SmokeLong Quarterly

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Real Estate

Story by Jennifer A. Howard June 15, 2006

The house Ella grew up in had a door that went nowhere. As a kid, she’d pull herself onto the porch using the wrought-iron trellis and knock on it, knowing whoever was in the living room would turn toward the thump and see instead the wall behind the fireplace. They’d face a framed photograph of little Ella, hair still fine like feathers and hands posed at her baby waist for her father’s Nikon. Outside stood Ella, making a scene for the neighbors but not really asking to be let in.

Today, the house is on the market, and Ella’s job is to get it on video. To curse the people who broke the stained glass windows and tore the velvety wallpaper in the dining room. Whose only contribution in the fifteen years since her family sold the house was tape on the dining room floor, which her husband decides marked the distance from a dart machine.

“These stairs, kiddo?” Ella tells her four-year-old daughter and the video camera at the same time, “They were secret stairs. Grandma found them behind a wall.”

Ella’s mom had repapered the dining room when they first moved in. On a hunch that there used to be more than one way to get upstairs, she rapped her knuckles against the drywall in horizontal strokes, head cocked as she measured the hollows that echoed back at her. When her mom came back from the garage with a sledgehammer, Ella had hid in the bathroom.

Ella’s husband follows behind today, neither his face nor his voice reaching the camera. Except for a jump in the video when he rests his hand on her shoulder and Ella flinches, there will be no record that he was ever here.

“You’ll burn a lot of bridges,” he told her this morning, after she announced again that she is leaving him.

Josie lets go of her mom’s hand and turns to her father. Not ready to make naked eye contact with her husband, she turns the camera off, spies on him, backgrounded by the house that built her, through layers of carved glass. He carries her daughter, who snuggles her cheek against the scratch of his beard. Ella can picture the walls and ceilings collapsing into piles of thick powder, nails the only thing left to take with her.

She lowers the camera, thinking there might be good in staying somewhere long enough to discover its secrets.

This moment lasts a moment.

Tomorrow, she’ll throw her keys hard against her kitchen table, and only afterwards will he react enough for her to consider staying. Her favorite part of him is when they fight. Like tomorrow, he’ll lift his arm and point like he always does when she threatens to leave, and as soon as he says it, she’ll sit back down: “There’s the door,” he’ll say, “right where you left it.”

About the Author

Jennifer A. Howard teaches and edits Passages North in Michigan’s snowy Upper Peninsula. Her collection of flash sci-fi, You on Mars, was published by The Cupboard Pamphlet.

This story appeared in Issue Thirteen of SmokeLong Quarterly.
SmokeLong Quarterly Issue Thirteen

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