They moved into the house at the end of the street. It looked almost exactly like all the others; the roof was a bit differently shaped, the pieces of wall rearranged, but it was like a picture of house with its pieces mixed up in each green-lawned lot. Their house was almost unique, in that once they moved into it they painted it a cheery spring yellow. All the other houses were painted grey or white or sometimes blue. The houses were probably the same on the inside too, but they didn’t know the neighbors well enough to find out. There were all the necessities for a standard house in the flat middle of suburbia; a kitchen, bedroom, a couple bathrooms and a rather dank basement. There was a tiny room to the side of the basement, right past the stairs to the left. It looked a bit as if the architect hadn’t liked the space jutting out and had closed it off with a wall and door just to have something to do with it.
The room wasn’t really used for anything much. It was small, and had a single lightbulb screwed into the ceiling with a cord hanging down from it, which got progressively grubbier despite rarely being used. There were a few packages of paper napkins and other hefty items that needed storage and weren’t often needed, stacked against one wall. Hanging on the opposite wall was a large rectangular mirror, which the husband — John — had tried half-heartedly to pull off and given up when they were first reorganizing amidst still-unpacked boxes. It had a crack in one corner and a determined mist of dirt that had settled on its surface with serious intent to stay. Every few months the housekeeper ventured into the room to attack it with Lysol and paper towels, and found herself giving up surprisingly quickly at the grime’s refusal to lift.
John had only ever been in the room those few times, stacking packages or prying at the dirty mirror. His wife, Emily, had been there once. She got spooked easily, and the shadows in the corners seemed to flit closer when the door swung closed. She’d run to John a bit pale, barely trembling, and never gone in again.
For the most part, they lived a lovely normal life. They read the papers in the mornings with steaming mugs of coffee. They came home from work and cooked together, or argued over the menu for Chinese takeout.
It was on one of these nights that Emily disappeared. The two of them were sitting at the kitchen table, cartons of wontons and spring rolls and spareribs scattered among crumpled piles of food-stained napkins. They had put a package of napkins that was nearly empty in the middle of the table, and now only the plastic wrapping remained as a centerpiece. Emily put the last morsel of her wonton into her mouth, and said, “Would you go grab some more napkins from the downstairs room, sweetie?” Her fingers were slippery and the sheen of grease on her lips shone as she smiled at him. He pushed himself up from his chair, leaned across the table to kiss her glistening lips, and started down the stairs.
Emily ate two more spareribs, and scraped the sauce from her hands with her scrunched-up napkin. She didn’t hear anything from downstairs. She refilled her glass of water, and bit into a spring roll, and crunched contentedly on it.
After ten minutes and the rest of the spring roll, Emily wandered to the top of the stairs, wondering what was taking John so long. She hung from the doorframe, peering down the staircase, and called, “You need any help with that, John, honey?”
She heard his voice answer back, strained and spiraling from the basement, but she couldn’t distinguish the words. Emily walked down the stairs to the basement room, its door open and casting a shadow that sliced across the neat linoleum floor. She stepped around the door and into the room, hesitantly. She could see only darkness and the dim shadowed corners or the room. Her voice quavered on “John? Love?” and she reached out blindly, swiping at the air, for the cord to the lightbulb.
John dropped the full package of napkins on the table squarely on top of the empty plastic wrapping, which crackled satisfyingly. “Em?” He called out, and ripped open the plastic. There was no answer. He popped half of a wonton into his mouth, crunched. “Em?”
The basement door was still open. Maybe she had gone to look for him. He called down the stairs, but still heard no answer, and shuffled down the staircase to check just in case. The door to the basement room was shut. The knob was cold to the touch and stiff as he tried to—it had turned easily, just twenty minutes before. He wrenched it open and pushed the door forward, which swung silently into the room. He yanked on the overhanging cord, which flashed on to reveal an empty room. He glanced, tugged the light off, and pulled the door closed behind him as he turned to go back up the stairs.
Most of the wontons and the spareribs and the spring rolls disappeared in the next hour, and John called his wife’s name intermittently in increasingly perplexed tones. He checked the garage, where the car was parked, untouched, and the bedroom, undisturbed. After another hour, bewildered and upset, he curled up in bed and stared unseeing toward the blank stretch of wall until he fell into sleep.
Emily didn’t come back. John’s days went as before, but alone. He never saw her again.
Every once in a while, he hoped she was just around the corner. Maybe she was coming up the walk, about to ring the doorbell and fall into his arms again and everything would go back to normal. He would wait and hold his breath and hope, and nothing would happen. She had simply disappeared.
She couldn’t have left the house. The car was there, and he hadn’t heard so much as the slam of a door or the purr of a motor. She was just gone.
He stayed in, mostly. Drank the glass of wine they used to share each night, ordered Chinese until half-full cartons were stacked on each shelf of the refrigerator, filling it with a slow smell of soy sauce and rot. He hit the buzzer on the alarm until he had just enough time to dress for work, and slept early each night.
John almost never went into the basement now. He spent most of his time at home in the kitchen or the bedroom, curled up with a cup of coffee and a newspaper. He buried himself in the even black text that told of other people’s tragedies, the things that definitely happened, the hard evidence, the quotations and dates and photographs that marked their pain. He sat each day and leaned into the shelter of the stacks of papers. They stood between his face and the windows and helped somewhat to block the brightness of the light.
The housekeeper stopped coming. She explained, frankly, to John, “Look, sir, I like you and the lady. I don’t know why she’s not around anymore though and I don’t want to get in the middle of nothing. There was a whole mess like that at the last place I worked, and not the kind I’m paid to clean up.” She was chuckling. John nodded dully, pretending he couldn’t hear her. She didn’t say out loud that the odd smell made her nervous, or that she thought to herself once in a while that she didn’t know what she’d do if she came across the wife’s murdered body hidden somewhere and had to call the cops on him, such a nice man. She left, the door clicking closed gently behind her, blotting the sunlight out from the cool shadowed hall. After that, nobody else came to the house.
Six months passed this way. John padded around the house in his socks, read his newspapers, sipped his coffee in the morning without thinking about what it tasted like. He got used to making coffee every morning just for himself. He divided up the packets, shaking half of the powder into the filter from the bag, and tucking the edges neatly over the top and pushing it back into the cabinet. Eventually this was routine. It felt if he’d always shoved the coffee back, half-empty, every morning. He spent the rest of each day struggling to stay awake.
He didn’t see a trace of her. He didn’t hear from her—no phone call, no postcard with a glossy picture of some exotic place, explaining why she’d left so suddenly. The fastest he ever walked was to the mailbox, to check eagerly each day if she was somewhere. She never was.
One night, eating Chinese food with his newspapers as always, John ran out of napkins. He crammed the rest of a wonton into his mouth and swallowed it like a lump of dry dust, and dropped his head into his grease-coated hands. After a long moment, he wiped them off on the one crumpled napkin he’d been using. The door to the basement room swung open easily at his touch. He pulled a dusty package of napkins into his arms, and stopped the door from swinging closed. John flicked tired eyes back into the room and his heart caught on a beat. Echoing, faintly, from the too-close corners there was a sound he thought he could almost hear. It sounded like Emily’s voice. He thought he could hear her calling out, the words blurred together and faded. He paused and listened. The door clicked closed gently, flat with the wall again, and the strains of her voice faded to silence. John listened to it for a second, and then went upstairs with the new napkins.
Twice more in the next few months when he needed more napkins — and once when he’d run out of toilet paper, he heard her voice. Once he thought he saw her out of the corner of his eye, only a flicker that he knew would vanish from his peripheral vision. He held very still and didn’t move so much as an eyeball, so he could keep the impression of her image in the corner of his eye.
Her voice began to echo in his head after the second trip down to that basement room. The second swing shut of the door that blotted the faded notes of her laugh from his ears pushed them into his mind. He heard her when he was drinking his half-packet of coffee in the morning, and when he was trying vainly to be engrossed in breaking news on the front page of the paper. He saw her just out of sight when he was sitting in his swivel chair at work, and when he was trying to sleep he could almost hear her laughing at him.
He stopped visiting the basement room after he couldn’t sleep for the sound of her, for feeling her breath on the side of his neck when he knew it wasn’t there. She was everywhere. All he heard and saw and felt was Emily, and she was gone. Disappeared. He thought, maybe, if he disappeared too, he’d be in the same place. Maybe, somehow, he could see her, and hear her, and feel her, and she would be there again.
He ate Chinese takeout again one night, after long days of sleeplessness and full packets of coffee, torn newspapers and crinkled napkins. He stood, slowly, when he was finished eating, and he walked downstairs to the basement. The door was closed, as always, and he couldn’t see anything but the blank white rectangle before him. He took a tentative step closer, and he thought maybe he could hear her voice. He thought, maybe, it was louder this time. Almost like it was real. He hesitated, and glanced up the stairs as his arm moved almost of his own volition. He turned back to the room, and his hand hovered over the doorknob for a moment – and then he nodded, and smiled, and opened the door.