The fire begins in the basement.
Does it hurt?
Yes and no. This is, after all, what I wanted.
And I'm beyond hurting now.
But the fear is almost like pain. It is driving, immense. This body, our last body, our final chance, will be burned to dust.
What will happen to me then?
From the kitchen, to the pantry, to the dining room and the hall; up the stairs, a choking smoke, darkness, soot, and stifling heat.
From the attic to the roof, from the roof to the basement.
Sandra wants to place a bet on whether or not Richard Walker will die at home. I don't know when Sandra became so crazy about gambling. She wasn't a gambler when she was alive. I can say with authority that it was one of the only vices she didn't have. Nowadays it's bet you this, bet you that.
"He'll croak right here, you'll see," Sandra says. And then, "Stop crowding me."
"I'm not crowding you."
"You are. You're breathing on my neck."
"I'm telling you what it feels like."
Richard Walker moans. Is it possible that now, after all these years, he can understand us?
Doubtful. Still, an interesting idea.
How do we speak? In creaks and whispers, in groans and shudders. But you know. You've heard us. You simply don't understand.
The day nurse is in the bathroom, preparing Richard's pills, although she must know — we all do — that they can't help him now. The bedroom smells like cough syrup, sweat, and the sharp, animal scent of urine, like an old barn. The sheets have not been changed in three days.
"So what do you think?" Sandra presses. "Home? Or in the hospital?"
I like making bets with Sandra. It breaks up the space — the long, watery hours, the soupiness of time. Day is no longer day to us, and night no longer night. Hours are different shades of hot and warm, damp and dry. We no longer pay attention to the clocks. Why should we? Noon is the taste of sawdust, and the feel of a splinter under a nail. Morning is mud and crumbling caulk. Evening is the smell of cooked tomatoes and mildew. And night is shivering, and the feel of mice sniffing around our skin.
Divisions: that's what we need. Space and lines. Your side, my side. Otherwise, we begin to converge. That's the greatest fear, the danger of being dead. It's a constant struggle to stay yourself.
It's funny, isn't it? Alive, it's so often the reverse. I remember feeling desperate for someone to understand. I remember how fiercely I longed to talk to Ed about this or that — I don't remember what, now, some dream or opinion, something playing at the pictures.
Now it's only the secrets that truly belong to me. And I've given up too many to Sandra already.
"Hospital," I say at last.
"I'll bet you he croaks right in that bed," Sandra says, gleeful.
Sandra is wrong. Richard Walker does not die at home. Thank God. I've shared the house with him for long enough.
For a time, the house falls into quiet. It is ours again, mine and Sandra's. Its corners are elbows, its stairways our skeleton pieces, splinters of bone and spine.
In the quietness, we drift. We reclaim the spaces that Richard colonized. We must regrow into ourselves — clumsily, the way that a body, after a long illness, still moves in fits and shivers.
We expand into all five bedrooms. We hover in the light coming through the windows, with the dust; we spin, dizzy in the silence. We slide across empty dining room chairs, skate across the well-polished table, rub ourselves against the oriental carpets, curl up in the impressions of old footprints.
It is both a relief and a loss to have our body returned to us, intact. We have, once again, successfully expelled the Other.
We are free. We are alone.
We place bets on when the young Walkers will return.
From Rooms by Lauren Oliver. Copyright 2014 Lauren Schechter. Excerpted by permission of Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.