“A house so beautiful, you’ll never want to leave,” begins the advertisement in the classifieds section of the local daily newspaper. I look around my apartment, most of which I can see from where I am sitting at the heavy steel kitchen table with the scratched yellow Formica top, broken in patches, revealing grease-stained particleboard. The couch in the living room section of my studio apartment has a perpetually squashed look about it, upholstered in forest green flecked with orange. Loose threads dangle from the arms where generations of cats have used it as a scratching post. It belonged to my aunt, and before that, my grandparents. It’s comfortable. Friends who have spent the night on it usually rise in the morning looking well-rested, saying I haven’t slept so well in ages. There are books and magazines piled on the coffee table and a glass of water from yesterday. One of the blinds of the three tall twenties-era drafty windows is lifted only partway and hangs at a crazy angle, broken. Griffin, my big, sleepy orange cat, is curled on the old leather chair by the bricked-up fireplace. My small black cat, Simon, stalks the baseboard in the corner of the kitchen where the smell of the mice who live inside seems to be especially compelling. Simon is obsessed with this corner.
“Simon,” I say, clicking my tongue at him. He turns away from the presumably mouse-filled wall, glides across the cracked beige linoleum and jumps into my lap. I adjust my position in my favorite straight-backed chair so he can get comfortable. My bare leg grazes the chilly metal of the table leg. I shiver, though Simon is a warm bundle pressing against my belly. I am wearing only the oversized t-shirt I slept in. My coffee has gone cold. I should get ready for work.
After my shift at the diner, I am walking home. It’s technically spring but there’s still snow on the ground and I’m wearing a parka, which means that it is not really spring. Jamie, my co-worker, a line cook at the restaurant where I work comes up on his bike. He’s riding fast, a spray of slush spews from his tires. I step back to avoid being pelted with the icy gray sludge.
“Where ya headed?” he asks, flashing the teasing, crooked-toothed smile that everyone has a crush on.
“Home,” I say, blushing. I nose deeper into my woolen scarf so he can’t see that I turn pink when he speaks to me. “You?”
“Library,” he says. “It’s warmer than my apartment and you don’t have to buy anything. Join me?”
“Um…” I say. I think of my apartment and how it is chilly and not particularly beautiful. The gray sky is heavy and promises more snow. My feet hurt and lower back, ache from six hours of carting heavy plates laden with eggs and bacon and toast from the kitchen to my customers. A truck drives by. Exhaust settles around us, a poisonous inert fog. I feel nauseous.
“I have to feed my cats,” I say. “Maybe another time.”
“Okay,” says Jamie. He leaves.
When I get home I turn up the thermostat and sit down at the table without taking off my coat. The newspaper is still open to the classifieds. I can tell from the telltale orange hairs sprinkled across its surface that Griffin has spent a portion of the day sleeping on it. I’m drawn back to the ad: A house so beautiful you’ll never want to leave. On a whim I grab my phone and type a quick email to the address listed.
Two days later I am standing at the bottom of a set of steps leading up to a large, modern gray house with some classic details, like a warm, polished brass doorknob, and copper-topped cedar fence posts. It looks out of place in our weathered New England town, but it is, indeed, beautiful.
It appears to be perfectly maintained despite the owners’ absence. In fact, it looks like it could have been painted just yesterday. A snowblower has cut perfectly geometrical paths through the snow. The windows are sparkling clean. Colorful concrete window boxes and planters on the wide front porch stand ready for the real spring, which at this point, seems like it will never come. It feels like the house is watching me. Weird, because the email from the owner, which arrived almost instantaneously after I inquired about the housesitting job, informed me that they were already on vacation and the key would be waiting for me in a lockbox on the door handle. I punch in the code. The key is heavy and cold in my palm. I slide it into the lock. The wooden front door looks like it might lead to a wine cave in Tuscany— or maybe just Napa. Like the rest of the house, the knob looks intentional and considered, as if every single detail has been passed through an algorithm designed to ensure maximum pleasure for the viewer. Inside is the same. The foyer is airy and somehow bright, despite the weak sun struggling to break through the clouds outside. It is full of vibrant green plants and objet d’art on nesting tables of all sizes and shapes.
On a small table is a typed note, “Housesitting Instructions.” I bend down to read it. There’s a contact number, “for emergencies.” There are details about where to find everything I might need, instructions for running the washing machine, etc. At the end it says, “Just be here as much as possible and enjoy. Always spend the night. We like for there to be a constant presence in the house as a deterrent to intruders.”I put the note in my jeans pocket, pondering the abstract intruders who might want to break in. Yeah, I can understand why someone would do such a thing. The place is chock full of valuables.
The air smells of something unidentifiable and pleasant, somehow sophisticated. I hang up my parka on a single hook by the door and place my wet boots in a convenient little closet with compartments just for shoes. I pad along a runner carpet in soft gray hues to the next room. The rugs strewn over the buttery hardwood floors feel lush under my feet, springy yet supportive. I look down at my socks with holes in the toes and feel slightly uncomfortable. My discomfort fades when I enter a vast living room with an enormous flat screen tv on one wall and a sectional sofa opposite that looks as though one could get lost in it. I dive in.
It seems like only a few minutes later that I am aroused from a deep sleep by a noise in another part of the house. I sit bolt upright, look at my phone. I’ve been sleeping for two hours. I’m supposed to work the dinner shift at the restaurant. My heart is pounding because I am late and because it sounds like I’m not alone in the house. The clanking of what sounds like pots and pans, drifts through the doorway, one I haven’t been through, the sound of running water. The house is so big. I haven’t even found the kitchen yet. Did I lock the front door when I came in? Do burglars usually rustle around in the kitchen before they steal things? I think this constitutes an emergency. I pull the note from the owners from my pocket and dial the number. From deep within the couch cushions underneath me, I hear a ringing sound. I grope around in the crack and pull out a smartphone. My own number appears on the screen. Quickly, I hang up. Strange, to leave a phone behind like that.
I set my phone so that I only need to press the button for an emergency call and silently make my way toward the noises, which continue to jar the otherwise perfectly silent house. I move as quietly as I can down a long hallway lined with black and white photos of abstract architectural forms. The noise gets louder as I approach a set of French doors, slightly ajar. It’s not quite dark out yet, but the lights are on inside, and a shadow is cast into the hallway where I crouch. It moves to and fro, with purpose. I take a deep breath. There must be an explanation. I peek through the opening. A woman, dark hair pulled back in a ponytail, is emptying the dishwasher. A pot steams on the massive stainless steel range, emitting the delicious smell of a very good marinara.
“Hello?” I say. She turns, smiles as if expecting me.
“Hello,” she says. “You must be the new house sitter.” Am I imagining it? Or do I catch a glimpse of what looks like pity in her dark eyes?
“I am,” I say, breathing a sigh of relief. She knows I’m supposed to be here. “Who are you?”
“Oh, don’t worry about that,” she replies, pouring a package of spaghetti into another pot on the stove. “I’m just the help. I hope you like pasta?”
“I’m confused,” I say, ignoring her question. “Why would the owners need a house sitter if they have you?”
“They want someone here at night. I don’t do nights.”
The next few days pass, for the most part, in blissful comfort. I consume the food that appears for me like magic in the kitchen. Any mess I forget to clean up myself also disappears. Each day I return to my apartment before work to feed Simon and Griffin. I can tell they miss me because when I walk in the door they wind around my legs and look up at me with love-eyes. I look away guiltily and plop wet food into their bowls as a consolation.
My friends text to see if I want to go to the movies, out for a drink, to a party. I stare up at the ceiling of the master bath, scented bubbles exploding all around me, my body melting from water heated to the exact perfect temperature. I think being here is good for me. I seem to be losing weight. It’s as if being relaxed and comfortable most of the time is the magic bullet allowing me to shed the extra pounds I’ve always wanted to be rid of. My shirt sleeves seem long. I have to roll them up. And I’ve started wearing heeled boots when I go to work because without them my pants drag on the floor.
Lionel broke up with me, pings a text from my friend Tania. They have been together for years.
I’m so, so sorry, I write back. I’ll call you tomorrow.
My bed at the house is a heavenly cloud of high-thread-count sheets, down pillows and comforters. I think the ponytail woman might wash them every day because they always feel crisp and fresh no matter how much I sweat in the night as I run from the grasping hands and faceless monsters that populate the nightmares I have in this house, but I can’t be sure.
I wish for a fleeting moment that I could bring Simon and Griffin here to stay with me. They would be good company and if they were here I wouldn’t have to go to the apartment at all. But they’d leave their hair all over the house and it wouldn’t be as, well, perfect. I never do call Tania.
I have been house-sitting for two weeks. I haven’t heard from the owners about when they plan to come back to occupy their home, not that I want to. I assume they are living it up on vacation in some tropical place where the maddening transition between winter and spring doesn’t exist. We still get snow every few days. It is still cold as hell outside. I just worked the breakfast shift and I’m on my way back to the house on foot. Jamie rides up beside me, like before.
“Come hang out with me,” he says. “What’s going on with you anyway? No one’s seen you out for weeks. You seeing someone?”
“No,” I say. “I’ve got a gig taking care of this house.”
“Taking care of it? Like, shoveling snow and stuff?”
“Not exactly, more like I’m just, there.”
“Oh,” he says. “Cool. Want some company?” I imagine what it would be like to host Jamie at the house. Kitchen smells waft from him, the grease and mixed-food smell of the line. His boots are old and muddy and spattered with pancake batter and who knows what else. It is hard to imagine him as a guest in my house. Still, I could use the company. I haven’t had a real conversation with anyone in two weeks. “If you shower and change before you come over,” I say. He looks taken aback. “It’s just—” I pause, awkwardly. “It’s a nice house.”
It’s dark outside by the time Jamie shows up at the front door. I open it for him. His hair is still wet from the shower. The porch light makes a halo around his head. His green eyes shine as if by some interior illumination.
“You look shorter than you usually do,” he greets me, flashing his famous smile.
“I’m not wearing shoes,” I say, unable to smile back.
Jamie is as wowed by the house as I was when I first saw it. “It’s just so beautiful,” he keeps saying, over and over as we walk through the big, quiet rooms.
“I know,” I say. “I know.”
I put a jazz station on the stereo system. The sound is so crisp, it’s like we’re listening to live music. We sit down to dinner.
“You’re a good cook,” Jamie says, his mouth full of chicken and Brussels sprouts.
“I didn’t make it,” I say, sipping the wine that ponytail woman left out. “There’s a maid.” Jamie looks incredulous. “I don’t even know her name,” I say. “I barely ever see her.”
“Isn’t that weird?” Jamie asks, putting down his fork.
“Is it?” My gaze drifts towards the living room. The most comfortable sofa in the world is calling to me. Whatever Jamie says next sounds like bubbles fizzing and popping in the air around me, indistinct and ephemeral.
We are watching a movie. Is it the second one or the third? We have made our way through a large bowl of popcorn and a bag of Twizzlers. Jamie keeps going to the kitchen, returning with more things to eat.
“I’m not hungry,” I say without taking my eyes off the screen, melting back into the cushions.
“Yes,” he says thoughtfully, “you definitely look smaller.”
“It’s because the couch is so big.”
He has entered and marred my perfect existence.
Jamie is mindlessly shoving jellybeans into his mouth by the handful and playing a video game on a laptop he found. I want him to leave.
“It’s time for you to go,” I say.
“Just one more game.”
I wonder if a person can call the police to have them remove an unwanted person from their house. Probably not under these circumstances. “He’s eating too many jellybeans,” I imagine saying to the 911 dispatcher.
I get a chef’s knife from the kitchen. It’s all over in an instant. After disposing of the body along with the bloody kitchen towels and one of the sofa cushions down the trash chute, which I am sure will be emptied on schedule in the morning by the elite, private waste disposal company contracted by the owners, I go upstairs to take a bath.
In the tormented half-sleep state, drifting from nightmares to wakefulness that has become normal for me, I hear the trash truck come and go. I rise and look in the mirror. My face looks drawn in the weak dawn light. My eyes are sunken and bruised. I don’t go to work. I don’t feed the cats.
A couple of days later I am looking out of the upstairs window at a world that seems to finally be making the shift from winter to spring. There are crocuses and snowdrops poking out of the melting snow. Water running through the gutter gurgles and swirls to the rhythm of my beating heart, drowning out the sound of my shallow breathing. I am almost too weak to move. The maid did not come yesterday or the day before. There is a yellowish me-shaped patch marring the sheets of my unmade bed from the night sweats, which are becoming increasingly worse.
A car draws up at the curb. Two men get out. They’re not in uniform but they hold themselves like cops. They stand at the bottom of the steps where I stood that first day, looking up at the house. They appear to be discussing something important. With great effort, I stand on tip toes to push open the window a crack so I can hear.
“This was one of the places the truck picked up from the day they found the body,” says the bearded one.
“Someone with a house so beautiful wouldn’t be mixed up in nasty business like this,” says the other.
The first strokes his beard thoughtfully. “No,” he says, “you’re right. They wouldn’t.”
I try to shout for help, but I am so small now, my face doesn’t even reach the sill. My voice is a faint squeak.
I want the detectives to find me, even if it means I am discovered to be the murderer they’re looking for. I finally acknowledge to myself that my body—my body— is shrinking rapidly.
I want to text Tania, ask her to take care of the cats, but my phone is on the windowsill and I am no longer tall enough to reach it.
The house, it’s just so… I think, as it consumes me.
Malia Márquez holds an MFA in Fiction from Antioch University Los Angeles. Her short fiction and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Hobart, Rebelle Society, and The Tertiary Lodgers, an anthology from Alternating Current Press. Her work has been recognized in literary contests such as the Staunch Short Story Prize and Yes Yes Books’ Fiction Open Reading Period. Malia was born in New Mexico, grew up in New England, and currently lives in Los Angeles. Her first novel, This Fierce Blood, is forthcoming from Acre Books in 2021.