The Thing You Left Behind
A novel is a house with many rooms. Some days you study it from the sidewalk as you pass the iron fence that marks the west end of the property. For as long as you can remember it's been there -- standing amid drooping pines and crabgrass, the foliage untended by human hands over the span of the house's long and patient existence. Writing that first chapter was like pushing open the gate, crossing the yard, and stepping up onto the front porch, the rotting boards groaning beneath the weight of your body. You remember a sense of coming home, a sense that you'd been here before and that the place has been waiting for you ever since. This is your novel to create, and yet here it stands in the high grass, already pulsing with a life of its own.
You put out a hand, feel the coarse grain of the wood against your skin, and give the door a shove. It opens easily, yielding before you, and whether the rusty shriek of its hinges is real or imagined makes no difference. It's just you and the house now, the rest of the world becoming dim and forgotten as you cross the threshold and the door eases shut behind you.
It takes a while for your eyes to adjust to the darkness -- to realize that the soft shush of breathing is not entirely your own.
The first room is the hardest to explore. You've got to learn to trust one another, to find your rhythm, to get acquainted with the house all over again. There are things in here that can hurt you: fixtures that project from the wall at face level, holes in the floor you can fall through. You move carefully from room to room as you build the story with bits of material you discover along the way.
Before long, you descend the stairs into the cellar, knowing you must go there eventually and that it's best to face the worst of this place before you lose your nerve. The smell of decay is strong here, the darkness nearly complete. As you reach the bottom and your foot touches the concrete floor, something wraps itself around your ankle. You panic, manage to yank free, turn and hurry up the steps as fast as you can. "Wait ," a voice pleads from below, and what chills you most is that the voice sounds like your own.
You continue up the staircase to the floors above: a total of four levels, excluding the cellar. Each level is brighter than the last, and you're moving faster now -- almost running. You remember now the years you spent building this place, the chapters you laid down one after another in the hope of discovering something about yourself that you didn't know before.
At the end of the hall, there is one more room. You stand before the closed door with the knob in your hand, mustering the courage to open it. "Wait ," you hear again -- then the measured tread of footsteps in the hallway behind you. You can't bear to turn around, to look at the thing standing there: the part of yourself you left behind in this place a long time ago.
And so you fling open the last door and step out onto the front porch once again. "I'm sorry," you say to no one in particular as you make your way through the yard, the crabgrass clutching at your ankles. A moment later you are past the gate, the house and its remaining occupant watching as you turn left at the sidewalk and move quickly down the street: head low, eyes on the pavement, willing yourself not to look back at the thing you left behind.
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