“I don’t mind dogs,” Cassie said, looking at the realtor. “Do you?” She wanted Brad Thorne to like her, to be so little trouble that he wouldn’t mind handing over his home to her when the sale was finalized. So many house deals went wrong, so many snagged on an ugly word or a flicker of regret, that she was determined to bend with every gust or blow. She wanted this house.
“It’s not a matter of whether you mind dogs. He minds you,” Brad said, running his black eyes up her body to her face, where they stopped, sudden as a slap. Since Brad had appeared from around the corner of the house, the German shepherd’s barking and thudding against the door had been replaced by a nervous dancing of its toenails back and forth on the floor. “I’ll put him out.”
Instead of going back around and in through the kitchen, Brad gestured for Cassie and the realtor to stand aside, then turned to the door and cracked it open, one of his hands pushing the dog’s head back and the other clutching for the choke chain around its neck. Still frothing and writhing, its body rigid and resistant, but choking out only a few more growls, the shepherd let Brad drag it across the front room, down a short hallway, across the kitchen linoleum, through the back door, and into the yard. Cassie could hear the dry scratch of its toenails on wood change to a dull thwap-thwap across linoleum and a twang as they strummed the metal weather stripping.
“They keep that dog in the house with their toddler,” the realtor noted, glancing down to the papers clutched to her chest.
Cassie nodded. “Imagine.”
Brad did not come back in, but hollered from the back door, “Knock yourselves out.” Cassie figured he would continue the yard work that must have had him in the backyard to begin with, but through the window, she saw him gliding off down the alley and the dog tick-tocking back and forth on its line.
As Cassie and the realtor made the rounds through the house, hanging the radon test kit from a beam in the basement and measuring to see if her grandmother’s china cupboard—the one piece of furniture that had survived all her moves—would fit against the wall in the dining room, she kept catching those glimpses of the dog running up and down the length of chain clipped to a clothesline in the backyard, its neck straining against the constriction, tail down, legs stiff with rage. She wondered where the toddler was and where Brad had gone, as he seemed to have evanesced, not soothing the dog, not puttering around the flowerbeds, not clinking dishes in the kitchen. She had the creepy sensation of being watched, though she knew it impossible. There were no secret passages in this house. It had been, after all, inspected, and she had seen the floor plans. When they were finished, heading out the front door, the realtor called out, “All done. Thanks. We’re off now,” pausing after each phrase. Her words merely echoed through the house.
Cassie had never met Sandra Thorne, but she admired and envied her—a professional woman who nonetheless managed to have a child and a marriage and a lovely, big, old house filled with charm. So far, Cassie had only managed the first and the last of these, and she had to admit that she hoped that having a full life, with a house in a nice neighborhood, would prepare her for a family. Now that she was through law school, she was willing to leverage her future earnings on a place where she could nest, even though many of her friends from school intended to stay in their barren apartments so as to have no distractions from the demands of their new bosses.
In the days after the realtor had shown her Brad and Sandra’s house, with their family portraits lining the piano at the end of the living room, with the stories of the young family living there, and with the unmistakable odor of sperm in the air and the hastily made bed, Cassie had indulged in fantasies about Brad, the kind of man she wanted, who wasn’t threatened by a woman’s success and who, though handsome, had become a devoted husband. In this way, her ideas about suburban home ownership meshed with her wildest dreams. Knowing that her friends would think her inane or insane, she kept this to herself, but there seemed nothing unsexy to her about the suburbs. She would just have to show them.
Her friend Joanne shifted her eyes from side to side like a Twilight Zone marionette as Carrie drove her though the neighborhood where she had picked her house-to-be. From shady lawn to cable van to woman pushing a stroller, her eyes jerked back and forth. “How are you ever going to meet people living here?” Joanne asked. “All your neighbors will be married and involved with their children. People don’t move into places like that until they already have a family.”
“That’s just a stereotype,” Cassie answered. “I mean, I know you’re right on one level, but it works out for some people. The house I’m buying is owned by a couple that met only after she had bought it.” Cassie turned the car toward the Thornes’ place. She had intended to save it for last, but was deciding that the generous tour of the area she had planned might backfire. “Sandra Thorne bought this house because she took a job near here, and then she met Brad at the local coffee shop.”
“How do you know that?” Joanne scoffed. “How do you know anything about utter strangers you might buy a house from?”
“The realtor told me. She said the woman is a professor. They have a baby, and the man is a house-husband, and they are moving because Sandra—the woman—has taken a job somewhere else.” Cassie paused and then went on in answer to Joanne’s open-mouthed stare. “She’s—they’ve only owned the house for a few years, and they have to tell you all this stuff so you won’t think you are buying a lemon. If there are reasons, then you don’t get suspicious that it’s a bad house.”
“So you get the whole story of their lives?” Joanne shook her head.
“Look, the house is right up here,” Cassie said, as they pulled onto Cardinal Street. She slowed the car and crept past the sloping, ivy-covered lawns, the maples and oaks, the brick walkways, and wisteria-vined porches. It was an older section of town, nice but not fancy, with a block of row houses here and there and a mixture of bungalows, four-squares, and few Victorians set further back on their older lawns. Modest but blossoming yards peeked through the gates and back fences. At the Thornes’ house, Cassie stopped the car and pointed up the steps to the glassed-in porch, which glinted opaque in the light like a sunbather’s closed eyelids.
“It’s hard to see much,” said Joanne. “Can we get out and look around?” Cassie could hear the first bit of excitement in Joanne’s voice. She must like the place. Surely her friends would all be happy to come and visit once she lived here. They’d bring more friends, and one of them might just be handsome and ready. She imagined laughter, the process of opening a good bottle of Rioja, how she would make the rounds to all of her guests, while that one special one kept his eyes on her, wide open.
“Sure,” she answered, “but I don’t want to bother them—or their dog—so let’s stay on the sidewalk.”
As the two of them got out of the car, Cassie caught a whiff of the neighbor’s lilacs on the air and hoped that Joanne smelled it too, as she was a sucker for flowers. The Thornes’ front yard offered only a mass of ivy and a few overgrown rhododendrons, but, looking up the sidewalk toward the back, Cassie and Joanne could see a yellow-blooming shrub and some tulips popping out of the flower beds. The house sat up on a small incline, so there was no seeing in any of the windows. Still, Cassie could point out the windows and name the purpose of each room; she could tell Joanne the colors she would paint them and how the wood floors would stay beautiful forever.
“I’m not crazy about the stucco,” Joanne noted about the exterior of the house, but I suppose you can have it cleaned and painted, too.”
“Eventually,” Cassie said. “One thing at a time.”
“And the windows look great—heavy frames and that beautiful wavy glass. They’re large for a house this age. I guess they left the storms up so late in the year just so buyers would know they have them. You know, for energy purposes.”
After they had tip-toed around the block like shoplifters or unfaithful spouses, they came back to the car and looked up into the fluttering tree leaves. “You’re a step ahead,” Joanne laughed, “but it’s the fate that awaits us all. You’ve got guts to just go ahead full steam into the future.”
This middle-class future seemed so ordinary that Cassie had never thought of it as taking nerve to go there, but the words rang true. The sky beyond the leafy trees was filled with small, invisible terrors. She wondered whether she’d be able to see them when they showed up for real or if they would lurk like termites.
Cassie imagined that Sandra Thorne had chosen the dark pink color that coated the living room and stairwell. She had probably been going for that Victorian dusty rose, which she had missed picking from the tiny paint samples and which was all wrong for this 1930s house anyway. Joanne and her other friends had found the color appalling when she’d showed them pictures, and Cassie’s first major act as a homeowner was to hire Jim Arundsen to repaint most of the rooms. It felt extravagant to actually hire someone to paint, but she knew that she couldn’t manage the stairwell by herself. For one thing, she didn’t even own an extension ladder.
The day after the closing, she and Jim walked through the house talking over her color choice and future projects. Jim noted that the Thornes had done a lot of painting without removing wallpaper, work that would eventually need to be done right. Cassie found herself distracted—while the mosquitoes mostly lay dead in drifts along the floor, a lot of flies still buzzed through the empty rooms, banging into the windows and past her ears. Pausing in front of the door into the front bedroom, Jim looked down at the rivers of dead insects in which he stood and lifted one boot gingerly.
“Weird, all these bugs,” he said.
“They’d left the house open,” Cassie said. “I’ll sweep them up.”
“Still weird,” Jim said, “why so many would come in with no one here.”
“Left the lights on, too,” Cassie said. “It was eerie when I got here—every door standing open, the place lit up like Christmas, with no one here. But all I had time to do was turn off all the switches and lock up before the signing.”
“I guess people get in a hurry,” Jim observed. Indeed, Sandra and Brad had left careless and hasty signs: a shelf of dusty Martha Stewart Living magazines, fluffy waves of dog hair cascading across the hardwood floors and veiling the shrubbery all around the back door, and raisins, squashed into the floor in every room of the house, deposited by the kid, she surmised. They had departed even before the closing, and when she arrived at the house for the last walk-through, every door stood open, every light flickered with electricity, and a hunting knife and roll of packing tape sat atop a large box that was left in the middle of the living room labeled to them at their new address. Cassie stopped off at the post office on her way back to her apartment to mail the package, but felt justified in keeping the knife because the house was a filthy mess and full of mosquitoes and flies and she’d had to spend nearly fifteen dollars on postage.
Both she and Jim now stared down at the bottom half of the bedroom door, where several flies crawled in circles. Long, pale, striated gouges from the German shepherd’s claws patterned the dark mahogany panel. Cassie had noticed the same thing on almost all the other doors, newly damaged since she had first looked at the house. Once they planned to leave, the Thornes must have given up efforts to keep the dog from destroying the house. Oh, well, she thought, I can eventually have them sanded down and refinished.
“Weird,” Jim said, bending down and reaching his hand toward the floor without touching it. “Looks like the dog about pulled its toenails out.”
Cassie bent forward, too, and looked over the edge of her glasses to make sure she was seeing clearly. Jim straightened and used his foot to scrape away some of the dead mosquitoes. The floorboards were sprinkled with tiny drops of blood, blackish and dried, but unmistakable once Jim had licked a finger, run it across the spots, and held its newly reddened tip up for her to see. Cassie looked from floor to door, and it too was flecked with blood, some of it pooled in the edges of the scars from the dog’s toenails.
“Gross.” She righted herself too swiftly and teetered momentarily, dizzy with the close air, the insect noise, and the thought of so much animal desperation. “I’ll get all this stuff out and clean up before you start,” she reassured Jim.
Jim shook his head, rinsed his finger at the bathroom tap, and left Cassie to spend the afternoon with broom, bucket, and sponge. She opened some windows, in hopes that now the flies would go and that she would recover her breath. As she scrubbed, she found that there was blood all over the house—dripped, spattered, tracked, and smeared. She had not seen it before against the dark finish of the wood. But it was there. She supposed that the dog had been hard to handle during the move. She hoped they’d gotten it some tranquilizers.
In the weeks after she moved into what she still thought of as the Thornes’ house, Cassie sometimes felt as though it was haunted, not by a long-ago unhappily buried soul that might appear in the gracious garb of an earlier century, but by a couple who were still alive over in Peekskill, New York. At first she liked their company—the buttons and plastic super-hero legs she would find here and there made her feel connected to a life still not quite her own. Occasionally she would find something from previous owners, too, like a shoe button hook with a pearl handle that appeared at the back of a closet shelf one day, and she would wonder about the people who had built the house. She wondered if anyone had died in it, or if anyone had been born in it, even kittens or puppies. Joanne might poke fun at her, might tell her she was losing her mind out in suburbia all alone, but still she imagined herself connected through her house to all of human history.
As hard as she might try, however, to enjoy the precedent of domestic stability and bliss, updated with the twenty-first-century gender roles provided by Sandra and Brad, their ghost voices would rise in argument, the doors slam, the baby wail, and the dog scrabble at the doors of the rooms in which he’d been locked. As summer turned into fall, the Thornes’ traces continued to remind her of their presence through occasional discoveries—the washing machine jerry-rigged for the dirty water to go into the ground not the sewer, the window in the attic glued shut instead of properly caulked, the bathroom tiles that popped off the wall. Brad Thorne had the reputation among the neighbors of being a fabulous handyman, and Cassie just rolled her eyes when she heard that the news from Peekskill was that he was going into professional home renovation. Poor guy, she thought, he must have really been at a loss for what to do with himself. Cassie wanted to like him because it was Sandra who had the career as a college professor—and in her mind he must be okay if he would stay home with the kid while she went off to work. Whenever another of his cheap repairs gave way in the house, she tried to sympathize with how hard it must have been to be so bad at his role. No wonder he had abandoned all the Martha Stewart magazines. She felt his loneliness in facing all the house tasks alone while Sandra went off to a career for which she had been well trained.
The yard, as well as the house, exhibited Brad’s bizarre attempts at domesticity. He had put in the ugliest vegetable garden Cassie had ever seen, surrounded by a cheap chicken-wire fence that blocked the view of the hydrangeas and roses of Sharon along the property line and that was a muddy weed-hole by the time Cassie took possession of the property. At the base of a slope in a damp bed next to the house, half-dead sage, oregano, and parsley lay blanched and steamed in the heat of summer. In a narrow flowerbed between the south wall of the house and the sidewalk, he had planted kerria japonica, a fast grower that usually sprouts long individual branches that arch to the ground about six feet around. She had ripped it all out and moved it to a place in the backyard where it might screen the compost heap. At first Cassie felt as though Brad had been desperately trying to please his wife, but there were too many messed up little things, and finally she began to feel that he was just the kind of person who liked to ignore information, who decided how he wanted the world to be and brooked no compromises with reality. The neighbors said that he came from a wealthy New England family and had spent a lot of time sailing and playing polo. Do-it-yourself domesticity must have come hard.
The day came when she had to deal with Brad’s compost—it swelled in an unbound pile next to the garage, and she was afraid the rot might spread too far. She wanted the compost, wanted to add to it all of the rich trimmings from her onions and eggplants, the sweet-smelling crabapples that were starting to fall from the old tree and the grass clippings from the lawn, the coffee grounds and crisp, white eggshells of the brunches she would serve her friends. She planned in the spring to dig up some of the rocky, old flowerbeds and renew them with the miraculous darkness of homegrown dirt. The real estate fact sheet had even mentioned that an “active compost site” came with the house, “for the benefit of garden aficionados.”
With pleasure, Cassie examined the simple structure that she and Joanne had built to contain the compost—a wood frame concealed wire mesh in three square compartments, through which she would shift the material as it composted. She liked the simplicity of the process and the solidity of the bin, and this would be her first real opportunity for serious gardening, though she had been graced with a green thumb all of her apartment-dwelling adult life. She felt a shiver of anticipation and took her pitchfork to the existing pile. She knew that she would have some sorting to do, as sticks too large for compost stuck out all over the mound like candles on a sagging birthday cake, but she set to work envisioning the fresh-smelling dirt that this bunch of rot would eventually become.
In the first few clods she turned over, Cassie found things that didn’t belong—at first just plastic sticker labels from vegetables and bananas and a few small strips of torn plastic bags. Annoyed, she marveled that anyone would leave the stickers on their peelings before putting them in the compost. How could anyone fail to realize that plastic would not break down, that it would mar the new dirt? She tried to pick out the biggest clumps, but when she began to come upon the broken bits of children’s toys, twisted pieces of hanger wire, Styrofoam packing material, and chicken bones, she realized that Brad and Sandra’s compost was not compost at all. They had simply thrown their garbage—dirty diapers and all—into the back corner of their lot. Under the most recent layer of leaves and grass, there broiled a pile of stink.
Cassie did not stand over the pitchfork long. She stabbed into the mound, left the pitchfork leaning like a disappointed man, and went to get a trash can and to line it with a super heavy bag. She would simply have to clean up all of this and start over with the compost, and without delay she started transferring the mess into the garbage bag, holding the pitchfork as far away from her nose as possible. A few late summer yellow jackets rose lazily around her and resettled here and there, crawling in and out of the trash. Cassie settled into the rhythm of her work—bending, pushing, scooping, lifting, swinging the tines over the trash can and turning them sideways as the load thumped into the can with its leaden sound. Occasionally the pitchfork would strike a rock or piece of a glass bottle and the tines would scrape, sending a shiver of irritation up her spine. She supposed that either the wealthy Brad Thorne expected other people to clean up after him or that he wasn’t wealthy at all, just full of bullshit and trashy habits.
Then her pitchfork snagged, and her angry musings ebbed away in the face of the practical demands of her task. She tugged, but the edge of the pile only bulged momentarily and refused to give. A tine of the pitchfork was hooked on something lodged under the back half of the pile, and Cassie could not manage to yank it loose. Instead, she went to the garage for the hoe, and began clawing at the place where the head of the fork disappeared.
Finally, she began to work it loose. The pitchfork tine had skewered a cord trimming on what appeared to Cassie at first to be a large stick, but which she came to see was a riding crop. She herself had spent some time riding horses and hanging out at a stable as a teenager. She could recognize the now torn cord covering over the hard plastic core, the molded handle grip with leather wrist strap, and the leather tassel at the end. This one had once sported an off-white and light brown pattern, but was now mottled with dark stains, and the shaft was cracked but not quite severed in the middle. Cassie, half kneeling, half squatting, reached forward with her gardening-gloved hand, planning to finish the breaking job and deposit the sinister thing in the trash can. She pulled it forth from the junk, held it aloft, and felt the nausea rise up in her throat.
Trailing along with the crop came a clump of hair, matted and black, but with occasionally shimmery longer strands and a wispy texture. Leaping back with a yelp, Cassie flung it into the trash can and backed away, suddenly panting.
Once inside, she slammed and locked the back door, made herself a cup of tea, and sat looking around the blue-and-yellow kitchen of which she had become so fond. She was glad there were no traces of the Thornes left in it, except the dishwasher they had installed; fortunately, that sterilized itself with every load.
Two hours passed before she could muster the fortitude to go outside and finish the clean-up job. Meanwhile, as she paced around the house, up and down the stairs, she bandied about in her mind numerous reasonable explanations for the ruined crop—the crop could have been a relic that fell behind a piece of furniture into a dusty, shedding-filled corner, or perhaps the dog had chewed on it in the yard as a toy until it was thrown out with other animal debris. The human-looking hairs, Cassie told herself, must have come from the Thornes’ habit of jumbling various types of trash in the pile, just a coincidence of cleaning out the hairbrush and sweeping out the house on the same day. No matter what she told herself, though, a small certainty had grown in her that Brad Thorne at the very least beat his dog.
She recognized him immediately one Sunday morning the following summer, when he rang her bell repeatedly and stamped insistently on her porch. She no longer thought of it as the Thornes’ house, and the specter of this man she had come to suspect came as a shock. They stared at each other through the glass of the porch door, which she’d had latched against the advertising circulars that tended to compete with the leaves in the drift against her door. Brad Thorne looked arrogant to her now, but he stood as innocently on her porch as though he’d just been born, wiggling his fingers, smiling stiffly with his mouth, though not his eyes.
Cassie had tried to forget about the Thornes, and as her first year as a homeowner and a junior attorney passed, she had plenty else to keep her busy—frozen pipes and depositions, hornets’ nests and office politics. She had not had time for much of a social life between her job and her house, and she had not been so lucky as Sandra to meet a romancer in the suburbs, but she had to admit that she didn’t mind too much as she watched her neighbors’ routines and cleaned up the Thornes’ mistakes. After her bloody discovery, she had asked a couple of neighbors if the Thornes had a problem with domestic abuse, but they had scoffed at her. The dog, they said, was the only odd thing about an otherwise perfect young family. They had wanted Brad to get rid of the dog, and a committee had suggested it, but he had refused, red-faced, they said, and angry. Cassie couldn’t decide whether to admire his devotion to the dog or to marvel at his hostility to his neighbors and child.
“Open the door,” he said, as though she were a child herself, and she did. “It’s Brad Thorne. This was my house.”
“I know who you are,” she said and, putting on her best professional demeanor with a touch of sarcasm. “How can I help you?”
Brad moved past her, across the porch and in through the door proper. “You changed the paint,” he noted, almost as though he were a buyer now and she a seller.
Cassie felt the air close in around her. She was suddenly furious at all the work she’d had to do to clean up after this man and his habits. She wanted to ask him to leave, to yell at him that he’d been a sloppy pig, to accuse him of abusing his dog, his wife, his kid. But she was somehow terrified of him, too. In every gesture, he pointed out that she had not been expecting him and that no one knew he was here.
“Have you gotten any mail for us recently?” Brad asked, then continued without a pause. “I talked with an old friend the other day who said he mailed something to me here, and I guess the forwarding has expired. So I wanted to give you our address so you could send anything that might come here.” His fingers slipped over the top of his shirt pocket, then proffered a slip of paper.
Cassie took the folded sheet and felt it burn between her fingers. It was just like Brad Thorne to turn her into a mail clerk for himself. “No,” she said. He looked shocked, so she clarified. “No. I haven’t gotten any mail for you. But if I do, I’ll send it on.” She realized she would say just about anything to get Brad off her porch, to preserve the distance she had put between herself and thoughts of what had gone wrong in this house before.
“I know it’s been a while, but I also hoped I could retrieve a few things,” Brad said, seeming to address himself to the walls and ceiling, “especially that hunting knife that I understand got left here.”
“That was a year ago,” Cassie said, “and I cleaned everything out that you left here. I didn’t want your things.”
Brad’s eyebrows jumped a little. “What things? We didn’t leave… things except that knife was missing.”
“Your magazines, your dog hair, the junk under the porch, that package that was here… The dog had clawed all the doors half to pieces. I’ve had to refinish almost all of them.”
“The one I mailed after you left. It’s a wonder it was still here, with the doors wide open and the lights all on. It was addressed, so I took—“
“That was Sandra’s brother, I guess.” Brad shrugged, now that he understood. “We left him here for a few days after we left. He was supposed to clean up.”
“Well, he left the house a mess, filled with insects and filth, all manner of debris.” Cassie was aware that her voice sounded shrill.
“Oh. Sorry.” Brad said it, but stood there without an apology on his face, almost expectantly, as though she might pay him to go away, as though her irritation might turn to attraction and she might bestow a kiss on his lips. How did he know, she wondered, that she did indeed still have the knife? Wouldn’t his brother-in-law likely have stolen that, or lost it? Maybe his brother-in-law had been responsible for the blood all over the house, but she knew that he couldn’t have been burying things in the compost pile long enough to be responsible for that.
“Didn’t you meet him?” Brad asked suddenly, as though coming back from another train of thought. “He was here that day you and the realtor came by, when the dog got so bad. I had to leave. For an appointment. He was supposed to show you all around. And he was supposed to meet you before the closing. To give you the keys and check over everything.”
Brad’s words gave Cassie an out in terms of her opinion of him, but they sounded rehearsed to her, planned, as though he knew everything there was to know. She had never even known that Sandra had a brother or that he was staying at the house with them. No one in the neighborhood had ever mentioned such a thing. Maybe this brother had finally told the truth to Sandra, and she’d sent Brad as a kind of apology. Maybe he’d confessed that he’d left the knife in the house and told Brad she must have found it. Or maybe there was no brother at all and Brad was just making him up to cover for his own behavior, hoping that if she bought that story, she’d return his expensive knife.
“Look,” she said. “I don’t have your knife or anything else. I cleaned it all out including the compost heap and all the blood all over the floors. Maybe you should go.”
Across the way, the church bells started their eleven o’clock chiming. Seemingly deflated, Brad stood, arms hanging, and stared at her. Maybe he didn’t know what she meant, maybe he did. He certainly knew she was accusing him of something.
“Don’t you love the radiator heat?” he finally asked her, pointing at the old unit against the wall. “I really miss that knocking sound they make when the water heats up inside them. Best heated house I’ve ever lived in.” He paused, but she did not warm up.
“I guess my brother-in-law messed things up around here. Glad to see you’ve got it all straightened out. I’m envious of you. Single life. No one else to deal with. No one to mess up your space or your brain. Enjoy. Enjoy. Be seeing you.” He paused and looked dead into her face, his jaw clenching.
“By the way,” he continued, “they made me put the dog to sleep. He’s dead.”
With that, Brad Thorne slunk out of the house and down the walk toward a waiting car. As she followed him out so she could latch the porch door, she saw a woman who must be Sandra smiling up at him from the passenger window as though their life were as blue and clear as the perfect sky.
Ghosts, living or dead, she thought, can tell me any story they want, and I will never know. After all, I am only inhabiting my one own life. She turned, trembling, back to it.