
I said, stumbling over my words, “my, my mom quit her job, and my dad works at
the college, so we moved out here for her to find a job and so he could live
closer to work.”
he teach?” Ashley asked.
he’s, he’s a biology professor. And he does research and stuff there too.”
that’s really cool,” Ashley said.
he ever, like, do experiments on you and shit?” Mark asked, chuckling to
Mark,” Ashley said, looking frustrated. “He thinks he’s funny for some reason.”
you like it.”
I really don’t, Mark. I’m trying to have a conversation with someone, and
you’re being really rude.”
were having a great conversation before he came over!”
there it was. It was almost a relief to hear, as I no longer had to question
every interaction. I was in the way, I did not belong. I was an entertaining ad
break that went on too long.
not saying he interrupted or anything, I just mean—”
looked over to me, sighing with frustration. “You’re not interrupting, I called
you over, I know, I’m just saying—”
Mark turned back to Ashley, “—it’s not like you needed a good conversation
because we already were having a good conversation before he came over.”
happen to like talking to many different people,” Ashley said. “I'd honestly
kill myself if you were the only person I had to talk to.”
grabbed his chest dramatically as if shot by an arrow. “Ouch! Oof, really got
me there, Ash.”
I love science,” Ashley said, ignoring Mark, “and I think it’s really cool your
dad teaches it.”
she got so wet when we were dissecting frogs in class, straight up dripping on
the floor,” Mark said, laughing at his joke.
on, that one was funny.”
gross. You can’t say stuff like that.”
gotta admit it was pretty funny,” Mark said, then turned to me, “that one was
had been watching them interact for so long that I had forgotten I was present
in the situation as well. I was unsure of how to speak. Had they been aware of
me this whole time? Or had I been invisible to them for a period of time as
not going to hang out with you if you say stuff like that,” Ashley said, “I’m
Mark said, annoyed, “I’m sorry.”
gross and I don’t like it.”
get it! I already said I was sorry!”
air was tense. Ashley was upset with Mark, Mark was annoyed with Ashley, and I
was just watching it all, a silent observer. I did not want to be there. Could
I leave? This was not planned, and it would make sense if I needed to go for
whatever reason. I most likely did not even need to specify why I had to leave,
only that I had to. I began to build up the courage to speak.
-” I said, my voicing shaking, “I think I’m gonna -”
you know this neighborhood has its own haunted house, D____ ?” Mark
I said, “no, I didn’t.”
wanna check it out?” Mark asked, a playful smile returning to his face.
he wants to go home, “Ashley said, still upset with Mark. “Just let him go
No, he doesn’t.”
can go home, D_____ ,” Ashley said to me. “You don’t have to listen to Mark.
felt pity in Ashley’s voice and my body sunk. I felt as though I were a child
visibly in need of a nap, watching adults play and foolishly thinking myself a
part of their play.
wants to check out the haunted house!” Mark said, then turned to me. “D____ ,
you want to check it out, right?”
uh -” I knew I could not just stay silent this time. This question required a
response. Ashley had told me to go, but if I went home, it would seem as if I
were afraid, only infantilizing me even more. The steel of the hook thickened
between my ribs, sending a shock throughout my body.
I finally pushed out. “Yeah, I’ll check it out.”
then,” Mark said, smiling with a vengeance, “let’s take a field trip, shall
awareness of one’s body is a curse. If I had the opportunity to rid the world
of mirrors and photographs, I would do it in a second. My dad always told me
that when I grow older that I will understand the importance of photographs,
that I will learn to treasure them. “Pictures help you remember the joy you
felt on a vacation, or during an important life moment,” he tells me. “Pictures
become your memories.”
only taint memories. When I see my body in a picture, all of my memories of
that moment are warped, no longer from my point of view but the eyes of a third
party. The excitement of a theme park is turned into the embarrassment of an
expression. The joy of a birthday present is turned into disgust over the body
unwrapping it. The memories of joy that I hold always are moments that I exist
without an awareness of myself as if I were an abstract existence experiencing
the awareness of my body is attached to those moments, in the moment or after,
the joy disappears and shame seeps in.
still with us, D____ ?” Mark yelled.
had been following behind Mark and Ashley, riding slowly on my bike, lost in
thought, forgetting to participate in any discussion that was happening ahead
of me. My mother told me these moments are called “dissociation,” but my dad
would just say “zoning out.” I lose the awareness of existence and time and
flow forward like water in a stream. The shock of being brought back can be alarming,
but the moments following, when I would attempt to recollect the perception of
others, were truly horrific. How long had I been unaware? I knew it was not
ordinary for people to move with others without participation. I was like a
pet, being dragged on an imaginary leash, unable to speak the language or walk
in the same rhythm as the humans around me. On top of this all, I could hear
the humor in Mark’s voice.
I said, trying to hide my humiliation. My dad often told me that if someone
thought I was something I was not, the only thing I had to do was to prove to
them otherwise. ‘If someone thinks you’re boring, show them why you’re not. If someone
thinks you’re dumb, show them how smart you are.’ This concept has been a
prison I have learned to accept as a home. I have never been able to disprove
the initial perceptions of others as I am captive to my defective body,
existing in a purgatory of distorted external identity. Does identity even exist
internally? Or is it only externally formed, through the eyes of others? If
that is the case, then I do not exist. I am a husk, skin without breath, a word
without a definition.
because we are here, my friend,” Mark said with a smile.
there it was. In between two beautiful houses was a decrepit house—large and
ornate—that could honestly only be described as haunted. How had I not seen
this house before Mark pointed it out? It stood out on the block, with its
dulled paint and browning lawn, looking as if it would fall over if I threw a
rock at it. There was an air to it, too, separate from any of the visual
elements, that seemed to pull your attention in. It had remained invisible
until it was brought up, but once I saw it, I had trouble focusing on anything
else. Was this inherent to the house or did this effect come from hearing that
it was haunted before I ever saw it? I did not believe in ghosts or spirits,
but the way the house seemed to be alive—seemed to be breathing almost—did send
a shiver down my spine.
scared D____?” Mark asked with a smile on his face. “You pissing those sweet
Ashley said, shaking her head and trying to hold back a smile.
I said, which was partly true—though the presence of the house did unsettle me
a bit, I would not have described my feelings as fear.
you wanna go inside?”
no, no,” Ashley said, “no one is going inside.”
are you talking about, D____ can go inside if he wants to,” Mark said.
probably has hantavirus, or worse.”
the hell is santavirus?” Mark said with a laugh.
we also don’t know if someone is living there.”
no one in there.”
could live there and just not take care of it.”
ever leave. Or make any noise. Or has been seen by the other people who have
gone in there.”
shook her head. “No one’s been in there—”
been in there!” Mark interrupted.
just says they’ve been in there to look cool. Mark, you have not been in
been in there multiple times.”
Ashley said, “of course you have.”
where me and Derek go to smoke!”
smoke in a bush down from the trail at Mcdonalds.”
mean, yeah, there too.”
Ashley said, speaking to me, “no one goes in there.”
people who are pussies don’t go in there, but everyone else does.”
I’m pretty sure D____ here isn’t a pussy.”
don’t pressure him into it.”
you a pussy?”
had not caught a lot of their conversation due to my near-complete attention to
the house. I still felt as though I could see it breathe, or feel it
breathe. There was a rhythm to it that seemed to settle into my own body as if
our breathing was now synced. I looked over at Mark and shook my head.
you wanna go inside, then?”
sighed, obviously upset. She looked at me and shook her head as if to tell me
that I didn’t have to do this. I knew that I didn’t have to, but as I said
before, if I said no then the label of ‘coward’ would follow me for years. On
top of this, I felt drawn to the house. I was curious about what was inside.
There was a voice in my head, telling me that I would understand the house
better if I were to go inside of it, witness its inner workings.
down, yeah,” I said, still looking forward.
yeah, you are!” Mark said, smiling big. He slapped me on the back, pushing me
towards the house. “My man!”
the push from Mark, I began to walk forward, almost in a trance. I could hear
Ashley muttering behind me, “You’re such a bully.”
wants to go in! I asked him and everything! I’m not forcing anyone to do
anything they don’t wanna do.”
I moved towards the door, slowing with each step, I felt as though I had walked
into a different space, brisker and sharp, as if the house itself had an aura.
I stopped in front of the door and froze, hesitant to open it up. I was not
afraid of ghosts or monsters, or even intruding on someone or finding
disease-ridden rats. I was just stuck. I didn’t know these people behind me yet
I was so beholden to their word, intent on following whatever they told me.
But, no, I wanted to go inside. Yes, the peer pressure had been a part of my
decision, but I was curious, aroused even, to see what rested inside these
walls. I raised my fist, as heavy as a boulder, and I threw it forward,
knocking on the door.
response. I leaned to the side, trying to look in through the window, but the
curtains and the dust protected the inside from any prying eyes.
told you nobody was home!” Mark yelled, giving me a jump.
punched Mark on the arm and Mark laughed. “I’m never wrong, Ashley,” he said,
“did you know that? Did you know that I’m never wrong?”
slowly moved my hand towards the door handle and I gripped it tight as if I
were about to fall.
cold metal sent a shock throughout my body and I took a deep breath. As quietly
as I could, I turned the door handle and opened the door.
door whined, interrupting the extreme quiet of the house. My breath seemed separate
from me, heavy and fast, sounding like a whisper in my ear. A wave of musk hit
me as I crossed over the door line into the house, leaving me dusty and cold.
The house was just as decrepit on the inside, with ripped floral wallpaper
coating the walls, pictures hanging crooked on the walls or sitting on the ground,
furniture with large holes eaten by rats or moths, and slanted chairs and
tables resting on broken legs. The house, though, was far from empty. Yes,
everything was old, dusty, and falling apart, yet there was no indication that
anything had been stolen, moved, or thrown away since someone had lived here
last. After the bang of the closing door, an eerie quiet filled the space,
existing as a presence felt not heard, coating each room like light from a
bulb. It was a big house, as big as the expensive houses surrounding it, with a
large, spiraling staircase greeting me immediately as I moved forward from the
door as if to invite me up. I moved past into what seemed to be a part of the
living room, full of furniture, books, and records that looked as though they
had not been touched in years.
my grandpa died, we had gone to clean his house out and there was a similar
feeling to it, full of items left to collect dust for a year or more, but with
this house, there seemed to have been a lifetime since anyone had been inside.
inched past the couches and chairs of the living room into the dining room,
complete with a dining table large enough for entertaining, and moved my way
towards the kitchen. All of a sudden, I stopped. The silence had been broken.
From inside the kitchen, I could hear breathing—heavy, pained breathing—but
could not see where it came from. Was it my breath from the beginning? It grew louder
and my chest tensed with acknowledgment. I slowly inched forward but had
trouble convincing my body to move closer, my feet dragging as if they knew
something I didn’t. As I got closer, I could see poking out from behind a wall,
what looked to be the ends of shoes, facing up to suggest someone lying down,
and with that, the breathing grew louder, shaky and raspy like a wounded
soldier. My breath began to shake as well, another bodily warning to stop.
jumped, making an audible noise, and turned around to see an elderly man,
looking to be 70 or 80, standing behind me with a smile.
you didn’t arrive yet, but I see.”
words came out as if rearranged, copied and pasted, like an audible ransom
note, jumpy and stalled.
knew you and now I will get tea. Into the room, I will see you after the
subtly motioned me to return to the living room, indicating with a tilt of his
head, and after a few seconds, I began to move forward, making my way to a
couch. He slowly waddled to the kitchen and I found a seat. The couch sunk
fast, lacking the springs it most likely held long ago, and whined just like
the door had when I first came in. I looked back over to the kitchen, leaning
to see if I did in fact see a portion of a shoe, but there was nothing, and the
breath was now gone. The old man made his way back into the room, carrying a
tray with tea and sugar, and set the tray down on the table in front of me.
saw into the road, and my water then heated. And now here is then greeting.
Have you traveled before?”
handed me a cup as he spoke and as I grabbed it, I could feel no heat and sense
no scent coming from the cup. I stared down at it, trying to see if there was
any color to indicate this was anything but water, but the room was too dark.
did not remember the before when I saw passage, but then not I can see across.
Drink, it will calm the squeeze.”
slowly sat on the rocking chair facing the couch and then leaned forward to
grab his cup. I looked back down at the tea and decided to set my cup back on
the table. The man rocked slowly, looking forward with tranquility. Was this
the same house that I had stared at with Mark and Ashley? It seemed as though
it were shaped differently, longer and sharper in a way, with more windows and doors.
The small bits of uncovered windows where the curtains hung torn did not
indicate that the sun was out as it was before I had come in. Thinking back to
the moments when I spoke to Ashley and Mark seemed ages ago. I wondered if they
still stood outside. It couldn’t have been more than five minutes since I had
entered the house but the memories seemed faded as if weeks or months old. I looked
back at the man and he was staring right at me, very intensely, his chair no
have timely made some turn opposite. Have you been big once? I remember now the
small. Nothing had set in and I was made see-through. But then the size made
accurate and my body recognized and made visible. I crave for the visible body,
never have I felt a glow like the body seen. And the passage made sweet the
taste of surroundings. I sit and I think and this is what fills me. It too
calms the squeeze, but later fills my body with it, for the lack breaks the
future light. But here I am, and I tell you of the body made visible, and I
usher you to passage.”
did not breathe the entire time he spoke. He stared at me intently, as if
waiting for a response, but I did not know how to respond or what I was even
responding to. He eventually smiled, laughed to himself, and then nodded,
accepting that I was not going to answer. He looked at me once again and spoke
as if to reassure me.
is not now the now, not yet time to settle in the apex of expansion and even at
the beginning, it will stay in the roots. But visibility is to come. And one
cannot move backward. Visibility is not one way, through the passage, the old
can see, can smell, can track. And they will track and they will go through.”
was frozen, not only my body but my inner workings, unable to move or think at
all in this environment. The man still looked as if he expected something from
me but I could not make out what. He smiled, put his hands on the arms of his
chair with a thunk, and pushed himself up.
I go making blind the interior I will find more tea. Immersion will come no
this, he turned around and left the room with an urgency that I couldn’t add
up. I could hear the breathing again. I looked over and saw what looked to be
legs peeking out from the wall of the kitchen, shaking very slightly, almost
vibrating, so slight I could not tell whether I was making it up. I wanted to
stand up but my body did not respond. I could turn my head, I could squeeze my
hands, but nothing else seemed to budge. Was this shock? Or was this something
else, not internally formed but external, something that had been inflicted
upon me? My thoughts seemed to repeat themselves, loudly and oppressively, like
an angry crowd ready to snap. I looked forward again, thinking that I could
hear the man coming back, but he did not come. I looked down and there was...
something, a substance, without color or shape, slowly making its way past the
entrance of the house. It resembled tar in a way—if tar was more metal and
liquid—though once I had this thought, I immediately thought to myself that it
looked nothing like tar. It was as if my eyes could not process what was in
front of me, this substance that seemed to suck in the color from around it,
illusive to the senses, making me question my perception. It grew fast as it
made its way forward, slowly spreading itself out and rising with each second.
My breath was fast and still, I was frozen, doomed to watch this substance,
this matter, inch closer and closer to where I sat. There was something
familiar about it though I was sure I had not seen anything like it before. Its
color, or lack of color, reverberated within me like recognition, as if my
childhood room had been painted with it. I could not tell how much time had
passed or if time was passing at all. Were those curtains there before? The
floor of the entrance room and the room behind it were gone. I looked back over
at the kitchen. It, too, had its floor painted with the substance, and the
substance began to fill it like a pool, high enough now to hide the legs that I
had seen there before. As it covered my feet, they seemed to lose all feeling,
as if they had fallen asleep. I looked back towards the windows and from what
little I could see outside, it was empty, no street or other houses, no trees
or grass, there was nothing, a desert without sand. The tar had reached up to
my waist now and began to take my hands, my arms, then eventually my shoulders.
I did not move, I could not move, I no longer breathed heavily or seemingly at
all. I watched it crawl up calmly, the substance inevitable and sedate, like
water filling a glass. My body was at peace as I could not feel it and the
substance began to integrate itself into all that was me. As it rose above my
head, I could feel it fill my skull, my thoughts, my memories. Tar filled my
bedroom, my kitchen, my backyard. It filled the books that I owned, the frames
of my pictures, my grandmother’s candy jar. Tar coated my childhood toys and
filled the crib that I once rested in. As the tar-like substance reached the
ceiling, I could see the substance spill out of my mother’s womb, falling splat
upon the tar-painted floor, there from the beginning, before everything else. I
took a big breath and it spilled inside, filling my lungs like a balloon,
racing through my veins and muscles. It was everything and it was always and
for the very first time, I did not question the world around me. I knew what
occupied it, there was no longer any question. It had no expectations of me,
and I in return expected nothing. I was serenely empty. I let my eyelids fall
but this brought no change—the world itself had closed its eyes.__
Kat Vatne is an educator and writer based out of Seattle,
Washington. She first started writing scripts in middle school, practiced poetry
in college, and then produced this short story in the dark depths of
quarantine. This is her first published short story.