The wind chime above the front door didn’t work. If I’m honest, none of the furnishings I placed in the crooked craftsman on Eagle Street could chase the gloom away. I remember buying the chime. I’d seen them dangling above the neighborhood porches, decorating the homes of lifers with blooming families. Weren’t the soothing chords supposed to create a sonic seal around my home, a protection from ghouls, inner demons, or familiar ghosts? Meredith was one of those ghosts. Even the memory of that light pigeon laugh always humming behind her teeth still poked at me. She always made quick decisions, and although we had picked the house together, I didn’t get a good enough look. Sure I did the customary walk through, but I didn’t really look. If I had, I might have seen that the house was a stranger that would prove impossible to befriend. Shortly after Meredith left, the house tried to cast me out too. But if I am one thing it’s stubborn. Last night was cold. Tonight would be even colder. It was finally time.
I used a space heater, placed it near the living room curtains with a glossy magazine on top and set it to full blast. I sank into my cherry wood Eames lounger as the fire began to flicker and pour across the shag rug. Every contour of the lounger cradled me like a lover. You understand, don’t you? When you sit in exceptional furniture for the first time, there’s that brief moment of surprise, of genuine shock. Wow, I never knew. I wasn’t being held right before. I feel so much better now. And just like a classical instrument, a home can be tuned. Harmony engineered. Say you hate your job, or even just a co-worker. If that feeling follows you home then swap in a glass coffee table with a nickel-plated base, maybe keep the leather recliner but add an ultra-suede ottoman. You have to think of it as self-preservation. Because great furniture can actually heal you, and sometimes it can even care for you. This is what I told myself anyway.
I was sleeping when the fire started, that had to be my story: “an accident.” I’d wait for my neighbors to see the smoke and call. The fire department was only blocks away. I’d be rescued in time. And when the insurance payout came I could start again.
A shrill noise woke me, and I was surprised I had drifted off. The phone rang from somewhere in the smoldering house. I found some oven mitts in the kitchen, slipped them on to open the living room door. Tremendous heat.
Wood crackled and thick smoke stung my eyes. Where was everyone, anyone? Melting veneers and simmering varnishes. Sweet fumes filled me as I watched the Danish coffee table buckle and blister. I loved that table.
The importance of the furniture (and its placement) had grown steadily after the breakup. I had some success at first, mixing and matching woods and synthetics, heights and patterns, aligning all of the distances, perfecting my fortress. Until one day, my money was all gone, and the house was full, but somehow empty too. I needed a clean start, some traction.
The phone still rang. Where was it?
My head wobbled, vision distorting as hallways shrank. The springs in the couch shot across the room as the frame split free like a shattered ribcage. I finally found the phone half melted – plastic pooling onto the floor – an impossible ring somehow gurgling from it. I jabbed my padded finger at the speaker icon.
“Hello,” I yelled.
“Can we talk?”
It sounded exactly like Meredith.
“Sure,” I said, holding back a cough.
“I was just thinking about that one time we went camping, when we ran out of food.”
I knew which trip she meant, and I’ll admit, I hated sleeping outside. It always made me overeat.
“Do you remember when we finally saw that other family and we really needed food and water?”
“Why are we talking about this,” I asked.
“Because you laughed at me,” she said. “I was thirsty. So were you. So very thirsty. Why didn’t you just ask them for a drink?”
“You still don’t know,” I grumbled. “That would have been begging.”
Now it’s hard to breath. I lost time, lost the phone, forgot if I had said goodbye. I imagine if I could escape the house what I would see. My neighbors stand on their lawns, wrapped in nightgowns, holding their children’s hands as they watch my house burn. Maybe they all assume that the fire department is on its way. Maybe they face their own homes, homes that burn too. That makes me smile.
With a groan, the floor gives way, and I sink into embers. Swarmed by heat and swirling ash I reach for the front lawn. The grass is cold and dewed, and I’d love to collapse onto it, but it is beyond me.
Then I can see something else outlined in the dark, emerging. The new house grows clearer. It’s smaller but has an improved floor plan. And I can see the furnishings, the layout. Oh yes, this one is much better. The smoke keeps clearing and colors reach my eyes. Now I see the roof, the walls, a clearer flow, much more durable materials. A new home. The one I chose myself. It waits to pleasure me.
Matthew Luhrman is a way too busy family man and television editor, who somehow manages to write the occasional story on the commuter train into New York City. He’s currently working on “Interior Designs” – a collection of short stories to be published by MythTown Studios in Fall 2014.
–Art by Dia Takácsová