"Just run," they say. "Run, you idiots." They always know exactly what you should do.
We ran, just like we were supposed to. We left everything behind.
No one cares what comes after an experience like that. No one wonders what happens after the credits roll.
A week or two into her new school, my daughter's teacher asks me to come by. She shows me my daughter's drawings. Stick figures burning in flames. Xs for eyes, red streaming down their faces.
My daughter explained to her teacher, "Mom put the boy in the incinerator."
"Is everything all right at home?" the teacher asks, smile strained.
"She's always had a vivid imagination," I say.
I stretch my mouth to mirror hers. My hair still full of ash.
Each night I remember driving through the woods for the first time, scanning the road for the house listed in the paper. My daughter singing to herself in the back seat. I can still feel the sharp suck of breath when we rounded a bend and there it was before us, my delight at the first sight of the old Victorian.
"A house with good bones," the realtor said.
"Dilapidated," she meant.
"Lots of privacy," she said.
"You'll be all alone out here," she meant.
"Full of history," she said.
I should have asked what that meant.
In the new apartment, I listen for the warnings I must have missed before, each creak and groan a potential omen.
After the Victorian, the city seemed like a refuge, but each night I fret that the honking horns and lively sounds of street life will drown out signs of danger. I store our clothing in suitcases by the front door, just in case. I lie awake, tense. Ready to bolt.
A landlord is unlikely accept you as a tenant if you seem too interested in whether anyone has died in the place you'll be leasing. Such questions will be considered a red flag.
We had only been in the Victorian a few days when my daughter told me she'd met the boy who lived in the basement.
An imaginary friend, I thought. Isn't that adorable.
Mirrors smashed, clothing shredded, symbols scratched into paint: how quickly a home becomes a trap. Waking up covered in scratches, unsure if it had been done to me or if I'd done it to myself.
In the new apartment, I look through every cupboard. Feel for false panels. On hands and knees I test the edges of the floorboards with a knife, fearing hidden compartments, terrible treasures. I wash and wash my hands but still: charcoal dust in the folds of my knuckles.
"The boy is mad at you," my daughter told me. Voice calm, expression blank.
"At me?" My voice hoarse from so much screaming. "Why?"
"He just is."
I went to the library in search of answers. In movies there's always an answer. The librarian, looking from my clawed-up face to the exhausted little girl holding my hand, asked if she might call someone. We left before she could follow through on her threat of help.
Waiting, always waiting.
Unsure if my hair still smells of that awful fire, or if my lungs and nostrils were seared by smoke and smoldering flesh, and every remaining breath will be a reminder of what I had to do.
Saving yourself isn't the hardest part.
Try telling friends you've abandoned your dream house after mere months.
Try telling them why. The malevolent presence, the secrets in the basement.
Try telling them they have no idea what walks among us, that there is more than what we can see.
"Jesus, at least rent the place out," they say. What they mean is, "You're terminally irresponsible."
No explanation, truth or lie, will ever appease.
An experience doesn't leave you just because you've left a place.
In the dream I stand at the edge of the playground with her teacher, watching my daughter build a sloppy sand castle.
"She seems to have adjusted well," her teacher remarks.
"She likes it here," I say.
"She's thrilled that her friend is visiting," her teacher says. "From where you lived before."
"From before?" My soot-stained hands shaking.
The teacher smiles wide, her teeth pointy, flames dancing in her eyes.
Grab the girl, I think. Grab the girl and run.
I scoop my protesting daughter out of the sandbox, hustle her to the car. Her teacher calling after us, "I'll see you again soon." My hair, ash and bone and char.
In the dream we speed down an empty road. The thought comes, not for the first time: Maybe it's her fault. Maybe it won't end until you're rid of her.
I wake, jaw sore from clenching.
Wake up and wait: wait for the moment we'll have to run again.
The endless torture of the question, where did I go wrong?
Once you take up that thread of blame, it's impossible to stop until it's all unspooled.
Don't drive down that wooded road, hoping that this place will be the one—your home.
Don't open the paper each morning to thumb wistfully through the classifieds.
Don't dream of ownership. Don't dream of solvency.
Don't wish life held something better for your girl.
Don't have a child.
Don't dream the dreams handed down to you by others.
Don't hope. Don't want.
Back, and back, bartering with the past. Asking how far back would I go to undo it, to unlive it all. How much I would erase, just for one night's dreamless, oblivious sleep.
Alyssa Claire Greene is pursuing an MFA in fiction at the University of Utah. She is a fiction editor for Quarterly West
and an editorial assistant for The Lambda Literary Review
. Her work appears or is forthcoming in The Southeast Review, Passages North, MoonPark Review
and Jellyfish Review
. She can be found on Twitter
and on Instagram