It was a fine house; houses he had known for the bulk of his life were too familiar, too welcoming for people. People needed to leave suddenly before they could take a step on the tattered carpet with muddied shoes, eager to mark territory. No one wanted the house.
The house was older than any living being, species of turtles included. The brickwork, if one could call it that, consisted of gray stones. Smooth, but their coldness matched the temperature of the young man’s heart, which was never properly fixed, much like the house.
The stairs croaked when looked at. Frogs did not live in this part of the country, nor would amphibians willingly stay here.
The young man and his father were pleased with their choice. Sadness came from within, and could feed properly without. After the loss of the matriarch, father and son could no longer stay in the bright lights of California. Coldness, sadness, stones felt right.
The kitchen was functional, but the refrigerator lacked an ice machine. A definite step down from their old one.
Only three rooms could handle electricity at one time. Misery. They loved it.
They imported cozy stuffing for the mattresses. Sadness may have had domain, but no reason to throw out your back. The rooms were horrifically flammable. The guest room burnt down when a previous tenant brought in a space heater. The rooms needed to remain below 46 degrees Fahrenheit. They were planning to be depressed forever.
The bathroom was an outhouse.
Examining his reddened palm, Eric walked along the sadder parts of the house. He caught a glimpse of his father, crying over a singed photo frame again. Her photos were all but lost, remaining on the internet as a shrine to her memory. They dared not find photos of her online, unless they wanted to retreat to the darkness of their minds.
Eric noted the state of his attire.
“Derrick, uh… I need to do a load.”
For the first time in four hours, Derrick looked away from the frame.
“You know where the outhouse is.”
Eric groaned internally. “I mean a load of laundry. But I need a key to get in. And there’s none around.”
“Oh. Yeah, that’s the best part of the house.”
It seemed impossible, but Derrick had taken on an emotion almost outside of depression.
“The laundry room will only open if you’re wallowing in sadness. Make a fist, and the key will appear in your hand. Seems to be some strange magic from long ago. Whoda thunk it?” At this, Derrick scratched his crusty beard and left.
Dubious but too broken up and rancid to care, Eric stood before the laundry room. His scarred fist hurt when clenched, but he preferred it to nothing. But the nothing came back when he opened his hand, a smoky grayish-brown key having suddenly manifested. It frightened him; the fire still fresh in his mind.
After turning the key, it spread around Eric’s body and dissipated like vapor. He still didn’t like this as much as his father did.
As odd as the magic had been, the laundry room seemed mundane. It reeked of vinegar, likely the old basement had been a wine cellar once. The laundry machines were state of the art, fantastically. Eric threw the shirt he was wearing into the wash.
Looking around a bit more, Eric discovered a window, muddy grass, and two bare feet with dark blue nail polish. The two largest toes of the right foot tapped on the window.
Muddy feet, lamented Eric. Damn it.
Finding a step stool, Eric opened the window for the feet. A young woman about two years older than he crouched down to see him.
“Hey, uh…” She was awkward; a bit plain but Eric was in no mood for hysterics. Or women. “I’m your neighbor, that one there. Sandra. Robbie! Sandra Robbie! Sorry, I’m no good with this. You are?”
“Leaving.” Eric wished he hadn’t said that. Even so, he started for the window latch.
In a panic, Sandra stomped on Eric’s red hand, her foot wet with clods of dirt.
“Oh God! I’m so sorry! Pl-please don’t go!”
Eric’s eyes met hers, then the grotesque layers of mud on her legs, then his hand. He twitched in a state of patience.
“Never step on me again with muddy feet, okay?” He thought to potentially rectify that statement, but she beat him to the punch.
With a grin more appropriate for a certain cat, Sandra asked, “So would you be okay if I stepped on you with clean feet?”
Eric was not laughing. Eric was not angry. Eric was, although not completely closed off from his emotions, surprised to find himself telling her his story.
“Last year, my folks and I were having a little family time. Thing is, we got a little too light-headed. Careless. A match falls, our wooden home goes up in smoke.”
Sandra winced. For the 921st time, she felt like a dunce.
“My mother didn’t make it. My father insists I call him by his name now. Wants no responsibility as a family man. I accommodate. Me, I tried opening the door, but my hand got burned. The house’s clamminess calms down the pain.”
“Hey, I know this house.” Squinting harder than she needed to, Sandra inspected the stone exterior. “Didn’t a room get burned here? Why get a super flammable bedroom?”
“Oh.” Eric tried to phrase it normally. “My dad thinks if we live in flammable rooms, we’ll be more cautious. Again, I accommodate.”
Sandra thought it was phrased normally.
“Getting back, my mother was passed out on the carpet. We saw her, but three firefighters come stomping in our crumbling house. Stomping over my mother. Too much smoke to see, maybe. They crushed her with their muddy boots. She would have been…”
Humiliation embodied Sandra, who placed one foot atop another.
“I… I can’t…” She muttered something lost to ears. “Look, if it’s any consolation, my parents died when I was young. I can empathize. I feel cold and I prefer crying sometimes. And I never really got over their deaths.” Sandra scratched her freckles. “No, why would you feel better with my pain? I’ll go now.”
“No, my name’s Sandra.”
“My name. Sandra, you described a lot of what I’m going through.” He played with an empty bottle of vinegar he found. “I managed to escape therapy because I can fake positivity, so I sort of regret not talking to someone about this.”
Sandra spat up a less stupid grin.
Eric, feeling friskier than he could remember, went for boldness.
“Hey… do you want to show me around this town? Maybe get some food?”
A laugh on par with a symphony rang in Eric’s ears. “Sure… but with a shirt on, I hope!”
Eric glanced down with the speed of pain. His face matched his hand.
“Ha ha! Look, I like what I see! I’ll meet you in front of my house at 6, okay?” Sandra gave a calm smile. “Thank you, Eric.”
The feet went.
With the load complete and Eric reconsidering being sad forever, he strutted to the door. He balled up his hand… Release! No key.
Right. The key manifests from sadness.
“Derrick? Derrick! I’m locked in!”
The door swung open at an inhuman velocity.
“Eric? Didn’t you make a fist?” Derrick’s eyes were nearly blood red.
“Guess… I forgot.” Derrick had gone mad, and discovering his son wasn’t almost as sad as he would destroy him. Better to lie, Eric supposed.
“Well, remember next time, okay?” With that, Derrick disappeared for the day.
Optimism wasn’t Eric’s best friend, but the laundry room brought him the first good thing since the incident. Eric needed a nicer shirt.