What Keeps Him There - Mackenna Finley

If you were to walk through the front door of the aged yellow house, you would have to pass through each and every one of the small rooms before reaching the door to his bedroom. You might think that the short walk promised by the meager square footage would be uneventful, but around every corner you would be greeted by the ghost of a life you do not know. Through the living room, and kitchen, and dining room, you’d walk his footsteps and taste the energy of a stranger’s intimacy surrounding you. And by the time you found yourself facing the dark oak wood of his bedroom door, you might even think that you know him.

But you would be wrong.


The first thing you notice about the house is its isolation. It is surrounding by stretches of flat open lands, broken up here and there by patches of trees. It’s not an uncommon sight. It looks like a lot of the country homes you’ve seen before. You would have to travel five miles down the desolate road in either direction before catching another glimpse of civilization. Perhaps you find this odd. You might wonder how anyone could need so much space. Or maybe you take a deep breath and find that the air tastes like freedom and it isn’t hard for you to see the appeal in all the open space that some might call loneliness.


Setting your path towards the front porch, you notice how the cracked yellow paint adorning the home matches the sunshine falling over it. There is a life pulsating around it that makes you smile. It looks, after all, like a happy house. The thought brings you comfort as you reach the front door. Without hesitation you push it open and walk into the first room.


You find yourself standing in a sparsely decorated living room. You see a well-worn brown leather recliner, and a blue and white striped love seat, the only pieces of furniture in the room. The brown chair is wrinkled with age, the cracks in the leather like the lines set around an old man’s smile. You can still see an impression in the center where its owner last sat. It looks at home in the modest living room. The loveseat, however, stands apart. Unlike its leather counterpart, it looks unlived in. It doesn’t seem to be new, just out of use, like furniture on display at a thrift store. You probably don’t think on it for too long. After all, a house so far away from the rest of civilization isn’t likely to entertain many guests. Unconcerned, you allow your attention to shift. Both of the pieces of furniture face a bulky, square TV that looks like it might be older than the house itself. If you were to turn it on, you would be accosted by a high-pitched ringing, the small screen’s groan as it comes to life. Maybe it strikes you as odd, the outdated piece of technology, or maybe it reminds you of the old TV set your grandparents used to keep. Maybe it feels less out of place and more like home. Either way, it doesn’t hold you attention for long and you move through to the next room.


Moving forward through thick double doors, you reach the kitchen. The light filtering in through wide windows bounces off light green walls, and makes this room feel warmer than the last. You don’t notice, but even the air is lighter in here. Your eyes skip over the rustic wood counter tops, and outdated appliances, and fall straight to the vintage brass record player positioned in the farthest corner of the room. It looks as if it’s been dropped into the wrong decade by mistake, and yet it’s so well taken care of that it could have been new. You cannot help but imagine smooth jazz slipping from the machine and filling the room, sweet syncopated sounds dissolving into the atmosphere like honey into tea. You picture a scene with a warm manilla tint and buzzed bodies dancing about the room. You can’t restrain yourself from reaching out to touch the needle, hovering over a waiting record, willing yourself to feel the joy that it must bring. It really is beautiful, but you don’t spend too much time admiring the antique. Instead, you walk through an open archway into the next room.


The dining room is nothing like the kitchen. The lights are switched off, and the curtains drawn shut. The room’s only source of light sifts in from the kitchen, the bright rays like intruders in the night. There is what seems like an inch of dust laying on the table that makes the whole room look dead—haunted. If it were the only room you saw in the house, you might think that no one had lived there for years. You take a deep breath and shiver as you feel yourself swallowing the ghosts of the room. You taste mold and sorrow, a bitter residue left on your tongue by the stale air. The hair rises on your skin, and you know that although the house might belong to a stranger, this room belongs to darkness alone. Your bones begin to feel heavier and heavier the longer you remain standing there. You’re desperate to escape as quickly as you can, so you slip into the short hallway leading away from the room and wish briefly that you had spent just a moment longer studying that brass record player.


The small hallway is just as dark as the dining room. You don’t feel compelled to open any of the smaller doors along the corridor. You probably assure yourself silently that they’re only closets, that there’s nothing sinister hiding within them. You walk faster, not allowing your thoughts to linger on what lies behind closed doors. Before you know it, the hallway ends, and you are left staring at the bedroom door. Something about the way the door is set on its hinges makes it look like it was meant to be closed, like it had never been open. Still, with a compulsion you don’t recognize, you twist the knob and are surprised at how easily it swings open, inviting you into the room with a hint of sarcasm lurking in the quiet squeak of the hinges.


First your eyes land on his bed. It’s messy and unmade, and yet only one side looks as if it has been touched at all, like someone had been afraid to disturb the emptiness on the other side. Your eyes scan the room, afraid to linger on anything too long. With growing anxiety, the walls seem to close in on you. Is it all in your head, or is it really getting harder to breathe?


Then you see him. He sits at an empty desk on the far end of the room facing what you now realize is the room’s only window, his eyes trained intently on an old willow tree in the backyard. If you approach him slowly and silently, careful not to rouse him from his trance, you might get close enough to hear him mumbling in a broken whisper, “Tomorrow. Tomorrow. Tomorrow.” You freeze, too afraid to even flinch as the taste of bile rises in your throat.


In an instant, like a pebble disrupting the surface tension of water, a primal urge towards self-preservation breaks through your fear. You turn and run from the room, not bothering to close the door behind you. You hurry through the hallway and try not to breathe the heavy dining room air. You know your lungs can’t stand the weight. Rushing through the kitchen you glance by chance at the record player and notice that it looks less joyful, but you don’t look twice at the old TV or the empty love seat. You don’t want to risk looking too closely. You’re too afraid of what your new perception might reveal in still and quiet corners. And so, through the same door you came in, you leave.


Yes. If you were to walk through the front door of his old yellow house, in the end, you would leave. You would leave and try to forget the man and his broken home. You would leave and not look back. You would leave, and you would never know.


You would never know that the house was so far removed from the rest of the world because it was the only house the man could find that was already painted yellow. He wanted his wife to taste sunshine every time she walked through their front door. She too smiled the first time she saw the place, and she told her husband that Vincent Van Gogh used to swallow yellow paint, so he could be as happy inside as the paint looked on his canvas. He had laughed as she shared the anecdote. He had thought it was ridiculous, funny even. Now whenever he looked at the house and thought of the story, he cursed himself for buying her a home painted in someone’s poison.


You would never know that he used to come home from work every day in time to watch the six o’clock news on that old TV. It had been his wife’s favorite program, and the only one they ever watched together, sitting on that blue and white loveseat. Every night at the end of the reports, the anchors made time for some seemingly silly, light-hearted anecdote, and she would smile. Somedays it would be the only time she smiled all day. He had fallen in love with that smile, but now the thought of it brought tears to his eyes. He never sat in the love seat anymore, and whenever the TV was on, his eyes locked on the empty cushions, as if he could will her to appear there again. Still, each night he turned the little box to channel six and thought of her. Those stories didn’t seem silly to him anymore.

You would never know that the record player in the kitchen had been a wedding gift, and when his wife got into one of her dark moods he would put on their favorite song and ask her to dance. They would spin around the kitchen until he could feel her heart grow lighter. These days he would let the music fill the empty space. He would close his eyes and try to float on each and every note up through the ceiling and closer to her.


You would never know that the dining room was so dark and dusty because he hadn’t touched it in months. You would never know how it made him think of the nights when she was feeling okay and had dinner waiting for him when he got home. They would sit across from each other and laugh about the people at work, or the phone calls she had with her mother. But the room hadn’t heard laughter in months. All he could manage to think about was how strong she must have been to laugh in the center of her darkness. He wondered what had stolen that strength away.


You would never know that on the nights when he managed to sleep at all he was careful not to slip into his wife’s side of the bed, because then she might think that he had forgotten her, that she didn’t have a place in their home anymore. You would never know that he had been staring out that window for more weeks than he could count, and when he looked at that tree and whispered to himself, it was a prayer that tomorrow he would find the strength to cut the damn thing down, a prayer that he wouldn’t have to look out that window and remember how he had come home to find her hanging there, the way she swayed sickly reminiscent of the way they had danced. Yes, maybe tomorrow he would cut it down, and he would leave.


But the next day would come and go and the tree would stand, and he would stay.

And you would never know why. You would never even stop wonder what it was that kept him there in the brokenness you weren’t strong enough to stand.

Mackenna Elizabeth was born in Granville, Ohio and is currently a student at Bowling Green State University where she is pursuing an MFA in Fiction. She is a young, and as of yet unpublished writer interested in complex familial relationships and religious themes.

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