THE LAST HOUSE
by CHRIS CASTLE
imi followed his pa on up the road. He liked the way his pa walked, all purpose and tough strides. Sometimes Jimi wished he could take steps like his pa, but he knew that would be impossible. Whenever he tried, his legs were loose and his feet flapped and somehow Jimi knew he looked more like a bird or a baboon than a tough guy like his pa. On the nights when Jimi got to dream, he dreamed of being his pa, moving as if every pace had a purpose, pushing like very second of every day was important and driven by ideas and reason. If the dream ever ended with Jimi returning to his own, clumsy body, he woke thinking it had turned into a nightmare.
It was a tradition, of sorts.
Every last day of every sixth month, Jimi’s pa walked to each house in town. There were a lot of houses, even though now, after the War, there were fewer people. Jimi’s pa had tried to explain it to him once, something about cruel jokes and paradoxes, but Jimi didn’t really understand the lecture. At the end of it, Jimi’s pa smiled, but it wasn’t one of his good smiles, not by a long way. Instead, it was one of those times when it looked as if the grin on his lips was being pinned up with matchsticks or something, and was more sadness than joy. Jimi wondered how people could smile when there was no happiness involved, but he knew that the question would confuse him and so he tried not to think about it much.
It was, like the many houses that held few people, one of those paradoxes his pa spoke about. Once, Jimi had told his pa that he’d always thought a paradox was paradise in a box and that was their house, their home together, and his pa had smiled, a real one this time, and told Jimi he was right, in a way, before explaining what the word truly meant. Jimi was satisfied with the answer but still thought his made up reason summed up his own life better than cold, dry logic.
So, paradise and boxes aside, each day on this day, they began at dawn and made their way round each house until dusk or later- until it was done. The people who opened the doors were folks Jimi had known his whole life, but on that particular day each year they became different people entirely. Maybe that was another one of those para…but then Jimi didn’t think more on it. No need to make his head spin. Anyway, on this day, the men and women Jimi had known his whole life acted strangely, as if they were showing a whole different side to their soul. Old Mrs. Appleby, the calmest, kindest, woman Jimi had ever known, became an angry, raging firecracker of a lady. She would hand over the small box to Jimi’s pa, her face pale and angry, her words passed out through gritted teeth. After it was done and the exchange made- no invite in for tea and cookies like every other day of the year- she would glance over to Jimi as if she had forgotten he had been there the whole time and she would shake her head as if he had done something wrong. Jimi remained silent until the door closed, not knowing what his mistake had been, until his pa had patted him on the shoulder and told him not to mind the old lady, or any of the others who got mad or angry on that one day.
Sometimes, Jimi made mistakes. He called them ‘bloopers,’ using a silly word to make it seem more fun than serious. He was clumsy and would break things that were fragile, and absentminded, forgetting messages that were important. It was never his intention to do so. For a long while, he got mad at himself, hitting up the side of his own head or cursing his own mind for what vital, essential part was missing from it. It as one of those times, when Jimi slammed his fist into his ear, that his pa caught him. He scolded Jimi something fierce. After he was done being angry, his pa said the kindest things Jimi had ever heard and told him never to get angry with himself for the mistakes he made or the muddles he wrapped himself into. When his pa was like this, reassuring him, Jimi thought he sounded as kind as a preacher saying the sweetest prayer. That day, after it was all done, Jimi felt tears roll down his eyes but felt no sorrow, only joy, to know that his pa loved him and would always love him, no matter what he did and what mistakes he made. And that made him lucky, maybe the luckiest person on the earth.
So, on and on round the houses, accepting the small boxes from the head of each home. This was the first year that Jimi had been allowed to be a part of the ceremony rather than just standing behind his pa and collecting his dust. This year, Jimi held the bag that the boxes went inside and that made him just about as pleased as punch. He realized that every man and woman who handed something over took note his new role. Again, Jimi was surprised, really taken aback, at how these people acted. Some seemed proud and others seemed furious- he wondered if that was one of the reasons why Mrs. Appleby seemed especially mad this year. Jimi understood how some of them could be jealous, the same way he understood that some of them could be proud, but he wished the old lady had been happier for him, or at least pretended, if nothing else.
To be a part of something! As they moved into the final stretch of houses, Jimi’s heart soared once more to be aware of what he was doing. The weight on his back was not a problem, despite his pa asking if it was too much. It felt to Jimi like a sack of treasure and besides, he was almost as tall as his pa now and positively loomed over most people in the town. Sometimes, he liked the fact he was taller than most people but sometimes it made him feel a little sad, too. He felt as if the people were somehow scared of him, given his size, even though Jimi would never hurt any of them, not even if pa told him to. Maybe he would grow taller or maybe that was it. His pa had told him his age from time to time, but numbers always escaped his mind and over time, when things moved from single to double digits, Jimi had lost track. All he knew was that his pa always looked at him with the same eye, no matter if he were fifteen of fifty.
By the time they reached the last house, the bag was almost full. Jimi could feel the bits and pieces prod and tickle against his spine, almost making him laugh, even though he knew that now, at the last house, there was no place for laughter. Even Jimi knew and remembered that. No matter how they tried to change the last house, with paint, with flowers, it always looked a sad place- haunted, but by sad, maudlin ghosts. There was nothing terrifying about it. Instead, it just seemed buckled and sagged by sorrow. Jimi wondered if it were weighed down by everything that had gone on there, pulling it down halfway to Hell. He wondered if there were anything worse than a place doomed to never see the sights of heaven. Jimi’s pa took the steps and for once, Jimi noticed his stride was not so full of purpose, his movement not so strong and direct. For the only time in the day, his pa looked as if he’d rather be anyplace else but here.
It was the same every year. It started with a commotion behind the door, the sounds of scuffed movement and frantic pushing and pulling. After that there was always yelling, screaming, pleading and then the last sound, the final sound of the key snapping in the lock. The woman who opened the door was young and her eyes were full of tears, bulging with them, so that Jimi wondered if she could even see clearly or not. Behind her, the man was fidgeting, the anger almost fizzing off him like sparks. One or the other always rallied and raged about the unfairness of it all and this time it was the man. The woman stood silent, unmoving, and so sad she almost looked serene. It was almost as if she was waiting for the man to burn himself out and sure enough he did and then it was done. The woman stepped out, without even looking back to the man, and took up her place next to Jimi’s pa. No-one said anything and then, almost as an afterthought, Jimi’s pa leant forward and closed the door on the man, spent and exhausted inside the house.
After a while, the woman fell in beside Jimi. She was, he suspected, the most beautiful woman he had ever set eyes on. He knew there were rules to be followed and he followed them. He did not speak to her or offer her anything from the bag, but there was nothing in the rules his pa had told him about stealing glances, so he stole every one that he could. Jimi was relieved it wasn’t a child this year but even so, he wondered what it meant for the world to lose someone as beautiful as the woman. Jimi thought of everything ugly in the world and knew that list seemed endless and ever expanding, and then thought why it had to be that in the midst of all that filth and muck, that stayed ever present in the world, it was decided that someone as beautiful as the woman was chosen to be taken. It felt, somehow, like plucking a rose from a bed of weeds.
The woman changed and sat in the middle of the hall. Jimi emptied the bag and the woman watched all the gifts tumble out before her. She looked them over but did not crouch down. In fact, she stepped away, as if wary of being touched by any of them. Jimi looked over to his pa who just stood, neither surprised nor understanding, just waiting. Jimi watched her, the way she took no interest in the gifts, showed no fear in what was to happen soon, nothing. Instead, she walked away from the pile and over to the window. The way she walked, floated almost, in the trails of the dress, broke Jimi’s heart. It was so full of love. She stopped by the glass and looked up to the sky littered with stars. The moon, in keeping with the traditions of the ceremony, was full. For a while, she stood, bathed by the moonlight, until the door rattled with three knocks. It startled Jimi, even though he was waiting for it, and even his pa seemed to react and flinch. It was only the woman, still looking away from it all, who didn’t move an inch.
Jimi’s pa stood in the wings to the left, Jimi to the right. The woman stood in the centre of the stage and the other man stood next to her, speaking to the town, all gathered and packed to the rafters in the small hall. The man’s words were the same each year, rising in tone and ferocity the closer he got to the end. Jimi looked at the woman, waiting for her to react, to plead or cry or give thanks, the way they always did, each and every time; women, men, children. She stayed quiet and still, as if she did not even hear the words being yelled inches from her ears. Jimi broke away from her long enough to look out to the crowds and he saw the effect the woman was having on them. None of them joined the man in a chorus, none of them swayed or spoke out from where they stood. All of them were silent and Jimi somehow understood it had more to do with the woman than the man’s dark prayer. It was as if she were keeping them rapt and the man, the most powerful man in the town, was somehow just a sideshow.
The walk to the heart of town was only a half a mile but took an age. The town followed the woman, her white dress almost glowing now under the stars. The man stood to her side, still talking, still rallying, but weakened somehow, as if diminished by the quiet of the townspeople behind him. It was as if she had hypnotised them, Jimi thought. He wondered for a moment, just a small moment, if she had the power to lead them astray. What if she chose to veer from the path and away from the pyre? The white of her dress seemed to hold each pair of eyes in her sway, Jimi included, as if a star had fallen out of the sky and was rolling along the earth. The torches burned and crackled around him but even they seemed ineffectual somehow and more like children’s firecrackers than weapons of heat and fury.
It all ended in the town square. It always did, Jimi thought. Under the moon, the woman stepped into the thicket and thorns unaided. She needed no hand to steady her, no fingers to push her or pull her into position and place. Instead, she did it all under her own volition and control and found her place with an ease that took Jimi’s breath away. The crowd took their places and the man stepped forward into the track below, where she now stood waiting. All the gifts were gathered beneath her feet and the man touched the torch to each of them. The flame caught immediately and every one burned and crackled onto the straw. He stood back, screaming the final prayer but his voice was submerged under the flames and the crackling wood. The firs climbed and soon reached the woman, the white hem of her robe fizzing orange before the flames began to swallow her up, greedy and hungry for every part of her.
Jimi watched because he always watched and he did not look away because that was not allowed. She did not move through any of it, but remained statue still, as if preserved in that one moment. When she was gone, Jimi looked away from the fire and over to the townsfolk. None of them were clapping, none of them were rapturous. Some looked stunned, others seemed in love with the girl, but many looked something else, something new; uncertain. Jimi became aware that something had changed. He looked over to his pa. Pa was performing his chores and fulfilling his duties and Jimi kept looking at his pa until he glanced back. For a long while, the two stared across the crowd to each other. For the first time in their life together, Jimi’s pa looked away first.
Jimi looked up to the crumbling pyre and traced the smoke as it climbed into the sky. Somehow, he knew tomorrow that the town would not have changed. The river would still be clogged with dead, poisoned pigs, their bloated carcasses destroying the town’s water. The crops would still be blighted and the folks would still be suffering. He knew that what they had done tonight, what they had done every night of every year, would have meant little, or nothing. Jimi understood this and the dark idea filled his mind, ravaged it, until he drew his fists up, ready to strike his temple through shame. A hand gripped his wrist.
“Don’t you do that,” old Mrs. Appleby said. Jimi stared at her and wondered how her body had grown old when he his mind was still so young. He thought about that and everything else and he felt as if his head might explode clean off his shoulders.
“Don’t do that,” she said again and waited until Jimi was looking right at her. “Don’t you do any of this, anymore, you understand?”
“Yes,” he said, though his voice was timid, the way it was when, decades ago, they had both been the same height and had seemed to be the same age. When Jimi hadn’t known that they were different.
“Any of it, any more,” she said and let go of his wrist, just as his pa stepped between.
“You won’t touch him again, ever,” Jimi’s pa said but by then, she was already stepping back from them both. She was looking to say something to Jimi’s pa but something stopped her. She turned and walked away.
Jimi’s pa watched the old woman for a while, and then turned back to face Jimi. He was holding the gift-sack in his hand and it no longer looked like a thing treasure but just a sad, tired old cloth. His pa seemed to study it for a long time, as if a message was written on it that only he could read. Then he cast it off, down onto the embers and the dirt. Jimi looked at the material as the hot dust began to eat into it, like paper over a candle, curling and disappearing inside seconds. The two of them stared at it until it was gone and no more and then they turned and faced the pyre. The woman was gone, of course, but somehow Jimi could still make her out in the vapours of smoke or the reflection of the moon and stars on the remnants of the night. He saw all of this, or more likely he felt it, and he turned to ask his pa what everything meant.
Jimi turned and saw his pa’s eyes were wet and something had twisted his face, creasing it and wrinkling it and making him seem old, older than his years somehow. It made Jimi panic, to see his pa look as ancient and as bruised as everyone else. He wondered what was making him look that way and thought it might be something like doubt or something stronger than doubt, like shame. He thought of many things but said nothing. Instead, he waited until his pa’s eyes dried out with the smoke and the heat. Without the bag to hold, Jimi’s palms were free. He took a hold of his pa’s hand in his and kept it there, neither of them speaking.
Chris Castle is an English teacher in Greece. He has been published over 300 times and has been featured in various end of year and best of anthologies. He is currently writing a novel. His influences include Stephen King and Ray Carver. He can be reached for feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org. Chris has become a regular contributor to our journal: His stories, Grid, Slumber, Last House on Vector Street, Stealing Three, Zombie Cake, Button and Pa, The Garden Butterfly Eater and Finger all consecutively appear in the January, April, June, August, October, and December 2013 issues of HelloHorror and its February, April, and August 2014 issues.
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