One may have a blazing hearth in one’s soul and yet no one ever come to sit by it. Passerby see only a wisp of smoke from the chimney and continue on the way.
-Vincent Van Gogh
I spotted the front door through a break in the kudzu. I would see the heat rising out of the thick tangle of steaming vines. It was slow moving through the mass of vegetation. Winged insects, heavy with dew, flew in sluggish circles across my vision as I went.
The porch was framed by short columns and the wooden siding was painted a chipped, faded blue. The boards on the patio creaked beneath my feet, but overall, the structure looked solid. I turned my back to the front door and looked into the swarm of leaves, tendrils and insects shimmering in the fresh dawn.
It seemed like a good place to hide.
The doorknob had been punched out. I went down on one knee to take a look inside. The living room floor was covered in dust and torn newspapers and there were thick, opaque spiderwebs strung up everywhere. I sat looking a long time.
When I felt enough time had passed, I pounded on the door a half-dozen times and waited for something to stir. Silence. I braced my shoulder against the door and exerted a slow pressure. Ruined paint flakes clung to my shirt; the door swung open soundlessly.
I called out a friendly greeting and crossed the threshold into the living room. My voice sounded strangely muffled in the abandoned space. The dust-caked coffee table caught my eye, first thing. There were empty bottles and an ashtray full of cigarette butts resting atop the grime.
I lifted the longest butt from the ashtray, thumbed the pack of matches from my pocket, and lit up. I was sure the sun was still up, but inside, in the darkness, there was no way of knowing for sure. I went into the kitchen and started looking through the cabinets.
Early the next morning I set out to gather the few things I would need. The employment agency could wait until the next day; there was housekeeping to be done. I still had a few twenties in my wallet and a paycheck in my pocket. There seemed to be plenty of time.
I had seen an old mattress propped against the wall of an apartment building the day before. In the dim, flickering luminescence of that promising dawn, I hefted the worn, speckled mattress over my shoulder and headed home. The mattress when it landed raised a large cloud of dust, the particles dancing around my shoulders, sticking to my skin.
By midday, there was a pair of thin blankets spread across the mattress and a pile of pillows resting at one end. In the kitchen, I had stacked an assortment of cook pots and crockery of varying designs in a dusty cupboard. My small propane burner, black with charred food, sat beside the sink.
I had the first meal in my new house about three in the afternoon that second day; a can of pork and beans with two pieces of white bread to wipe the bowl clean. It was easy to sleep in the silence of the vines. I drifted off early, feeling warm and safe in my cocoon of blankets.
With the house settled, I had to get back to work. That meant a daily trip to the temp agency. I’d sign in, take a seat on one of the hard benches furthest from the door, and wait.
The man behind the window sat smoking through the days. I had never seen him without a cigarette in his hand. I would stare at my shoes, or pretend to read a magazine. It made for a long day.
Some days, I got a truck to unload at the warehouse down the street. Without a car, the warehouse was my only option, but it didn’t bother me. Anything was better than sitting and waiting for your name to be called.
I carried boxes from one tractor-trailer to another. You were paid by the truckload rather than the hour. Some days, you got a truck full of Kleenex and toilet paper; other days it was furniture, or appliances. I got a partner to help with the heavy trucks, but that meant half the pay. It was a bad deal, but you take what you can get.
Those days on the heavy trucks seemed endless. If you thought about what you were doing, you would never make it. When it became almost unbearable, when I was sweating and cursing a box, and the dust from the carton was settling in my mouth and lungs, I thought of the house.
I had a bright, mental image of the front door tucked behind the vines. The rooms were pregnant with my sparse belongings. I was home again.
With regular sleep came dreams. One night, I dreamt the shotgun against my windpipe. I woke up screaming, sweating. When the fit had passed, I sat and listened to the silence. Even the vines stopped whispering against the window panes.
It had happened in my parents basement the summer before. I had been pacing across the carpet a couple days, trying to find a way out. I had this habit of staring in the mirror for lengthy periods of time. I wasn’t sure why it happened, but I kept staring, searching for answers, looking into the black nothingness of the pupils, hoping to escape somehow.
I alternated between pacing and staring. It seemed like a sensible way to foster the madness. I didn’t hide from madness then. It seemed easier than living in any normal way.
My face was swollen with sloth and drink. I had scarcely shaved since my inglorious return from college, and the ingrown hairs were scattered across my throat in angry, infectious blotches borne of neglect. There was twenty-four years wasted and twinned in the glass.
It was hard to look away.
They called me to the dinner that night, but the humiliation that eating had become was too much. I feigned sleep, though there was no reason to do so; they had stopped coming down to the basement some time before.
I didn’t know anything about the gun except where it was kept.
I held the barrel of the shotgun flush against my throat. I could see the oily dust on the barrel with an odd clarity; individual flecks of luminescent matter shone in the grime and loose particles floated away from the steel in rhythm with my shaking hands.
It looked like an instrument of horrible precision. I hoped my head would be completely severed from the neck, but it seemed more likely that a sick second mouth would simply explode into being at my throat. I could picture the shotgun pellets speckled in the blood and flesh.
I pulled the trigger. There was a small clicking sound, and I flinched badly. I was surprised to see light enter my vision. I blinked my eyes a few times to be sure. then I pulled the trigger again.
I checked the safety, I tried to pump the shotgun again. The shell had jammed, and in my inexperience, I had no remedy. I pitched the shotgun across the room. It bounced off the wall and landed on the floor with a soft metallic clatter. I sat motionless against the wall a long time. Sat there sweating and trying to return my breathing to its normal rhythm, the sensation of panic fresh, but not at all unfamiliar.
I left the next day while they were at work. An old college friend had promised me a room. A month later, I ran away from his house in the middle of the night. I moved on to the next friend.
They all talked a lot about burning bridges. I never stuck around long enough to see the smoke clear.
I was wandering through the woods when I saw the front door. It was hard to believe at first, but there it was; a place to hide, free and clear.
In autumn, the open flue funneled in the cold winds of the season. I slept in the living room when the temperatures dipped below freezing. Beneath the floorboards, small creatures were scurrying, racing against the coming winter. On the most miserable nights, when my feet went numb, I sat and listened.
Most mornings, I gathered dead leaves and dry sticks for kindling, and scoured the thin woods behind the house for logs. The kudzu had stunted the forest long before; the massive cobwebs strung up in their strange, circular patterns shone a ghastly white in the few slivers of sunlight that penetrated the canopy. The rotten, broken limbs I retrieved from the barren earth crumbled like wet paper in my hands.
I would sit and watch my flames for hours, admiring the heat of the fire as it crept in slow waves through the darkness.
I had settled into a stable routine of working, stockpiling wood against the coming cold, and searching the streets come nightfall for more elaborate furnishings. There was a battered recliner beside the fireplace, and a small table and chair in the kitchen. Cooking implements of a considerable variety filled the drawers, and the shelf over his fireplace was lined with scavenged books and magazines.
I was ready for winter.
The men appeared quite early one morning. I heard them hacking at the kudzu with their sickles as they cut a path to the front door. The quiet swish of the blades was interspersed with the occasional rustle of a tangled arm or leg being worked free from the grasping vines. They pushed on the front door, but I had chalked the threshold with wood sometime before. One of the men bent to look through the keyhole but it had been covered over with old newspaper.
“It’s a damn shame,” the first man said. “You just can’t believe a person would let an old house go like this.”
“With all those weeds grown over the house, the roof is probably rotten clean through,” the second man answered.
“What a waste. No telling what might live inside. Rats, possums, who knows?”
The first man toed a small vine near his left shoe as he spoke. He tried to cut it through with the heel of his boot, but the vine was strong. He gave it up.
“Well, nothing to do but post the notice and get on.”
“Yes sir,” the second answered. He took the notice from his pocket, unfolded the paper, flattened the creases, and hung it on the front door with a staple at each end.
While they were talking, I sat and watched the front door from the kitchen. I stood very still. I remember hearing the small concussion of the stapler and the movement of the vines as the two men went on their way. When they had gone, I stared at the door a long time. A sickness pulsed through my body, and there were fresh sensations of pain screaming near my temples.
I waited until dark to read the notice. Among a mess of legal language, I saw the house was to be demolished in thirty short days. My breath was smoking in the freezing air.
That night I huddled near the fire, the rhythmic dance of the flames running across the walls. I tried to think of something to do. But they had made it very clear there was nothing to do. It was all stapled to the front door, in plain sight; nowhere to hide.
I bought an ax. My trips to the woods took on a fresh urgency. I hacked at the ruined trees with silent fury, and the days passed in melee of sweat and splinters.
Two days before the demolition, I taped the broken handle back together and swung the blade until my arms were numb. The 29th day had passed. When I had enough wood, I went inside and put my pack together. My remaining food, the gas burner, cookware and cutlery, and the pair of thin blankets was all I had. It didn’t take long to get ready.
I walked my pack to the edge of the sparse timber.
I stayed awake all night long. The smell of fire and woodsmoke on the winter air pulled me toward times past more than I would have liked. I walked the house, stopping occasionally to touch the walls, or feel the floor beneath my feet.
A few hours before dawn, I lit the stack closest to the front door. I stood in the kitchen a few minutes to make sure the kindle had taken. When the smoke rolled into the kitchen, I turned and walked out the backdoor and into the depleted forest.
By the time the demolition crew pulled up, the roof had collapsed. The multitude of kudzu was smoking in the holocaust of flame and raw heat. The green leaves about the vines flashed in small explosions of fire, and tiny flakes of gray ash floated like snow flakes on the breeze that fed the inferno.
I sat and watched from a tree stump until the sirens sang in the distance, and then I picked up my pack and walked through the ruined forest, and out the other side.
Benjamin Atherton is an author based in Knoxville, TN. His work has
been featured in Pill Hill Press, Vine Leaves, Dark Chaos, and The