Trigger warning: domestic abuse
There’s an empty Heineken bottle on its side at the bottom of the driveway. It doesn’t bode well for the house; Noah would’ve known that even back when he was just an intern at the realtor’s office. The green glass stains the white pebbles around it in the sunlight. At the sight of it, Noah’s gag reflex pulls his memories out of his stomach, and he has to swallow to keep them back.
He kicks the bottle over the pebbles until they get to the trashcan. He doesn’t want to pick it up, but he can’t leave it. In a few days, assuming he can make the house presentable, there will be streams of potential buyers walking up and down the driveway for the open house.
When his fingers touch the glass, his skin tingles in a revolt. His hand looks like his mom’s. Her hands are thin. She used to hold the bottles away from her like they were trying to escape her, fingers trembling. He’s grateful to find no semblance of his father’s heavy handed grip in his own.
He opens the lid of the trashcan and drops the bottle in. At the clatter of its impact, he flinches. His fingers instinctively push into his hair above his ear, tracing over the scar there. His mom had taken him to the hospital. He’d needed three stitches.
He closes the lid of the trashcan and digs a key out of the folder containing the property stats. It’s a small house, single story, two bed, one bath. The sort his agency would market as “cozy.” It’s only a little bigger than the house Noah grew up in. The open house will attract mostly young couples, he’s sure. Not families with three unplanned children that all have to cram into one room, singing songs to each other to cover up the noises the thin walls can’t protect them from.
The front door looks inviting enough. Growing up, his front door was white and peeling with a tiny sliver of a window above the knob. Noah used to think maybe it was big enough for a neighbor to catch sight of what was happening and call the police, but none did. Eventually, after a TV remote went through the glass, the little window got taped over with cardboard.
This front door is blue with a knocker and a stained glass window. Noah imagines if it were ever broken, the colorful pieces would make a rainbow as they fell to the ground in a gentle arc, nothing like the hellfire of shrapnel that the TV remote had brought down on their front step.
Inside, Noah gives the house a once over. Every house he finds, he considers for his mother. She deserves a new house all of her own, and he’s going to get her one, someday.
As he walks through each room, he throws the curtains wide open. He learned always to let as much natural light as possible in for showings; people like that. In the fancy houses with giant sliding glass doors and whole walls made of tall windows, Noah sometimes feels like he has to shield his eyes, but he opens the curtains anyway. Most people who can consider buying such houses didn’t grow up in the dark.
In the living room, there’s a TV with two different remotes on a stand with a bunch of empty drawers and a wooden coffee table and a red couch. In his old house, their TV sat on a milk crate, and any time their father grumbled about the kids making too much noise, their mom would have to stand up off the dusty grey couch and go across the room to turn the volume up. She never pointed out that their father could do it himself from the couch if he hadn’t broken the remote.
One night, a shrill scream, different from the usual low grumbling shouts of his father, had Noah sitting up in bed. He opened the door a crack to peer into the living room. His dad was standing over the coffee table, lighting a cigarette. His mom was trying to pull her underwear back up her legs. There was a bloody stain on the couch where she sat. The next morning it was gone, but Noah was pretty sure they’d just flipped the cushion over.
The kitchen is spacious for a house this size, good planning. Noah will be sure to emphasize this in his pitch to potential clients and in the decorations for the open house. He’ll display multiple trays of food and rows of glasses on the ample counter space. The counters growing up were always empty. His mom cooked a lot, but only for his dad who ate decadent meals alone while the kids cowered in their bedroom. They’d eat early or late, always hotdogs with no buns and canned ravioli and rice and beans.
The master bedroom is spacious, sparsely furnished by one queen bed with matching nightstands on either side. There’s wood flooring, Noah notes. It looks real. Wood flooring helps keep the space cool in the evenings, and it’s easy to clean. His parents’ room had carpet flooring, ugly brown carpet. His mother cleaned often, but no amount of scrubbing and carpet spray could get the smell of sweat and vomit out of the fibers. Noah hadn’t been the one to find the mess, but he’d found his mother grieving over it.
She was kneeling beside his dad’s body sprawled across the floor. Noah had stepped back at the stench, his eyes watering. He tried to turn away before they noticed him, but then he heard his mother crying.
It’s not like his dad ODed. His liver probably could’ve handled it. It wasn’t some glorious last hurrah, looked upon with the sadness that comes when another beloved celebrity dies; the kind that always begs the question; was it drugs? It was the alcohol. Well, technically it was the lack of oxygen, but he never would have had his own vomit blocking his airways if he hadn’t drank so much that he couldn’t even turn himself over.
Noah looks out the window. His own car sits in the driveway. There’s plenty of room left, another good selling point. When the ambulance showed up, they had to pull into the yard; the grass was dying anyway. Noah was looking out the window that day too, listening to his mother’s shrill sobs in the bedroom. Even with all the crying, the house was quieter than usual. Noah let the medics in when they knocked and watched as the ambulance drove away, lights blaring. He made his siblings dinner that night while their parents were at the hospital. Hotdogs with no buns.
His youngest sister paused mid bite to ask, “if dad doesn’t come back, you think we can eat his steaks?” Noah looked down at his hotdog, and said, “I hope so.”
The kids weren’t invited to come visit at the hospital, and Noah was glad. For a few days, they watched the TV channels they wanted and played in the living room and laughed out loud without being yelled at or told to scram or hushed. Noah thought maybe life could always be like this, with their father dead.
Then their mother came home and reported with a smile that rounded her tear streaked cheeks that their dad was going to be okay. Noah got caught on the way his mom’s smile didn’t reach her eyes, how the fading bruise over the left one brought out the flecks of green in her irises. Noah’s heart sunk. The other kids looked exactly like he felt. Shoulders hung with burden, hands clasped together, eyes to the floor.
Noah steps back from the glass and pulls his eyes away from the yard and shuffles the papers and folder in his hands. He tries to read through the house facts. He looks over the description. He should check the bathroom and the spare bedroom.
The second bedroom has a twin bed up against one wall and a dresser against the other. He thinks he might put a little vase of flowers on top of the dresser for the open house. Daisies maybe, to match the yellow comforter on the bed. In his room growing up, they had bunk beds. Two sets of them. He always had a bottom bunk so he could get up and check on things without disturbing his siblings. They were all usually awake anyway, their eyes shining in the darkness. It was hard to sleep through the noise. He knows for a fact they were all awake the morning Noah had added to the noise. He’d seen them over their father’s shoulders, all crowded in their bedroom doorway, staring with those eyes.
Noah moves on to the bathroom. It’s at the end of the hall. The master and spare bedrooms have to share it. It had been that way in his house. He always tried to get up early so he could get ready before their father was up. When he was in the hospital, Noah took a shower. A long luxurious one. He stayed until the water got cold. He felt clean afterwards. When his father got home, he yelled about the missing shampoo.
With the light flipped on, Noah can see himself in the bathroom mirror. He got his green eyes and curly brown hair and high cheekbones from his mom. He got his crooked nose from his father, after market.
Noah frowns at his reflection, gripping the bathroom counter. His knuckles go white, his hands shaking. White like his father’s face as he choked on the carpet floor. Noah used to dream of that face. The life draining out of it. And then the bastard had to go and live.
Noah had just gotten out of the shower. It wasn’t light out yet. His father would be up soon, but Noah would be out of the house by then. He’d been brushing his teeth with a towel around his waste when the bathroom door slammed open. His father’s fist slammed into his face just as hard.
Noah fell back, tripping around the toilet and over the rim of the bathtub. He landed in the tub, his head whipping back into the porcelain. His dad was yelling about something, but Noah couldn’t hear him, and he didn’t want to.
“I wish you’d died!” Noah shouted. “I wish you’d never come back.”
“You ungrateful brat.” His father slammed his fist into the mirror above the sink. “Fuck you.”
“I wanna kill you. I wanna kill you. I wanna kill you.” Noah said it with his eyes closed. Over and over to drown out the ringing in his ears.
“Get out,” his dad shouted, kicking the door back open.
Noah struggled to his feet, the towel twisting around him. “You’re dead to me.”
“You were a mistake,” his dad replied.
Noah pushed past him. “Dead to me.”
Noah splashes his face with water from the sink and walks back out into the kitchen. He sits down at the dining room table, his face in his hands. His father hasn’t died yet. Noah checks the papers every day for the eulogy. So far it’s never been there. He hasn’t checked yet today. This would be a good place to read a newspaper, close enough to the stove to keep an eye on your eggs, he notes, adding it to his mental list of selling points.
He won’t mention that this house is haunted by his father’s ghost. That it’s dark despite all the windows. That it’s full to the brim of silent shouting and the stench of cleaning products with nothing to hide. And he knows that if he keeps it to himself, no one else will notice.
One day, Noah is going to buy his mother a house. But not this one.