Sara awoke to the smell of frying bacon and roasting coffee, which was funny because Dan wasn’t going to arrive until tomorrow, and anyway, they were both vegans.
The aroma was unmistakable. As she padded barefoot down the stairs she could swear she could even hear it: the hissing, spitting crackle of animal fat popping in a pan, like the frantic applause of a faraway crowd. When she turned the corner into the kitchen she could nearly see it, a scene of perfect domesticity — but of course she was alone in an empty house, and the kitchen as bare and featureless as the foyer and the living room and the bedroom she’d stepped out of. The window in front of the sink was wet with dew.
“Dan,” she told her husband later as he climbed out of the moving van, “I think the house is haunted.”
Dan barked out a staccato laugh. “As long as you got the plumbing up and running, it can be as haunted as it wants,” he told her. “Now: bathroom?”
“First door on your left.”
He shouldered past her and through the front door, not bothering to kick off his shoes. Dan wore his work boots for long drives like this, and no matter how often she washed them they were always filthy. Through the doorway, she could see oblong smudges of desert dust on the newly waxed wood floor, the treads from the soles of his shoes catching the afternoon light like bleached bone.
When they sat down for dinner that night, six plates slid off of the cabinet shelf and shattered.
“Shit!” Dan yelled, flinching away from the sound and flinging an arm in front of his eyes. Dan grew up with six brothers who regularly set off firecrackers around the house, so he’d developed a very specialized set of reflexes.
Sara hardly blinked. Her chair faced the kitchen counter and she’d left the cabinet door open (they were still unpacking, after all), so she’d seen the entire slow, deliberate buildup: the tableware nudging its nose out past the threshold, hesitating a moment over the water-slick precipice like some twitching little animal sniffing for predators, and then dashing outward with furious abandon to break furiously, spectacularly, into tinkling razor-edged shards.
“Fuck,” her husband added, as an afterthought. He looked under the table, noticed her bare feet and waved for her to remain seated. “No, Sar, stay down, broken ceramic is like glass.” He clomped over it, thick work boots crunching the shards into dust. “Which fucking box did we pack the broom in?”
“Careful, Dan,” she told him absently, “don’t walk on it, you’ll scratch the floor.”
“It’s an old house,” he explained to her later as they rooted around for garbage bags, all the glistening teal-and-white shrapnel safely piled in a mound in the corner. “The surfaces must not be as level as we thought.”
“I don’t think so,” she said.
“I think we might’ve upset our ghost.”
He groaned, a creaky little effusion that issued straight from his gut to his mouth, and her heart melted a little — she loved the noises that his body produced without instruction from his brain, these little reminders of physicality, of embodiment. “Please, Sar, we just bought this house. I need you to not make it haunted, okay? I need us to feel safe living here.”
“I never said I didn’t feel safe,” she said, but by then he’d found the garbage bags in the big cardboard box labeled Kitchen and the crinkling of plastic drowned her out.
They hadn’t bought a mop yet, so before she went to bed, Sara used an old t-shirt wet from the kitchen sink to scrub away Dan’s dusty bootprints. “I’m sorry about the clutter,” she said to the empty foyer, which softly echoed her words back at her: I’m sorry. “It won’t be this way for long,” she explained. “It’s just the move-in process is a bit hectic, is all. Normally we’re quite clean.”
She didn’t hear anything out of the ordinary that night, but the next morning, the smell of bacon was back.
Dan slept like a fetus, knees drawn up toward his chest, his face marked with that heartbreaking softness that sleep lends to a man’s face: squished slightly against the pillow and open, unwary, like a child’s. She ran the tip of her index finger from the tender hollow of his temple to his jawbone and was rewarded with a quiet gentling of his form, loose muscles melting and pooling like hot wax. Sara had always loved men best when they were asleep.
Unceremoniously, she hitched herself onto him, hooking her arm under his so she could hold fast to his shoulder, a little human backpack. Once fastened in she wiggled a little, indulgently — he was a tenaciously deep sleeper, she wasn’t sure she had ever woken him. And then with a suddenness that knocked the breath from her body she was walloped with the keening enormity of grief.
Sara pulled away sharply. She sat up and wrapped both arms around her ribcage to contain — whatever this was — before letting any of this strange new feeling leak out of her. Carefully, as quietly as she could manage, she allowed a tentative sob to slip between her lips.
The tidal force of grief that followed obliterated the floodgates. Sara rocked, wept, rocked, clutched at her ribs as though to hold her insides in, as though if she loosened her grip her very bones would unfurl like butterfly’s wings and squirm free of this terrible sadness. It twisted cruelly through her gut and streamed from her face, soaked her cheeks, soaked her pillowcase, soaked her warm flannel pajamas. She would have to change, when she was done.
Whose sadness was this?
In the morning she would take a pregnancy test, but she wasn’t pregnant, of course. She and Dan wanted a summer baby, they’d be using protection till Christmas. And the sadness would be gone without a trace. Dan never stirred, so the moment bore no witnesses. It may well have been a dream.
“Who lived in this house before us, Mr. Wheeler?” Sara asked the grocer, a flushed, heavyset man and a notorious gossip. Mr. Wheeler was helping her carry bags to the car.
“Oh, they didn’t tell you?” He answered absently, and her heart sank. The bungalow had been a steal: pueblo revival style, hewn from rough stone of the same russet hue as the desert around it. It had a spacious sitting room with wide westward-facing windows which lit the whole place a strident gold when the sun squatted low in the sky, and a soft pastel purple at twilight. But of course it was too good to be true, unsold for months at less than half of market value.
“No,” Sara laughed, tinklingly, “I’m afraid real estate agents usually avoid horror stories when trying to unload unsavory properties. I’m sure you wouldn’t mind…” She watched him intently, and he sighed.
“Well, it’s nothing too terrible. Nothing violent. One of those things you read about, see? Someone in town noticed that old Mrs. Rodrigues hadn’t been in the market for a while, at least a couple weeks, anyway, and so Ronnie from the general store went lookin’ for her.”
“And?” she prompted him. Mr. Wheeler leaned in conspiratorially, lowered his voice.
“And he found her, alright: stone dead, sitting rigid at a kitchen table set for two. A feast, mind you — at least six different platters, and a big portion dished out for the empty seat across from her. But you want to hear the worst part?”
“Sure,” she answered, thinking with relief: well that’s not so bad, and maybe even: these townies have no stomach for horror.
“Well, Maria — sorry, Mrs. Rodrigues — was getting on in years. Not right in the head, right? So when our Ronnie pressed on upstairs to look for Ralph — ”
He nodded. “He found him lying in the bed, dead too, but not a fresh new corpse like his missus — a nearly bare skeleton, meat all rotted away. The coroner said he’d been dead over two years, and Mrs. Rodrigues coming into town all the while, prattling on about what they’d be having for dinner or what fun new joke Ralph was making. Pretty spooky, eh?”
“Pretty spooky,” she said distantly, picturing two round plates on the kitchen table, and the smell of breakfast ready in the morning.
Sara scrubbed briskly at the counter. Dan had made lasagna for dinner, a favorite of hers, to thank her for all the work she’d done on the house. She’d thought it was silly — he was the one who drove all their worldly possessions nearly a thousand miles from Seattle to their earthy little bungalow outside of Albuquerque, and all she’d done was hook up the plumbing and breathe life into the boiler and get the electricity working. He’d said he wouldn’t even know how to introduce himself to a boiler, and to put her feet up and let him cook. Dan liked gestures like that. He’d whistled while he cooked, tunelessly.
When Sara cooked she used as few dishes as possible, often reusing a single mixing bowl three or four times to make the washing up easier for Dan afterwards. Dan didn’t cook enough to think about stuff like that. When he finished up in the kitchen, it was like a bomb had gone off: pulpy tomato innards strung like entrails across the counter, a spray of herbs like aromatic confetti. Sara didn’t mind cleaning, though. If she ran the water hot enough, the air in the kitchen grew thick and wet, a welcome respite from the thin, dry desert air. And she liked getting her hands wet.
Up to her elbows in pink frothy water, Sara almost couldn’t hear the soft, efficient fshhhh behind her: slow, long arcs of some minute friction. She didn’t turn around.
“Thank you,” she murmured under her breath, quiet enough to know that Dan wouldn’t hear her from the other room. “I like the company.”
The window in front of her was fogged over, and in the sheen of the glass behind all that vapor was a hazy blur of motion. Sara turned a spoon over under the spout, rubbed her thumb firmly against the roundness of it. Slick slippery grease yielding to her touch, transforming (as though by magic) to gleaming silver and ruddy charcoal, was a kind of pleasure.
Soon enough the sink was empty and the drying rack a shining, bristling pincushion of angles. Moisture slid down from the dishware and plinked to the catch tray below. Sara squeezed warm grey dishwater from the sponge and then turned, slowly, to the counter behind her. It was cleaner than it was before she started on the dishes.
“Thank you,” she said again, and slid the sponge over the tile. It squeaked against the smoothness of acrylic, snagged briefly on a ragged seam of grout, left a line of gleaming dewdrops in its wake. As she pulled her arm back for another sweep, she thought she could feel something softly brush her knuckles, leaving tingling static in the space under her skin.
“I think she’s lonely,” she told Dan over breakfast the next morning. “I think she’s felt sort of taken for granted for a long time — she must have done everything for Ralph, when he was alive. After he died it was almost like nothing had changed: her tasks were the same, they had to be. It was too late to learn anything else, you know?”
“Is this a riddle?” he asked her, spraying a fleck of oatmeal onto the table on the d of riddle and wiping it up with his sleeve. “Are you — do you feel taken for granted?”
“Hmm? No, I was talking about Maria.”
Dan sighed. “Sarbear.”
He made eye contact with her, concern knitted across his brow. She stared back gladly. She loved his eyes at this hour, when the bright white light of dawn made them more green than brown. But he was being serious, of course. She contorted her face into an approximation of severity to match his. “Are you sure this isn’t some kind of a cipher, Sar?” She was worrying him, she could see that now. “You’re happy to be here, right?”
It wasn’t Dan’s fault that he couldn’t understand this stuff. There were lots of things he didn’t understand. Dan was a Taurus — he was solid as stone, as grounded today as he was they day she met him, hopelessly out of his depth on his very first acid trip and desperately trying to hold down the grass so it wouldn’t squirm away. It wasn’t that he was boring, of course, just that he liked stability, and clean, uncomplicated categories. Some days Sara thought that the solidity of him was the only thing that tethered her to the ground, and that if she were to lose him she might float up and away like a balloon. Sara had always felt of the air.
“I’m happy,” she told him, and she smiled wide, without agenda.
The next morning, for the first time since they’d moved here — the first time in months, by the look of the crackling, brittle branches in the surrounding scrublands — it rained.
Sara’s unconscious mind could hear it even before she awoke. She dreamed wet dreams, slippery, soaking dreams where the air swirled pearlescent like she was watching it through the bottom of a coke bottle, and she could feel the euphoria of it even before she surfaced from sleep.
“Oh, Dan,” she breathed, her heart halfway out the window already. “Look at it.”
“Mrrwmph,” he mewed back, and she felt the same pang of love that she always did when they communicated between the realms of Asleep and Awake. His hands grasped for her as she disentangled herself from their nest, and she kissed his temple before rushing for the door.
Outside, rain had made the world new. The sky was a swirling, torrid grey, shot through with silver like the vivid plumage of an osprey. The tangle of desert brush, finding the weight of their branches suddenly tripled, bowed and swayed and snapped. The rain came down in thick fat drops that splashed her face and her arms by the thimbleful, soaking her nightgown and rat-tat-tatting against the roof behind her. She stepped away from the house and was elated to hear the soundscape soften: rain against desert sand was less of a rattle and more of a long, deep exhale, like the tide coming in.
Half-visible beside her, the rain seemed to tent over an unseen something. Water rolled off of the suggestion of shoulders, the barest outline of a head. Sara tilted her face upward, letting raindrops slide from the tip of her nose to her temple, briefly puddling around her eyes before streaming down either side of her face.
Water in the desert felt how it always felt: miraculous.