I like to take walks around my neighborhood. It’s nice. Reminds me of while I was growing up, every street a recollection, every sign a memory. The town you grow up in changes as time goes on, storefronts open and close, the schools get expanded, the rec centers remodeled. But the neighborhoods, the neighborhoods stay the same. It's almost like a perfect preservation of a memory. The street signs and turns lay static at their respective corners, each house as it was the day it was built. Sure, they still age and become lived in, but their exteriors are excellent at keeping their secrets.
My favorite time to walk around is at dusk, I think. There's something soothing to it. Makes you remember playing outside with your neighbors and barely noticing as the sun would descend and the soft, warm glow of the house's’ interior lights would appear. One by one we get called into our homes for dinner, the night drawing to a close. These days I just look into the windows as the sun sets and wonder who actually lives there, if anybody ever did. Often there are signs that betray the house’s secret of who lived there and when, lawn fixtures, cars, seasonal decorations that get put up and taken down appropriately (despite the fact you've never seen anybody actually doing so, they show up as if summoned). But that's it.
Sometimes I stand there and think, what if somebody was very committed to a ruse of making it seem inhabited? It wouldn't be hard to replicate the signs of life in a suburban home. Every night they go there, turn the lights on, and leave. On the holidays they decorate and in the summers they put out their flags. Imagine it, you spend your whole life thinking your neighbor was just a shut in or had a weird schedule and you go to knock on the door and… nothing. You peek inside and there's no furniture, no decor, no human clutter lying about, no personality that has flavored the space to reflect itself. Yet the lights remain on, simulating the presence of life in the same way the flame in a jack o’ lantern briefly animates it’s grin into something familiar, before you realize it's just hollow. The thought is very unnerving, but at that point I end up getting too cold and walking back to my house for dinner.
I suppose the alternative of having an empty house appear full is one that just appears empty, but I can’t tell which one’s eerier. On one of my walking routes I pass a certain house, 10265 Kipling Street. For as long as I can remember, that house has been empty. As I pass it I recall the same memory I always do, one where my childhood friends and I huddle by the mailbox at the opposite side of the street and pitch our theories about the house being haunted, a secret government headquarters, the scene of a murder. You know, kid stuff. There's something more unfamiliar about truly empty houses. Have you ever gone to turn on a light in your home at night time and discovered the bulb was dead or broken? You know the feeling that comes with being in a dark room of a house at dusk, where you can see what little natural light you have left fading while the room gets dimmer? I think about that when I see empty houses in neighborhoods. I imagine the interior, empty and unlived and unused as it sits in the dark. It's a weird feeling.
I like to think, much in the same way my younger self did, that it's way for empty houses to lure people into them, to trap them into occupying the space and living in it. You go to experience the weird and empty feeling of an unlived house, but then you become the thing that lives there. It's silly to say, I know, but I think houses and people need each other. People need houses for obvious reasons, but houses need people in the sense that, when they stand empty, they become places where a strange, restless energy manifests.
One day, I indulged this feeling and walked up to the house in the late afternoon. I gently placed my hand on the doorknob and tried it, and bizarrely enough, it was unlocked. I walked in, tentatively of course, unsure if the house actually belonged to somebody and I had just been unaware of it all these years. The foyer stood empty, just as I had seen it through curiously peeking in the windows as both a child and adult. No furniture, no wall decorations, a thin layer of dust settled upon the shelves. I lightly strode across the wood floor, looking about the interior and taking it in. I entered what I suppose was a living room, although I briefly thought about if one could call it that if nobody lives there. That just becomes a semantics issue though. At that point I decided I should walk upstairs, and so I did. At the top it split into two hallways, and I took the one to the west. As I walked through the blank corridor I thought about what houses that were lived in must be like when all its inhabitants leave. A similar feeling to this, probably, but slightly more familiar. The house just feels lonely, temporarily deprived of its light. But the feeling of loneliness is understood, and the feeling this house in particular projected was nothing of the sort.
I cautiously entered the furthest door to the right and found myself in (what I assumed was) a bedroom. Again, as with the rest of the house, finished but un-lived, the walls painted a neutral tone. The sun was beginning to fall in the sky, the orange light filtering through thin lines of clouds on the horizon, gently washing the room with a warm tinge. I sat down on the carpet and looked out at the sky. I closed my eyes and recalled my childhood memories again, pretending it was my house, my room I was sitting in. For a moment it felt familiar, less like a house and more like a home. I opened them back up and the feeling evaporated. The sun began to dip behind the mountains and the light faded from the room, becoming ever dimmer. How long had I been sitting there? Felt like mere moments, but was clearly longer. I stood up and gazed out the window once more, watching the blinking lights of a distant cell tower come into view as it grew darker. The silhouetted frames of construction cranes loomed in the twilight, the structures once responsible for this home and surely more. As the room continued to shift into blackness, the desire to stay dissipated. I exited the bedroom and noticed something odd. The hallway in front of me seemed much longer than I’d first thought, the turn in the corridor that would lead me to the stairs being much further away. There was some residual light remaining from the sunset, casting a dim gray wash over the space, as if the color were drained out of the walls and floors. I felt the beginnings of a knot forming in my throat.
Walking down the hall I became disoriented, the walls and doors seeming to twist and bend in my periphery, an oppressive, creeping weight creating a pit in my stomach as I passed through the house. Rounding the corner led me to the top of the stairway, overlooking the darkening foyer. The pit in my stomach began trying to tug my lungs and heart down with it, my legs welded to the floor. I towered at the top of the stairs, watching the finale of my shadow stretch across the hardwood below as night crept in from the windows. From the depths of my mind a familiar feeling was dredged up, one of sourceless panic and fear, the same fear that compelled you to dash up from the basement after shutting off the lights as a child, that leaves you bolting awake screaming after a nightmare. I bounded down the staircase as if a jolt of electricity unstuck my legs, keen on making it to the front door to escape, but from what I did not know. The heaviness in my abdomen increased with every second I remained, as if the approaching night was filling up my lungs, weighing my body down, suffocating me in murk and dimness. I clasped my hands on the doorknob in panic, and before I could twist it open and flee, I heard the telltale click of a lock being slid into place. I fumbled to unlock the door before the sun fully set, hysterically mumbling to myself. Seconds of light remained, then mere moments, until I found myself completely engulfed in darkness, unable to open the door and escape.
I felt a bead of ice cold sweat trickle down my neck. I was truly trapped. Trapped by my fear, by the house itself, trapped in eternal obfuscation and permanence. I stood in the empty home amongst the pitch blackness, the lines of the floors and walls subtly shifting and bending in the haze of night, keen to change according to some unseen force’s whim. I suppose I’d made a mistake. I suppose that my childhood self had been right, that I had foolishly fallen into the house's trap. For the brief moment I had let myself live in the house, it had claimed ownership of me as it's resident. I felt it's grip tug and grab like so many hands at my limbs, an inky miasma clouding my train of thought, pinning me in place. It never wanted me to leave. After all, I was it's first tenant, and I'd just moved in. In the moments before I'd let my mind slip from me, I wondered if whoever would pass by the home now would ever feel what I felt. It could no longer carry the air it once did, because the House on Kipling Street had finally been lived in.
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