You could slip getting in or out of the bathtub and crack your head open on the edge of the sink.
Faulty wiring can spark up an electrical fire, especially in an overburdened socket.
An improperly maintained chimney flue or stovepipe can fill a room with carbon monoxide. It’s the Silent Killer.
I first accepted that Pop was a wizard when he made Ma disappear.
I had known for a long time that there was magic in our old farmhouse. It was the kind of house where rooms would appear and disappear overnight, like the nursery next to my bedroom that isn’t a nursery anymore. But I didn’t know for certain that Pop could cast magic spells until an unseasonably warm night during an unseasonably wet September, when I heard it with my own ears.
I remember how the heat and the wet of that night made a fog rise up off the alfalfa, lit silver by a gibbous moon. It looked like ghosts coming out of the grave. I wondered if Pop’s magic was waking the dead.
I was staring out my window over the fields behind our house, when suddenly there was a rumble of muffled voices, and a loud bang. It sounded a lot like a screen door slamming, Pop’s spell did. So Pop was magic, and he made Ma disappear. That’s the only explanation that makes any sense, because I never saw her again after that.
Now, after all of it is so far in my past, I can hear those memories whispered to me like spells from the quietest corners of the house. I wrap myself in them. I sleep in their warm familiarity. These are the spells that keep me here.
You could choke on a pork chop or a piece of candy and not be able to clear the blockage.
Pop had often spent long nights in the basement. It was a forbidden room to me, and Ma only went down there to deliver food and bring up dirty dishes. Whenever I asked Ma what he was doing down there and why he spent so much time doing it, she only sighed, and kissed my hair, and sent me to my room to play.
I’d read enough fairy tales to know what that meant. Pop was a wizard, working on a new secret spell in the basement, and we weren’t allowed to talk about it until it was done. I only ever thought of him as a tinkerer, though, not a real magician. Pop was a handyman during the day, before work dried up. It was a different kind of magic, watching him transform lumber and nails into a porch swing like he did last summer. But it was nothing like making a whole person disappear.
Being the wife of a powerful wizard must be hard work, because Ma had always looked so tired in those last months. So tired, but so beautiful. I miss her every day.
You could choke on a pork chop or a piece of candy, but manage to dislodge it yourself. This could crack a rib and give you some very nasty internal bleeding, because sometimes even saving yourself can kill you.
Pop didn’t come out of the basement for a day and a night after he made Ma disappear. When he finally came aboveground, I was sitting at the kitchen table, trying not to drop soggy Cheerios on my school clothes.
He looked like a long stretch of bad road that day. That was a saying Ma used sometimes. It always made me giggle, but there was nothing funny about how Pop looked now. He had a week’s growth of salt and pepper hair on his thin cheeks, and his eyes were rimmed by foregone sleep. A stench swam over him, whiskey and stale sweat, and it made me think of those fog ghosts coiling out of the earth. When he shielded his eyes against the early morning sun, I saw that his hands were trembling.
It must’ve taken a lot out of him, casting spells, and maybe he had a drink or two. “Dutch courage,” Ma used to say. Maybe he was finally coming up for air now. Maybe he could shrug off his wizard robes and go back to being just my Pop. Maybe he would go out and find work again. It had been such a long time.
Maybe things could go back to the way they were last summer, when Ma spent lazy afternoons stroking her belly on the porch swing, and then stopped sitting on the swing, and then was just sad all the time. Before Pop started spending all of his time in the basement.
But Pop only blinked at me now, and told me that I wasn’t going to school anymore. He told me I was to never leave the house. Then he climbed the stairs to his bedroom and filled the house with snoring.
Wizards know things the rest of us don’t. He probably knew some terrible truth about the world, some lurking danger outside. That’s probably why he sent Ma away, to protect her. I decided not to question him. You can speculate all you want about the whys and the hows, but an ounce of common sense is worth a pound of theory. That was another of Ma’s favorites. And common sense told me that Pop must’ve had some dark magic in him.
You could be taken by ghosts, as they are always present in every house with magic in it.
In my dreams, I can see my Ma.
The earth under my feet is green and loamy, and flowers grow up past my knees, heavy with dew like gemstones in colors I never knew existed. They sway in a gentle breeze, refracting the stunning icy light of a sun I didn’t recognize. And she’s there, across a field so lush and rolling that I’m sure it must be a living, breathing animal we’re standing on. She’s the queen of a fairy kingdom, straight-backed and proud and crowned in forget-me-nots. She turns to me, smiles, and races, barefoot, across this alien countryside. She is a herd of wild horses, a warm wind bending the tall grass, a river cutting through rock. She’s so beautiful to watch that it hurts my chest.
When I wake up, I’m crying.
Leaky pipes and roofs can let moisture into your walls, creating a perfect breeding environment for deadly black mold.
Rats leave parasites in their droppings. Cockroaches spread salmonella. Bats carry rabies. Everything in your walls can sicken you.
I should be starting junior high school today. Or close to it, because I’ve lost track of time now. But two summers have come and gone, and I’m twelve now, and this was supposed to be the year I grew up. I’ve often wondered what that feels like, growing up. I’ve wondered if there are boys and clubs and parties in junior high. I’ve wondered if my best friend Millie is excited. I’ve wondered if she ever missed me after my father told her she couldn’t come over anymore.
Still, the first and last time I asked Pop why I couldn’t go outside, he grabbed my shoulders with a force and speed that belied his haggard, wasting body. It was like seeing him for the first time. Not the man I knew as my father, but a wizard out of his spangled robes. I recognized this as the part of the fairy tale where the spells backfire, and the wizard’s genius betrays him. It was the saddest part of the stories I once loved.
Pop just drew me close to his face and told me I was his entire world, and that I couldn’t leave him.
Junior high and friends and parties and boys. None of it seemed to matter much anymore. I never missed my Ma more than I did that day.
Moldering boards in the attic could send you plummeting through the floor, and you could break your neck.
You try to dust behind a heavy bookcase, and accidentally tip it over onto yourself, leaving you pinned to the floor until you starve to death.
In my nightmares I can’t run fast enough.
In my nightmares, I throw open my window and climb into the sweet alfalfa around our house. I point myself into sunrise, and run. Over the horizon, I see roads that lead to towns and cities in countries I’ve only read about. It’s all so tall, and the colors are rich, and bright enough to burn your skin. There’s a flavor on the air, like orange blossoms in summer, and it fills my throat.
But I can feel behind me that Pop’s magic is at work again, rumbling low in the pit under our house. His spells set the air on fire, and the orange blossoms turn to ash on my tongue. I can see this magic gleaming black and hot over my shoulder. I can see it roiling like smoke over everything, faster than I can run. The smoke eats the farmhouse, eats the fields, eats the roads and towns and cities. It eats everything. It swallows the sun, and me. I’m left alone in the dark and I can’t breathe.
When I wake from these dreams, I don’t cry. At least these dreams make sense to me. At least, after these dreams, I wake up knowing why I am so terrified.
You could get blood poisoning, from a rusty nail or a splinter, or one of the shards of mirror on your bathroom floor.
Pop and I grew more and more silent just as we were beginning to spend more and more time together. I think this is irony, but I’m not sure.
He taught me to be silent. No one ever came to the door except for the man who delivered food and supplies, but he knew to leave our cartons and go. Pop always brought the boxes in, after making sure I wasn’t around to sneak a look past our porch. He told me that it was dangerous to go outside, that our house was the only safe place. Here there be dragons, I thought.
So I trained myself to be very, very small, and wander the world that was our house. It hurt too much to look out the windows, to see all the places that were no longer for us, so we began keeping the drapes shut day and night. Those windows without drapes, like the big bay window I used to sit at doing homework, got a thick coating of dark paint.
Pop still spends a lot of time in the basement, but when he comes upstairs, he sits with me, and we listen to the silence of the house together. I pretend not to see him cry for her, for us, for the dangers that lurk on the other side of our front door. We listen to whispers like magic spells, and the lullabies rising like ghosts out of the dusty nursery, and we try not to remember what it feels like to be left behind.
If it’s Winter, the pipes could freeze, leaving you without water to drink or cook with.
If it’s Summer, the air conditioning could fail, and you could roast alive within the blacked-out windows of your bedroom.
If it’s Autumn, you’ll be remembering, and drinking your father’s whiskey, and those stairs are narrow and steep.
Pop cast another spell, on himself this time. This one must’ve been much more powerful, because it gave a louder shock of sound than I had ever heard, like a shotgun blast, and that was the night Pop disappeared.
At first, I wasn’t sure what it was that stirred me from my restless sleep. So I lay, swathed in the still, sweaty dark of my bedroom. Then I felt it in the air, the same frisson of energy I felt the night Ma disappeared. That was how air tasted when someone was gone, like ashes on the tongue.
I climbed to my feet in the dark of my bedroom and groped my way to the door. My hand paused on the knob, the tremor in my body making it rattle softly in the silent night.
Beyond that door was a smoke-black hallway, which led to a smoke-black staircase, which led to a smoke-black kitchen. And through the kitchen was the basement door. And behind that I would find the dusty bric-a-brac of a wizard’s laboratory, and a smoking smudge on the ground where magic zapped my Pop away to a fairy kingdom, next to a tread-faded smudge where once my Ma stood.
This is what I would find, so there was no reason to turn that door knob. No reason to open that door. No reason at all.
Pop must’ve gone looking for Ma. And when he found her, they would come home together. How’s that for an ounce of common sense?
All I had to do was wait for them, so I went back to bed.
You’ll be fine in the Spring, if you can make it that far.
Ma loved her preserves, and Pop’s supply order was a standing one, so I didn’t want for food after Pop disappeared, even if I did want for variety. The only thing I had to worry about was the smell coming from the basement. It didn’t bother me, though. It seemed to fit this house full of magic.
I suppose I could leave, if I wanted to. I could go to a neighbor’s house, but the nearest neighbor is over six miles away, across a pasture and a ravine that washes out when it rains as hard as it has been. In the other direction is the state highway, but it doesn’t get much traffic, and it’s unlit at night, and flagging down a car could take days.
The truth is, I am a tree now, growing roots deep into the floorboards of the parlor, and my branches graze the ceiling beams. I am a salamander, pink and green and ever-smiling, scurrying patterns over bedroom wallpaper. I am a cumulus cloud, floating low and woolly across the bathroom sky. I am air and water and earth. I am fire. The truth is, I am of this house now, as the spells have decreed. This is where I belong. Outside is the unforgiving vacuum of dead space in which my world floats.
The truth is, I don’t go because I can’t. When Ma and Pop come back, they’ll need me here. I can’t disappear too.
You could be remembered by the people in town, and then they’d come to take you away.
You could also be forgotten by everyone who ever knew you existed. Being forgotten is just another kind of death.
I miss you so much, Ma.
I could open up the house, shatter all the black-painted window glass. I could let the outside in. But it’s all empty, devoid of the gravity that keeps me safe inside. Outside is roads and towns and cities that taste like ash and smell like death. This is what I would find, so there was no reason to look outside. No reason to look. No reason at all.
I am still here, Ma, Pop, and I still remember you. I wrap myself in these memories. They are like prayers, which are just another kind of magic spell. They keep me safe in this house, where nothing can hurt me. There’s too much magic here, crafted by a wizard to protect his fairy queen and their little girl. The magic is what keeps me alive. The magic is what keeps me home.
I know this because it’s the only explanation that makes sense. It makes so much sense. It makes all the sense in this world. Why else would I stay? Why else would I be so afraid?
Why else would you be gone?
You could wait there for someone, and wait, and wait, and wait.
Scotch Frye is a cyborg, and so are you. He was constructed to serve as the fiction writing alter-ego of a doctoral candidate in a sociology department in the Washington, DC area. He studies science and technology, power, and resistance. He blogs about writing and politics and society and culture at scotchfrye.wordpress.com. He tweets at @fryescotch. He is making it all up as he goes along. He is learning all the time. He is genuinely glad to meet you.