From the editor:After the death of their parents, five siblings face mysterious changes to their rambling old house: rooms shift in the night, and familiar doorways lead to unknown places. Author KJ Kabza’s short story collection THE RAMSHEAD ALGORITHM is now available from Pink Narcissus Press, and dozens of his stories can be found on Curious Fictions.
From the author: After the sudden death of their parents, five siblings stay in the family home well into adulthood. But then the house, of its own volition, begins to change.
You don't notice (not really) when you lose a single sock from the laundry bag, or a penny falls from your pocket and rolls away, or a receipt gets brushed off the table and drifts under the refrigerator.
When entire rooms of your house go missing, though, you kind of can't help but sit up and take notice.
Especially when other rooms appear in their stead. Like that blue bathroom with the flamingo-pink tile by the upstairs hall closet. Or the windowless room with the piano (none of us plays the piano) or the cupola on top of the house. I mean, you can't even get to the cupola, so really, House, what's the point?
House doesn't answer.
House has always had some tricksy tendencies like this. I noticed it when I was young, three or four maybe, but "notice" isn't really the right word. At that age, your logical understanding of the world around you isn't so good, and it somehow seems perfectly natural that your house would be a nexus of constantly shifting treasure. Besides, most kids discover things in their own normal attics and basements all the time, and lose their toys, and wake up and discover that clean laundry has appeared in their closets as if by magic. I didn't know, I mean I didn't truly believe, that my house was deliberately swapping around the things inside of it until I was eleven, and it gave me a different alarm clock. I had set my clock radio the night before, and when it woke me up with a peculiarly melodic ring, it was a wind-up antique made of brass.
I didn't know what House's deal was. Sometimes I thought House was jealous of our ability to move in the outside world, and that it did not like the reminders—groceries, shampoo, clothes—we constantly brought in. Sometimes I thought House was anxious to please us, clumsily tidying up where no tidying was wanted, and providing instead items we did not need in its eagerness to anticipate our desires. And on days when I felt uncharitable, I just thought House was a crabby old bitch.
But it was the new bedroom on the third floor that finally did it. It appeared one day in the spring, about two weeks after the inaccessible cupola. The room was full Southern Gothic—dark woods, velvet drapes, close floral patterns, gorgeous in their decadence and decay, all moldering from rich bayou air. Air that does not exist in the frigid New England chunk that our rinky-dink dump of a town is frozen inside of. House does not even like Southern Gothic. House likes middle-class suburban America.
As soon as I saw that bedroom, it was like you seeing your tween suddenly reading Poe, dressing in black, and filing her nails into black lacquered points. Something is really wrong with House, I thought, looking at the sagging canopy bed. Is this what depression looks like?
We tried to hire a psychiatrist, or a psychologist, or anyone, really, to analyze House. But we couldn't explain the problem very well. "Feng Shui?" one lady asked. "Are you talking about Feng Shui?" Another lady thought we were pranking her ("A schizophrenic house, yes, very funny"), and one guy thought we were looking for the producers of that show about ghost hunting. "Look," one lady finally said. "Why don't you try hiring a medium?"
So we did. Her name was Mother Bonita. (Mother of what, I didn't want to know.) She swept into House, all Grand Arrival and Long-Mink-Coat-Even-Though-It-Was-April, and held up her skinny arms and announced, "Marvelous!"
We looked at each other.
"Give me a tour," she said.
We did. It wasn't easy, because parts of the house we'd never seen before, and what can you say when you look up and notice a wrought-iron chandelier in your foyer, other than "Holy shit"? We also had trouble explaining the kitchen, on account of there now being two of them, at opposite ends of the downstairs. "How very interesting," said Mother Bonita. "Why does the house have two kitchens?"
"This one used to be the garage," someone said forlornly.
We showed her the living room (House had eaten the fireplace), the dining room (House had switched all the china with other china), and the bathroom with the double toilets, nestled side-by-side like a pair of gleaming porcelain swans. "Do they function independently of one another?" Mother Bonita asked. "That is to say, if you do your business in one, do you have to flush the handle on the second for it to go down?"
Deck chairs on the goddamn Titanic. We pulled her upstairs.
"That's my room," I said, pointing down the hall and over the new, lush grassland of seventies orange shag carpeting. "My brothers are there and there, and my sisters are there and there. When our parents were still alive, they were in the master suite on the first floor."
"I didn't see a master suite down there."
"House turned it into the game room."
"Don't forget the piano room," someone said, pointing down the hall at a green door. "There's an upright piano in there. It came last month."
"I hope you can help us," someone else said. "What if House eats my closet? What if I lose all my clothes?"
We heard a door open. We looked at each other.
"Mais que se passe-t-il nom de Dieu?" an unseen person said.
Mother Bonita hustled down the hall, little dead mink tails on the hem of her coat wagging merrily atop the shag. We followed her. Back by the old servants' staircase, the door to someone's bedroom had opened and a beanpole of a man with bug eyes stood on the threshold. A fat, unlit cigarette hung between sagging lips. "Où suis-je? Qui sont ces putains de gens?"
"My room!" someone shrieked. Beyond the man, the bedroom had changed into a shoebox of a studio apartment, stinking of beer and bachelor. "My portfolio!"
"Oh my," said Mother Bonita. "I think I'm beginning to see the nature of your problem."
"Wait," said someone. "I took French in high school. I got this. Salut! Je suis désolé, mais pouvez-vous répéter plus lentement, s'il vous plaît?"
"On est en Angleterre? Suis-je à Narnia? C'est quoi cette connerie?"
Someone peered past the stranger. "No—I think your portfolio is still in there. And some of your books. Maybe you should go in and grab them."
I touched Mother Bonita's elbow to get her attention. "So what's the nature of House's problem?"
"Vous êtes en Amérique. Quel est votre prénom?"
"Comment ai-je attéri ici bordel?"
"Um...c'est ce qu'on cherche à savoir."
The stranger stomped back into the studio and packed a bag. Someone hovered on the threshold, eyeing the portfolio on the table with nervous desperation. "Can you tell him to bring me my portfolio?"
"Just go in and get it yourself."
"It's his apartment."
"No it isn't! It's House!"
"Oh, what, so House can create life now? Is that what you're saying? House is conjuring people from thin air?"
"Let's get this little wrinkle ironed out first," said Mother Bonita to me. "I think—whoops, things seem to be working themselves out naturally."
The French man stomped out of the studio, backpack on and small duffel bag in hand. "Etant donné que je suis à Narnia, je vais en profiter pour visiter," he said, archly.
"Je vous ai dit que vous êtes en Amérique!" said someone, but the stranger just tromped down the back staircase. We heard the front door slam.
Mother Bonita turned to us. "Is this the first time anything like that's happened?"
We looked at each other like: Believe me, Lady, if it had, we would've told you.
The medium entered the shoebox of a studio, put her hands on her hips, and turned slowly in place to take a survey. It was the exact size of the room that had been there previously, though of course, the French Man Incident was back before House started breaking other laws of physics. "Close the door for a moment," she said. "I'd like to ask your house a question."
We closed the door.
We didn't know how long to wait. After a while we grew bored and curious and took a peek inside.
The room had changed again. Mother Bonita was gone.
The French man didn't come back. And Mother Bonita never returned our calls. Was she dead now? We weren't sure.
Three days later, we were sitting at the kitchen table, buttering toast, when the door to the nearest bathroom opened. A jowly old Chinese man poked his head out, looked around, and said, "Dui bu qi, wo jin cuo fang jian le," before withdrawing and shutting the door.
We didn't know what to do, other than go back to eating breakfast.
Two days later, we were playing rounds of Ping-Pong in the game room (always trying not to think of the room it should've been, of what House had taken from us along with this space), when we saw a little black girl walk by in the hallway, talking to herself in a singsong blend of English and nothing I'd ever heard before. "Look, Mwaka," she said, to some imaginary companion. "It's this place again." A few of us ran after her, but she vanished into the basement.
Five days later, a scream awoke us at three A.M., and we charged into somebody's room with golf clubs and irregular paperweights and cricket bats at the ready, only to find a terrified 400-pound woman gathering the bedsheets around her nude body while one of us cried, "I got up to pee and I came back and there she was!"
One of us turned on the light. "What do you want?" the woman cried, drawing the sheets tighter. "Please, just take it. My jewelry's in the box on the dresser, my purse—"
"We're not here to rob you," someone said tiredly, lowering a golf club. "Goddamnit, how often does this have to happen? We need to hire another medium."
"Mother Bonita was the only real one," someone else said. "We called all the others to feel them out, remember?"
Someone's gaze became distant and unfocused. "No. We don't need another medium. We need to get out of here."
"Don't say that," we all said.
"Wait," said the nude woman. "Where am I? This is my bed, but this room—I've never seen that mirror before in my life. What's going on?"
"No. We need to get out of here." A violent gesture at the bed, with its luscious red sheets and baffled occupant. "This is not normal. Nobody lives like this. Nobody has to live like this."
I stepped forward, hands up. "Calm down. You're overreacting. House gave your portfolio back, right? Along with all that other stuff of yours we found on the porch?"
"This isn't about my portfolio!"
We stared at her, standing on the other side of the room, hands in fists and face screwed up like a determined lemon-eater. Becca looked like a tantruming child, with her slight build and tousled bob haircut, staticky from sleep and half-plastered to her cheek. "This is about what's good for us! I can ignore the little things that House does when everything's normal, but how am I supposed to live from day to day, knowing that huge chunks of my life might suddenly go missing?"
"The same way we always have," I said. "We're staying."
We realized what she meant. "But we always stick together," someone said.
Becca said, "Not anymore."
She kicked over her cricket bat and left the room. Come morning, a U-Haul driven by Becca's boyfriend would be in the driveway, slowly filling up with items.
The woman on the bed laboriously sat up. "So none of you know what's going on either?"
Four days later, just before dawn, we heard a rusty bark.
I heard everyone's bedsprings squeal, everyone's feet go pounding down the staircases while someone gasped, "No no no no NO," and someone else said, "It won't be like that!"
For a minute I lay there in fear.
Then I went downstairs.
The living room had changed. House had made it like it was over ten years ago—awkward photos of us as teenagers, guitars in the corner, the old ripped couch with the coffee stain. Everyone was on the floor, laughing, weeping. In the center of their ferociously loving hands wiggled Brat.
My heart became ice. Brat barked and wagged his whip-thin tail, thick pit-bull's snout plunging into everyone's leaky faces, as though nine years of rotting in a backyard grave had somehow been faked.
We blinked and he was gone.
David was inconsolable. He curled up on the carpet and cried, face buried behind those massive forearms, five minutes with his dead dog enough to strip away twenty-two years' worth of self-control. "Bratty, Bratty, Bratty, don't go, not again, don't go."
David's U-Haul was gone by sundown.
When the others weren't nearby, I yelled at House. I stomped through hallways that became increasingly unfamiliar and disjointed, through rooms that held jumbles of things we had and used to have and never had. "Give me all the ugly clothes you want. Take away all my shit. Go on, I don't care. But don't you dare destroy my family. Don't you goddamn dare. We're all we have left."
House didn't answer.
While I stomped through the new floors and wings, the others spent more and more time in the game room. They'd always been like that in response to stress—withdrawing and not talking about it. I wanted Becca's outbursts and David's guitar, concrete auditory reminders that something was not right, over this isolating silence.
We miss you sorely, Mom and Dad. You're a bullet hole in the heart. Punched clean through the five of us in one violent go.
"Where does House take people?" they started to wonder aloud. "When it eats a room?" "I'm sure we could test this somehow. The next time House sends us a person, let's get them to call us on their cell phone, and we'll see if the connection holds when the room disappears." "That could be a good idea, but what are the odds that House will send us someone who speaks English again?"
I didn't participate in the debate. I didn't care where other people went. As long as these two stayed.
Eventually, they got their wish. But it wasn't how any of us wanted. Asher had gone into the piano room to fool around on the upright, and the idle plink-plonk-plunks that had been distantly plonking for twenty minutes dropped off like the edge of a cliff.
We looked at each other and howled Asher's name.
We ran upstairs—three flights this time—but couldn't find the piano room. We checked other floors, and other rooms, and closets of other rooms. It was pointless, of course. By the time we made a full sweep of the house, something would change behind us.
Conscientious Asher was the kind of guy who never lost his wallet, always had emergency matches, and always knew where North was. He was never without his phone. So we called it.
It rang and rang.
It was just the two of us now. So few people for such a big house. Forget two kitchens and one innocent pair of toilets—we had multiple dens, libraries, offices, drawing rooms, pantries, receiving rooms, alcoves, nooks, crannies, and chinks. We had three or six or five floors. We had multiple attics. We had basements and sub-basements that spiraled down, way down into the moldering earth, whole catacombs of spider skeletons and terrible secrets.
We were afraid we'd lose each other in a house so big, or that House would just keep growing and growing and finally push us so far apart that a vast sea of rooms would mix freely between us, two victims of accelerated tectonic drift.
We decided to take a very long piece of string and tie each end to the other's wrist. It seemed embarrassing, somehow, but we didn't know what else to do. So we went into a kitchen and opened a drawer that we thought held some kite string.
A sparrow flew out instead and booked it like mad for an open window.
As we watched it go, we realized what was outside.
It was someplace new. A clear blue sky. High, rolling hills, rippling with tall grass, scored irregularly by footpaths and pairs of wheel ruts.
We ran to the front door and opened it. A pair of people strolled by, arm in arm, as free in their innocent affection as children. I couldn't tell what their clothes were made of. They looked surprised to see us, and as they passed, uttered something we couldn't understand, but it sounded easygoing and friendly enough.
I saw the look in her eyes. "No," I begged.
"The French man thought he was in Narnia," Miri said, slowly. "And when it happened, I wondered, maybe it's only a matter of time—"
"You can't," I said. Heat prickled behind my eyes. My chest felt tight. "You said you'd never leave. You promised."
"I didn't really think it would be like this." She set a hand on the open doorframe. Her keen, narrow face peered out into the hills, thirsting, transfixed. "You know I kept sneaking inside Mom's wardrobe when I was little. Hoping it would just keep going."
She shook her head, hypnotized. "This is older than my promise. Much older. I'm sorry."
"You don't know the language! You don't know what their medical science is like! What if they don't have apples here? Or books? Or dogs?" I squeezed her wrist. "I'll never see you again! None of us will!"
She looked pained.
"Doesn't that mean anything to you?" I pleaded. "This isn't like Becca or David, who can call us, or Asher, who's... I don't know, stuck somewhere in Palau or Vladivostok, or someplace where they still might have cell phones—this is—"
"I know what this is," she said quietly. "And I know what I want."
I couldn't see her through the prickling, gathering blur. "You're all I have left," I whispered.
She turned and took my hands, like she was eight again and I was four, and she was explaining to me the importance of being good. "You don't have to do this," she said. "Asher's twenty-eight now. I'm twenty-nine. We both know that if that car wreck hadn't happened, we all would've moved out long ago."
"Nobody would've moved to fucking Narnia!" I pulled my hands away and wiped my eyes. "Nobody—"
She grabbed them again. "David would've gone back to finish college. Becca would've kept living with her boyfriend. I know you've tried to hold the family together, and you've done a great job—running the house and managing the money, and—"
"You're blaming me now?" I was too devastated to wipe my eyes again. "You're saying all this is my fault?"
"No! I'm just saying that, maybe, it's time we became something different."
"But what's wrong with what we were?" I choked. "We were happy."
"And we can't be happy some other way?"
She left me with that. She went inside and, wouldn't you know it, House had placed her bedroom directly to our right, as if it couldn't wait to be rid of her. I watched as Miri packed two bags, with me still pleading and getting nowhere.
Miri hugged me goodbye while I cried. "Go with my love," she whispered, even though she was the one who was going.
She stepped out into the rolling hills.
For six hours I couldn't bear to shut the door. But with nightfall came powerful winds, and House grew freezing, and I knew she wasn't coming back.
I took a walk. Through House. Rooms and halls changed around me, an endless succession of doors and corridors, the logic behind everything surrounding me a total mystery, the way the human world must appear to a hamster in a ball.
I found a shoebox of a studio.
I entered the studio. It was tidy now, repainted a sunny yellow and almost charming. A vase of daisies sat upon the table. Below the vase was a note, written in an unfamiliar hand on a scrap of paper.
Maybe it's time we became something different.
I couldn't read the signature.
I looked back through the open door, into House, down a hardwood floor lined with a deep green runner, at pictures on the walls displaying a Latino family I'd never seen in my life.
It occurred to me that since the first metamorphosis, I had never seen House change the contents of the game room.
I didn't want to live in France, because unlike David, I don't have a talent with languages. So I took the note and went back into House.
I went from room to room with my phone out, looking for someplace where I could get service. When I found one—it looked a lot like my bedroom, actually, and maybe it even had been, once—I looked up the number for U-Haul.
"For Sale, by Owner," I had decided, and a full week later, after the heaviest of my shock had worn off, I gathered the courage to go back and face House.
House wasn't there anymore.
The lot contained a building that was a house. But it wasn't House. House had been, from the exterior, a sprawling New England Victorian. This house was a one-story cottage, an innocent little thing nestled among beautiful English-style gardens. Hammock in the side yard. White curtains in the windows. The kind of place a newly married couple might move into.
I went up the slate walk and placed my hands on the light blue siding. "House?" I said uncertainly.
House didn't answer.
My key still fit into the lock. I stepped inside. The interior was beautiful, sparklingly clean. Empty of everything. I inhaled: fresh paint and new pine.
In the larger of the two bedrooms, in the center of the hardwood floor, I found a single Ping-Pong ball.
I sat down next to it, ready to cry all over again. I squeezed its eggshell smoothness into my palm and said, "I didn't know you loved them, too."
My phone rang. There was no number, just "restricted." "Hello?"
"Levi!" said Asher. "Listen, uh, I'm at the embassy in São Paulo. I already called Miri, but she said she was in Narnia, or something? Think you could help me out?"
This story originally appeared in Fantasy & Science Fiction.
KJ Kabza is back with a second round of fiction that’s “Incredible” (Tangent), “Fascinating” (SFRevu), and “Worthy of Edgar Allan Poe” (SFcrowsnest). Featuring his freshest work from top SF/fantasy venues of today, including F&SF, Nature, Daily Science Fiction, and more, UNDER STARS showcases wonders from worlds both here and beyond. Included is all of KJ Kabza's work published from mid-2011 through 2013, plus 5 new pieces, exclusive story notes, and 69 dirty limericks with a speculative twist.
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