May 22, probably
I have never told anyone this. Not all of it, anyway.
I need to write it down now. I need to get it out of my head.
After my parents split up, my mom moved us out to a brand new suburb where all the houses looked the same and there was exactly one stubby little tree in every front yard. She wanted it to be a new start for us, for me. We didn’t belong there. I don’t think it was the sort of place where anyone belongs, but our family? A divorced single mother and her autistic ten-year-old, black in an all-white neighborhood with no connections or extended family?
My mother is an optimist.
To hear my mom talk about it after we moved in, the neighborhood population was twenty copies of the same upper-class white family who got together sometimes to watch football and exchange knitting patterns. I was not invited over to play, and my mother was not invited to brunch.
It felt like I lived in a world adjacent, just a little displaced from everything else. There were other kids I followed around sometimes, but they all seemed to live on other streets. They always seemed to age just a little faster than I did. I could often hear them screaming and laughing from my yard, always just out of sight.
An upper-middle class suburb in late Autumn is a lot of echoing thoughts and amplified footfalls. Sometimes I thought all the houses surrounding mine - all those identical white-paneled sugar-crystal houses - were empty. People lived on other streets, but we were alone on mine.
But I wasn’t neglected. My mom made an admirable effort. As long as I ate my vegetables and my grades were OK, I had everything I needed. Cake on my birthday. Notes in my lunchbox.
I’m sorry that I was sad back then, even though I had so much. I’m sorry I didn’t appreciate it.
I found the crawlspace under my house on one of my lonely forays around the yard. It was a gray, chilly November Saturday and I had spent a lot of it reading in the wicker chair on the front porch, turning sandpapery pages until the pads of my fingers cracked.
I looked up at the sound of a passing car as it turned onto my street and cruised slowly past my house. It was a broad, dark-grey pickup with tinted windows, blaring loud country music that shattered the frosty November stillness. It went on slowly to the end of the street - so slowly - and turned the corner. The music rang through the quiet suburb long after it had passed out of sight.
I went back to my book, but I wasn’t taking in any of the words.
A boy from school had come over the week before for a sleepover. It didn’t last that long. I accidentally let slip that I still wet the bed sometimes, and he begged his dad to come pick him up before dark. It’s fine - we didn’t have much in common anyway.
But in my hours-long friendship with Eli, he conveyed his obsession with urban legends and creepy stories, and he told me that he knew for a fact every house, every single house in the world, had a secret room.
“Even the houses built to be the same,” he said. “It’s like a fingerprint - every single one is unique.”
I was a ten-year-old autistic social recluse with a ravenous appetite for fantasy novels. I had only just gotten around to accepting that dragons might not be real. This new revelation from Eli was just mundane enough to be plausible. And I didn’t know about crawlspaces.
“Even the people building the house couldn’t tell you where to find the secret room,” Eli had said. “That’s because the house grows it after it’s built. The more people that live in a house, the bigger the secret room gets. And it starts to fill with things, all the stuff that goes missing from the people living there. How many socks do you have where you just can’t find the matching one? And books and toys and stuff that just disappears, even though you know you didn’t take it anywhere.”
I asked Eli where we could find the secret room in my house.
“It’s hard,” he said. “Sometimes it’s underneath the house, but a lot of the time it’s in the walls. My friend Jackson, he told me he has a cousin who suddenly started losing a lot of things. Like, even food would go missing out of the fridge. His parents thought it was him doing it, but it wasn’t.
“Turns out, someone had found their secret room. A stranger. Someone they didn’t know. He’d been living alongside them in the walls and only coming out at night - eating their food, stealing their clothes, so quiet they never even suspected he was there. That he was watching them.”
“So how did they find out?” I asked. We were sitting alone in my bedroom, and I couldn’t stop glancing at the walls.
“The smell,” Eli said.
“He got trapped in there. The secret room closed up and he couldn’t get out. He was probably in there for weeks, starving to death, and then curling up and going all rotten before he started to stink. The smell got so bad they had to smash through a wall to figure out what it was.” Eli leaned closer. “You know what I think?”
I looked again at the wall facing my bed. “What?”
“I think the house closed the door on him. Houses are smart. Maybe it got attached to having someone in its secret room.” Eli was grinning now. He was older than me, and I wasn’t good at hiding my fear. I bet he was having a great time. “I think maybe it wanted to keep him.”
The blare of country music jolted me out of my thoughts. I looked up, startled, as the big grey pickup truck turned onto my street a second time. It glided slowly past my house. I tried to see into the tinted windows, but they only reflected the pallid sky, and a minute later the country music faded as the truck turned the corner again.
I should have gone inside.
But I didn’t.