Albert hitched the wagon to the makeshift post that had been set up out in front of the house before coming round to help his wife step down out of the carriage. She squeezed his arm tightly with her right hand, her left resting defensively around her swollen belly. Her feet crunched against the dry earth and her head swam for a moment with the change in posture. She felt the baby kick, sensing the instability, and she gripped Albert’s arm tighter until the moment passed. She looked out into the cornfields and took a deep breath of the hot summer air. So this was home now. Ohio.
“Quickly, Caroline. I don’t want to keep Mr. Woods waiting.”
Albert urged her forward, and she turned now to take in the house. It was a massive thing, much larger than the one where she’d grown up, back in Pennsylvania. It had an enormous, white face, encircled by a wide porch that stretched the length of the house. On either side of the central door, large arched windows pulled up into high peaks. There was a small second floor, with its own tight versions of the arched windows. On the roof of the first floor a man was painting white the wood panels of the second story, his dark skin glistening in the midday sun. The very top of the house came up to a sharp point. To Caroline, it seemed as though the whole house was stretched, as if an invisible hand was pulling it up from the top. The roof was not yet fully shingled, and another man in a ragged, sweat stained shirt noisily nailed shingles down.
“Why, Albert, it looks like a castle!”
“Don’t be daft, Caroline. It looks like a church. Please don’t say such nonsense around Mr. Woods. Look, there he is.”
Out of the open front door stepped a man in beige trousers, a fine white linen shirt, and a vest with three buttons up the front. Caroline wondered how he could be dressed so finely in such heat. The man, Mr. Woods, took a handkerchief from his pocket to dap his forehead as he was shouting some instructions to unseen men inside the home when he noticed them standing there. He hurried towards them, extending a hand which Albert took in a firm shake.
“Albert, good to see you. Didn’t expect to see you for a few more days. I’d hoped to have everything finished by the time you arrived, but I’m unfortunately not working with the best stock.” He gestured derisively at the men working behind him, before catching himself and quickly adding, “But of course your house will be in fine condition once it’s built.”
“I have no doubt of that.” Albert said. “And I know all too well how hard it can be to find good help these days. You’ve built us a beautiful house, Mr. Woods.”
“I’m quite proud of it, Albert,” Woods replied, but Caroline couldn’t help but think it was his men who had done most of the building.
“Come, let me show you the inside.”
Woods led them up the freshly painted steps onto the porch and through the front door.
Madeleine lay on her stomach on her bed with her book splayed out across the pillow, occasionally stopping to draw something that particularly captured her interest. Father had just given her the book for Christmas. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. She read along as a great storm picked up Dorothy’s whole farmhouse, spun it around and dropped it down in Oz. She listened to the wind outside shriek and pull at the house, rattling her window. Snow piled on the roof of the first floor, obscuring half of the window, and the rest was a blur of blowing snow. She could almost imagine that she was flying right now. Could that really happen? She imagined her own house flying through the air like a kite. It seemed absurd. The house was impossibly heavy, rooted deep into the ground like a tree. Surely it couldn’t happen. But then again, she’d seen Pa and his farmhands rope some horses to a tree stump and pull it out of the ground. She was beginning to worry when she heard Ma and Pa come home, stamping their snowy boots off on the front porch before coming inside. She ran down to meet them, holding the book out in front of her.
“Ma! Pa! Is it true? Can a storm come in and pick up a whole house like that, and move it someplace else?”
“Move it somewhere else, Madeleine,” her mother said, as she and her husband shared a glance over the child’s head. “And what do you mean, flying houses?”
Madeleine immediately launched into an explanation of the book thus far, dragging her mother into the sitting room and laying the book out in front of her, pointing at the pages. Meanwhile, her father began piling wood in the fireplace and took to stoking the fire, trying to stave off the chill that was beginning to seep in through the walls. He heard the whistle of wind creeping and although he knew he ought to seek it out now, he made a mental note to check for it later. Instead he grabbed the newspaper from the kitchen counter before returning to the sitting room, where Madeleine had just finished her explanation.
“There’s nothing to worry about, Maddy. The house isn’t going to pick up and fly somewhere else, no matter how windy it gets outside. Your grandfather had this house built by the finest architect in Ohio, and it certainly isn’t going anywhere. Isn’t that right, Frank?”
Frank didn’t look up from his newspaper, and instead continued reading and spoke to them through the paper wall.
“Flying houses? Well who knows, maybe someday. Says here that some fellas in North Carolina just built themselves a flying machine. Maybe it’ll be flying houses next.”
“A flying machine?” Madeleine exclaimed. “Really? Wow.”
She grew quiet, staring off into the middle distance, dreaming of what kind of machine must be able to fly. She imagined a big wooden thing, like a farmhouse, with wings that flapped like a bird.
“How do you get to do that?” She asked the back of her father’s newspaper. “How do you get to build flying machines?”
“Oh, no dear,” her father chuckled, folding the paper down just enough to peek over top at where Madeleine sat. “That kind of thing isn’t for girls.”
He brought the paper back up, concealing his face once more. He didn’t see the way Madeleine’s face fell and her shoulders slackened.
“Plus there’s so much work to be done around the farm. Who will tend to the horses when your mother and I are old and grey?”
Madeleine looked to Ma for comfort. Her mother smiled softly back at her, placing a hand on the young girl’s hair.
“Come with me, sweetheart. It’s time we got started on dinner. You can help peel the potatoes.”
Pa did not look up from his newspaper as the two exited the sitting room, the floorboards creaking under each step as they walked across the hall to the kitchen.
Frances watched from the kitchen window as her mother and father drove off, smiling and waving in case either looked back towards the house. She kept her smile plastered on until she saw the family’s Buick Super reach the end of the driveway and turn off onto the highway. As soon as the car was out of sight, she ran to the back door and swung it wide open.
“Isaiah! Where are you? You can come out.”
Isaiah slunk out from behind the tractor, picking fallen leaves off his jacket, wearing that wry smile across his face. He looked quickly left and right across the field before jogging up to the back porch.
“What were you thinking? I said ten o’clock! They could have seen you. I had to tell mom I thought I saw an eagle out front just to get her away from the back window.”
“An eagle?” Isaiah laughed, wrapping an arm around her waist. “What a patriotic diversion.”
“I’m serious,” Frances said, failing to suppress her smile. “My dad would kill us if he found out.”
“Ooh, that does sound serious,” Isaiah said, walking her into the house, peppering her forehead and cheeks with kisses she wasn’t quite able to catch with her mouth. “It’d be a shame to die now, so close to shipping off. If he kills me, who’s going to explain it to Hitler?”
“Isaiah, don’t talk like that.” Frances grabbed fistfuls of his shirt and pushed him back, holding him at arm's length while she looked up at him with eyes that were beginning to blear.
“You know I don’t like those kinds of jokes.”
“Ahh, I’m sorry Franny,” he said, pulling her tight in for a hug. “Pops always said I had that gallows humor like him.”
The two stayed together like that for a moment, both trying desperately to etch each detail to memory. The song of an oriole, nesting in the rafters just outside the back porch, broke the silence.
“So,” Isaiah said, pulling apart from Frances with a devilish expression. “How long did you say your folks would be gone?”
“Until the church service ends, around twelve thirty. Gosh, Isaiah, don’t you know when church is over?” She tutted in mock judgement. “What kind of education did you have, child?”
“Oh, I’m educated,” he said as he took her hand and began leading her towards the stairs. “Let’s hurry, before your folks get home. See what I can teach you.”
Their song was sweeter than the oriole’s, and after a time they lay together in her bed, watching one another. Cold, fall air blew in through the gap where the window would no longer close. Its cruel touch was a reminder of the harshness outside, pushing them closer together, each feeding off the other’s warmth. Both wished they could stay like this forever, but neither dared hurt the other by saying it aloud. Instead they lay in silence, tracing unspoken love letters on each other's skin until they heard the crush of gravel under tires.
“Shit, Isaiah. You need to get out of here before they see you.”
“I know, Franny, I know.”
Isaiah tugged on his jeans and scrambled to put his shirt and jacket on.
“I’ll go out the window and wait on the roof until the coast is clear.”
He popped the window open before coming back to the bed, where he leaned down and kissed her.
“Be careful,” Frances said, placing a hand on his chest. “Don’t fall.”
“I won’t,” he said. He kissed her again, hard, and threw a leg out the window.
“Catch you later, Franny.”
He stepped out onto the roof just as he heard the sound of the front door opening. He sidled his way to away from the window and any line of sight, slipping slightly as some loose shingles under foot slipped off, tumbling down to the grass below. Underneath his feet, the oriole continued to sing.
Marvin stepped gingerly over the gaps in the shingles, careful not to step on the areas where rot was beginning to eat through the wood. He tugged again at his safety line, checking that the rope still pulled taught against the chimney column. Truthfully, if he did fall he wasn’t confident that the chimney would even support his weight. The bricks of the column were beginning to crumble, eaten away by an untold number of harsh winters. Still, a faulty lifeline felt better than none at all. He looked up at the early morning sky. Not a cloud to be seen. Good. He knew he ought to be downstairs with Sarah, but he was far too nervous to join her. He reached down to the pile of new shingles at his feet and began nailing another down.
He worked for much of the morning like this, hunched over the roof, nailing shingle after shingle as the early sun scorched the back of his neck. By noon he’d already emptied his canteen of water. Some retirement home this was turning out to be. He’d hoped for a more normal, more modest abode to live out their golden years, but Sarah had fallen in love with the design. Said it looked like a quaint version of the castles she’d visited as a child. Michael had been worried about what kind of work an old house like this would require, but the real estate agent had ensured them that the house was in immaculate condition for its age. Evidently they had different definitions of immaculate.
Soon he grew thirst from the work. He looked around, dismayed at how little of the roof he’d finished thus far. Already a dull throb was setting into his lower back, foreshadowing the pain he knew would come later. He looked towards where he’d tied himself to the chimney, then towards the ladder leading down off the roof. Back to the chimney.
“Sarah!” He called out over the side of the roof. “Can you grab me a bottle of water?”
No response. Mosquitos began to take advantage of his sudden stillness, closing in around him.
“Sarah!” He tried again, louder this time. “WATER.”
His voice echoed out over the fields that he’d been told once teemed with corn and now grew mostly weeds.
“Goddamnit Sarah, what if it’d been an emergency?” He grumbled as he began to shuffle towards the chimney. Evidently he’d have to get the water himself.
Just as he reached where the rope was tied, he heard the back door bang and Sarah's voice call out.
“Oh god, Marvin,” she sobbed, the words coming out in staccato bursts. “It’s so terrible. You need to come down.”
“What is it? What’s wrong?”
Marvin abandoned what he was doing and hustled to the roof’s edge, hastened by his wife’s tone. No longer watching precisely where he stepped, he foot punched through a rotten section in the wood. Splinters cut and scraped at his ankle, and he instinctively pulled his leg free. Off-balance now, he careened forward, tumbling off the roof as he heard Sarah let out a scream below.
Miraculously, the knot held, and Marvin came to a jerking halt six feet above the ground. His harness dug into his waist, causing him to let out an involuntary groan. When his head stopped spinning, he realized he was hanging upside. The ache in his back was now a decidedly sharp pain. He found Sarah's face, her cheeks wet with tears but her mouth still open in shock.
“Michael, my goodness are you alright?”
“I’m fine, or I will be fine when I get down from here. What’s wrong? What happened?”
“Oh, the space shuttle,” she said. “Challenger. It just exploded during launch. I was coming to tell you… Oh our poor Judith.”
Her whole body shook, as though threatening to shut down entirely. “I need to get you down.”
She looked around frantically before spotting the ladder leaning against the house a few feet away. She ran over and began trying to wrestle the ladder towards him.
Michael looked up, although it felt down to him, at the sky below. Judith. Gone. In an instant. His tears streamed up his face and rained down on the grass above his head as a warm breeze rocked him gently, his body swinging in the air.
The wrecking ball swung, taking out a large portion of the second floor and the chimney column. Bricks toppled down what remained of the roof and spilled onto the ground, kicking up puffs of dirt where they landed. The crane operator lined up for another swing as Tabitha took another swig of coffee and adjusted her hard hat.
“Damn shame,” she said, shaking her head. “They don’t make houses like that anymore.”
“Shame?” Jason said, leaning off the truck and turning to face her. “That place was a wreck. It should’ve been condemned ages ago. Plus, it looks like it was definitely haunted.
“Haunted?” Tabitha laughed. “Nah. It had history.”
“History, smhistory.” Jason took another bite of his sandwich. “You wouldn’t be singing the same tune if you had to live there, deal with them ghosts.”
The wrecking ball took out another chunk of the house, sending debris flying into the empty field.
“My grandma always said that fear of ghosts was such an American thing. Said it comes from having not lived in the same place for long enough.” She kicked at the dirt with her boot. “You know, some places embrace their ghosts.”
They sat in the silence between swings, until the third swing took out the remaining supporting walls and collapsed the last of the house into a crumpled heap.
“Alright, break’s over,” the foreman yelled. “We got work to do now.”
Jason reached a hand out to help her up.
“Come on, ghost hugger.”
The two of them began walking from their truck towards the collapsed house. As they grew near, Tabitha watched as a small, orange-yellow bird emerged from the rubble. It chirped and hopped around, landing on different broken beams and bricks. Finally it flew off in the direction of the main road. Tabitha followed it with her gaze as it flew overhead, and in its beak she saw a small bundle of twigs. At last, when it flew over the neighbouring cornfield and out of sight, Tabitha turned back towards the broken home.
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The passage of time brings it with much change; such a poignant tale!