by Corey Farrenkopf
I stamped the For Sale sign into the lawn seven months ago. Since then, I arranged one tour, fielded five related phone calls, and received zero offers. I was the only realtor in a five town radius. The house was the only one on the market within that radius. No one moved there. No one moved away. When residents died, their houses were willed to younger generations or they collapse inward. The main road was lined with moldering frames, wooden skeletons climbing out of never mown lawns. Some were charred black from electrical fires, others were little more than kindling heaped into a cement foundation, sunken like collapsed graves.
The tour went well for fifteen minutes. The house was a starter home. One floor, two bedrooms, one-point-five baths. The cedar shingles held their original ochre luster. The kitchen was tiled. The septic up to code. Some rooms could use new paint, I told the potential buyers, a man and woman in their late twenties who wanted to trade city life for our quiet town. Think of all the fun projects, she said. I’ve always wanted to use paint swatches, he replied. I listened as they fed off each other, building up elaborate plans for each room. Built-in bookshelves, a home theater, her writing studio, his recording studio, an as to be decided studio. While they worked themselves into a frenzy, we came to the basement door.
“So, full basement?” the man asked.
“Yes, poured concrete. There’s a new oil heater and water tank down there. We don’t need to look. It’s pretty standard and I know you two are busy people,” I said, trying to lead them through the hall to the half bath with its light green walls and painted bird accents.
“That sounds mysterious,” the woman said.
“Don’t go into the basement,” the man said, affecting a cartoonish Dracula accent.
“We need to see it,” the woman said, blocking my path down the narrow wallpapered corridor.
“I wouldn’t call it mysterious,” I said, pushing open the door. The man flipped on the light and descended the stairs, the woman following. At their base, they froze, bodies rigid, breath halted. I followed, pausing halfway when the man began to talk.
“Who are they?” He asked. “How’d they get in there?”
He pointed to the amberlike window of the floor, to the bodies suspended in the timeless void as if they were diving into a swimming pool. They floated beneath our feet. Some reaching as if to breach the surface, others contentedly simmering, arms crossed, eyes closed. The overhead lights tinted the translucent material a pale orange, almost like a glass of beer. Beer with people in it. I could name each of them, had snapshots in family photo albums. My face was a composite of theirs, a nose from uncle Thom, my grandmother’s blue eyes, cousin Kal’s jawline.
“Well, that’s my father,” I said, pointing to a man in a gray suit, his balding head thrown back, sightless eyes peering up at us. “And my mom’s over there.”
She bobbed in the corner, her gray hair piled in senseless coils, fingers reaching as if to claw herself free from the void. I pointed out my twin sisters, my aunts, my great-great-grandparents, everyone who lived in the house before me.
“And you put them there?” the woman yelled, as if I was some chemistry/architectural savant.
“No. That’s what happens when you die in our town,” I replied. “On the bright side, you save on burials”
Both man and woman gasped and turned for the stairs.
“This is your house!” the man yelled at me when he couldn’t easily flit by.
I nodded. I moved back in seven years ago after my brother died in a drunk driving accident. He floated serenely on his back by the recycling bin, eyes closed, leather jacket zipped to his chin, clotted blood smeared across his temples. I hoped the inheritance wouldn’t make it to me, but my name was in the will. I had no younger siblings. No one to take my place.
“Why trick us?” the woman asked.
“The house collapses otherwise. They’d be buried. If I can’t find a buyer, I’m trapped,” I replied, eyes downcast, stepping aside. I considered lying, telling them they’d avoid such fate, that it was hereditary. But that wasn’t true. If they signed the mortgage agreement, they’d wind up just left of the hot water heater, eternally buoyed in the crystalline foundation.
The two took to the stairs. Passing through the door, their feet assaulted the floor overhead until they were outside. A car engine turned over and they were gone, leaving me in the basement, fluorescent lights illuminating my family. I had blown the sale, my first chance to get out, to move somewhere I didn’t confront my entire lineage whenever I did laundry. It’s not that I wanted to abandon them. I loved them. But I couldn’t live my life tethered to land my ancestors never left, drifting through days of endless memory. There were no opportunities in town. My neighbors had their own basements full of amber-encased relatives. No one talked about leaving, content with fate, roots they refused to prune.
I dragged a broom across the floor’s glassy window, sweeping dust the potential buyers shook from overhead beams. Forming respectful piles between uncle Carl and aunt Denise, I thought about the business cards I’d meant to print, the website I had yet to construct, the air of legitimacy needed to make the sale. The copy shop downtown ran a deal: buy five hundred cards, get five hundred free. I’d gotten a quote. Imagining my own body frozen beneath the lake of time, crowded by cousins and grandparents, sparked dread through every fiber of my chest. I refused to stumble through another sale.
Leaning the broom against the wall, I took the stairs, ready to follow the couple back to town, through the maze of streets and houses where people were trapped in similar fashion, the dead peering up at them from beneath basement steps. The copy shop was a fifteen minute drive. Plenty of time to contemplate the headshot I’d select for the printing. To smile or remain neutral, that was the question.
Corey Farrenkopf lives on Cape Cod with his wife, Gabrielle, and works as a librarian. His fiction has been published in Catapult, Redivider, Hobart, JMWW, Slushpile Magazine, Third Point Press, and elsewhere. To learn more, follow him on twitter @CoreyFarrenkopf or on the web at CoreyFarrenkopf.com
Image source: Waldemar Brandt/Unsplash