Iron red, linseed-cured, and caked in salt, in a place where the mercury never crept much above fifty Fahrenheit, the two-room house chose to keep its back to the sea. A wise choice, given the facing of the windows and the predilections of the wind. Still, in other Julys, Kitten had stood naked between ancient trees or buried his toes in sun-warm sand. In this new July, he donned the buckskin jacket from the peg by the door and used wool socks for gloves, swaddled his head in a gaily-patterned scarf given to him by a gray-haired marm in some other July on some other island. Shivering on a shore made of black cobblestones—waves did not break, but clattered and rumbled—Kitten watched a bazaar of common murres bob on the wind and wondered which side of what ocean the house had selected this time.
The sky grew orange, pinkish blue, then muted violet and freckled with stars while Kitten enjoyed being outside. His nose was numb, his eyes watered small icicles whipped up by the wind, and his stomach gurgled, but Kitten kept his back to the house just as the house kept its back to the sea. How long had it been this time? Was there a town nearby? Would they have good things to eat?
Kitten dug a socked hand beneath his scarf, shoving at the coarse licks of hair that itched his neck. He’d yet to see a mirror. He removed one sock and blew on his fingers to keep them warm, dug under the scarf again, yanked. The hair could just be seen in the fading light. Gray now, perhaps even white, but still black near the tip. The wind snatched the hair from his fingers. Kitten didn’t watch it go. There never had been, never would be, anyone to care about his hair, and besides, had nature been allowed its usual way with him, Kitten’s hair would be like spider silk, lining the bottom of a pine box.
Gray hair led to golden hair, green eyes, and Kitten found himself thinking about Angelica Wilson, the young schoolteacher he’d fancied in his youth. Angelica was kind to Kitten on his fifteenth birthday, his last day in the world. She’d lent him the few coins he needed to purchase the bestiary he’d been eyeing on the bookseller’s cart, and she’d given his baby sister, Mousie, a sweet. The bestiary was like the scarf: one of the few items the house has let him keep. Kitten suspected it had something to do with them being gifts.
Kitten glanced back at the house. Angelica Wilson would be dead now. Like Mousie. Like Mum and Father and the mates who, on the afternoon of his fifteenth birthday, dared him to go inside the strange red house. For the first few decades, Kitten liked to imagine that Angelica had married one of his mates, that Mousie found herself an upstanding young man and borne children of her own. He would pretend a child he passed in a July street was his nephew or niece. But these stories grew cold as a century turned and time marched on without him. Everyone Kitten once loved was dead. He should be, too.
Facing the sea once more, he spoke aloud. “My name is Kitten Blankenship.” The wind would hear his usual prayer. “My parents were Margaret Hudson and Roger Blankenship, and I had a sister, Marcella. I was born in Yorkshire in 1853. And I would like to be free of the house now, please.”
The bazaar of murres rose as one body at the echo of his voice and made bleating for a rock formation that rose from the sea. Their departure drew Kitten’s eye to distant electric lights. From their sparseness and height, he picked out the perimeter of a small town. Kitten smiled, but remained sitting on the cobblestone beach. A waning half-moon sagged low on the horizon, and he’d found a hollow in the rock face, its entrance swollen with small bones and matted fur. He didn’t like to venture into the towns on his first night out of the house. Better to marvel at the natural world in a new place, enjoying his discoveries and regretting all he’d never been allowed to learn. The bones and fur, for instance. Kitten couldn’t even say what they probably were; he didn’t know where he was or what lived there, what sorts of animals nested in rock hollows on stony beaches. The bestiary might tell him, but probably not. Kitten was sixteen or seventeen when he learned to tell stories to himself.
Hunger drove him back to the house. Some Julys, he slept outside. Even if no better shelter were available and he had to huddle against the house’s oxide-colored walls, he’d never forsaken the mercy of a July. Not this time, though. This new place too cold, its wind too harsh and its town too far , so Kitten grudgingly pulled open the door that scraped loud on dry grass and reentered his prison.
On the table: a loaf of sweet bread, its crust steaming in the chill, an apple with reddening green skin, a smallish hunk of orangish cheese, a pot of hot water with lemon, and none of it there when he’d stepped outside. A July news bill told him the year was 1912 before Kitten stopped trying to catch the house in the act of providing his food. And 1946, a radio said, before he accepted the house was smarter than him. Food simply appeared, three squares, when he had his back turned. The fare was never complex, but what Kitten appreciated more was the secret of its appearance that the house kept from him. He didn’t want to see a hallway extend from a wall gone soft as clay, couldn’t stomach the thought of the house reaching into other empty spaces to steal for him.
More often than not, Kitten dreamed of meat. A roast Cornish hen dripping in juice, sizzling belly of pork, a fat slice of ham. In his meat dreams, there was tea, too, and butter and jam for the bread, tall tin tumblers of fresh milk, lemony crumpets with a bit of clotted cream, peppermint sticks. Tonight’s humble meal, he pretended was a fast for July Eve. Tomorrow, he would go into the town. He would learn the year, see what new marvels the passage of time had wrought, and find the good food. He would gorge himself on it, carry it in baskets wherever he went, and never share a morsel of it with the house.
The socks limited his dexterity, and Kitten’s hands grew numb while he ate. Finished, he rose and stood before the lone small cabinet by the window. Shivering, with his hands tucked in his armpits, he said, “Gloves,” then counted to ten, and opened the cabinet. Only the sewing kit there on the shelf. Only ever the sewing kit, full of needles and thimbles, but lacking thread. The expectant smile he’d worn since the house touched down, the front door opened, and he knew it was July faded from Kitten’s face. He could feel the knot in his throat. It made him sound like he was whimpering when he said, “Please? I’m cold.”
The door to the second room, the hated room, the one that could expand and contract, reach through space and push beyond time, creaked open, swung itself shut again. In the cabinet, the sewing kit skittered.
“No,” Kitten moaned. “It’s July. Please?”
The eldritch door opened and slammed, opened and slammed while Kitten squeezed shut his eyes and wrapped his arms about his head. Sometimes the house got angry with him, and it would tilt on its unnatural axis, befriending gravity to send him sprawling through the door. There, in the house’s warped second room, roamed all of Kitten’s lost time. All the months and years he should have aged but didn’t, so long as he spent them wandering through the house’s unmeasurable, self-contained maze. It was July, though, and Kitten had been let outside. The door shut itself once more, made a sound like the clicking of a lock, and when Kitten opened his eyes, a blanket rested on the back of the table’s only chair, and the wood-burning stove crackled to life.
Kitten sniffled and wormed the socks back over his hands, readjusted his head scarf, wrapped the blanket around his shoulders, and settled down with his bestiary in front of the stove. Hours later, when the moon’s light grayed the barren front room, a muffled sound drew Kitten back from the edges of sleep. He squinted at the new shadow beside the door. When he made it out, he sighed.
“Bicycle,” he said. “Thank you.”
Tucked into the basket on the bicycle: fleece-lined gloves, a wad of ten-dollar bills. The house provides. Its reach extends beyond closed doors and down long hallways, into empty rooms, abandoned atriums, and untrod stairwells. It connects to all forgotten and vacant places, into sealed-up voids and architectural blanks. The second room with its closed door is in perpetual communion with all the world’s closed doors so that its pets may never escape. Kitten, like others before him and more sure to come, attempted, in his younger Julys, to leave the house behind. To run, hitchhike, beg clemency, seek asylum in a new city, a new building somewhere far from where the house touched down. All of them, the house’s pets, hundreds of miles and weeks away, thinking themselves free, have once opened a closed door, crossed the threshold, and found themselves back inside the house.
Call it a cuckoo building. A spat-up space. Its learning curve is slow, recursive. It knows not what it does, only what it needs. A damned, demanding thing. Like a child. It killed its first pet, not out of malice, but for lack of knowing when its pet needed feeding. First a starving pet, moaning low, then a rotting pet, full of stink. So the house chose to return to its first pet’s home, to use its hidden geometries to slip the bones through unoccupied walls. It put its pet back where it found him. Like a child.
Learning to mistrust doors, other pets have run away, not to other places, but to other sides, determining death preferable to the house’s love. The house hurts, but does not know how it came to hurt. It knows that it is broken, that some part of it is torn, ripped from its moorings and made sick inside. It cannot form ideas; its communication is nonverbal, crudely symbolic, like a child’s. It shakes the sewing kit at its pets, but they don’t know what to do.
The pets rail and leave, come back and leave again, come back and kill themselves. The house hurts. It keeps them alive well past their times, its brokenness wronging them, too, from the inside out. It waits for one to come who can mend the tear, who knows the proper use of needle and thread.
Kitten stays. He is the oldest. He no longer tries to leave. He pales when the sewing kit appears, screams at the walls and weeps. I don’t know what you want me to do, he says. Tell me what to do and I’ll do it. The house hears him, wishes it knew. Kitten would do it, the house knows, if he could. He would mend the tear, sew them both up, house and pet, seal them up safe and together forever, the house and its Kitten.
Highway 101 graced the coastal Oregon town for two and a half miles before hair-pinning back along a picturesque but desolate shore. The people there prided themselves on their cows, and Kitten had his fill of cheese and burgers, ice cream and taffy and smoked jerky. He fished pale shells and marbleized rocks from the waves, explored junk shops, rented a kite from a beach shack and spent an afternoon flying it, huddled in the town’s small library, filling his mind and his eyes with history he’d never lived, learned that the century had turned again. Not just a century, but a millennium this time, and Kitten thought that this must make him unique among men, but there was no one to tell, none who would believe.
Sometime in the town’s past, a train ran through it. When the train stopped running, the town planted a caboose at the dead line-switch. The day Kitten discovered he was experiencing a new millennium, he took to pacing the rusting tracks until, five paces from the caboose, he saw a tie catch the light, and he knelt to look. Keys, a few dozen of them, from tiny gold ones meant for padlocks to thick silver ones made for deadbolts, were nailed to that tie and that tie only, and Kitten crouched low, finally sitting on the ground to run his fingers over the keys and wonder a new wonder.
“You know what they’re there for?”
Kitten looked up into the face of a young girl. She had long, black hair, like Mousie’s. Kitten had seen her more often than anyone else in the town; he suspected she was the daughter of one of the waitresses at the town’s breakfast diner.
“You’ve been following me, haven’t you?” he asked.
The little girl shrugged. “Maybe. You want to know about those keys, though?”
Kitten nodded. The girl smiled, plopped down beside him in the dirt, put both small hands on the tie as though she could touch all of the keys at once if she tried hard enough.
“I think they’re very beautiful,” she said. “All the colors and shapes and the different ways people nail them.” She looked up to see if Kitten shared her feelings on this matter and, apparently not finding what she sought in his expression, lifted one skinny shoulder. “Anyway,” she went on, “my mom says people treat these old train tracks like a wishing well, but opposite-like. These keys, they’re for locks that people can’t open. To places they’ve lost or can’t go back to or that aren’t there anymore. So they nail the keys here so the places won’t be forgotten.”
Kitten wished he had a key. He hadn’t taken a key to the house in Yorkshire with him that day. He’d only meant to be gone with his mates for an afternoon, meant to go home to his birthday dinner before the sun had set, and he thought how out of place his old key would look next to all of these modern ones. He exhaled, slow and shuddery, and said, “That’s pretty.”
“Pretty sad,” the girl said. “I’m Lana. And yeah, I’ve been following you. I follow all the travelers. Not much happens here except new people coming and going.” She seemed to have lost interest in the keys, having instead pulled a wad of mismatched yarn and string from her pocket, and she sat, trying to untangle the hopeless knot. She didn’t look up from this project when she asked for Kitten’s name, but when he replied, she dropped the pile of threads in her lap. “A boy named Kitten? You aren’t BSing me, are you?”
“I don’t know what BSing means.”
“It means,” —Lana leaned in close, whispering— “bullshitting.” She giggled, but Kitten still looked confused, so she rolled her eyes and said, “It means I think you’re making things up. Where are you from, anyway?”
“A long way away,” Kitten said.
“Like how far?”
“Like England,” Kitten said, surprised at himself for mimicking her speech. But she reminded him so much of Mousie, it felt like playing one of their old games.
“Oh,” Lana said, drawing out the word. “I get it. We talked about England in social studies last year. Mrs. Mullen said you still speak English there, but it’s sort of a different type of English from here.” She nodded, satisfied with her own explanation. “Where’re you staying?”
“Outside of town,” Kitten said, gesturing vaguely in the direction of where the house had come down. He didn’t like thinking about the house while talking to Lana. “On the beach.”
“In a motel, or like camping?” Lana asked.
Lana wrinkled her nose. “My mom took me camping once. I hated it. There weren’t toilets, and I couldn’t shower. Do you get to shower at your campsite? You smell like you get to shower. You’re not one of those weird people who refuse to have jobs and jump trains and camp all the time because of politics, are you, Mr. Kitten?”
“I…” Kitten cocked his head, tried to figure out what the girl meant, couldn’t. He’d have to see if the library had any books on such subjects. It was embarrassing to know less about the world than a young girl, so he gave her a mischievous grin and said, “Well, what do you think?”
She crossed her arms, looked him up and down, left and right, then shook her head. “No,” she decided. “You’re not a weirdo. Even if you are camping on the beach and your clothes are funny.”
“Funny how?” Kitten asked.
“I’m an old man.”
“Would you believe me if I said I’m a hundred and sixty?”
“No!” Lana laughed. “How could you be that old and not be dead?”
“Maybe I should be dead,” Kitten said, and he looked down at the keys. They caught the light, reflected it, dazzled his eyes, and before he could stop himself, he said, “Maybe I have a secret house with hidden rooms and endless hallways, and when I get lost inside it, time stops passing for me. Maybe I’m trapped there, and I only get to come out for one month every couple of years, and when I go back, the house erases my years. Maybe that’s what’s happened to me.”
The sound of Lana’s laughter broke the keys’ spell, and Kitten’s eyes got wide with the realization of what he’d said. A thing he’d never said to another, but even as Lana mocked him, he couldn’t deny that telling someone, speaking it aloud, had felt good.
“Okay, now you’re BSing me,” Lana said. “You’re funny, Mr. Kitten. I like that.”
Something very close to them made a musical, chirping sound, and Lana pulled a flat, black phone from her pocket, poked it and frowned at it, then announced she had to go. She mounted the blue bicycle she’d left leaning against the side of the caboose and rode away, pink streamers fluttering from handlebars.
Kitten remained on the tracks, feeling the cool shapes of the keys, thinking about what Lana had said about them, feeling clean and light from his confession.
Lana cropped up again, again. When Kitten least expected her, she’d slide into his booth at the Cow Belle Café and steal his fried potatoes, or flop down into the seat next to him at the library’s long table and ask what he was reading, or find him on the beach and start skipping stones if the sea was still or drawing in the sand with a stick if the waves were high. She asked him questions about himself, sometimes, but mostly she talked to him about her own life. About the boys and girls at her school and who liked who and how nobody liked her, not like that; about her mom and her mom’s new boyfriend, who drove a big, Mack truck and smelled all the time of beer and cigars; about video games and the Internet and how her mom wouldn’t let her use certain sites. She used Kitten to rehearse her arguments about why she should be allowed to wear makeup (Susie Dilligner did) or shave her legs (the swim team girls did) or have her own Facebook account (she was going to be in middle school this year, after all, and did her mom want her to be unpopular forever?).
And Kitten listened, asked questions in return, offered what little advice he had to give, and imagined that Lana was a new millennium’s Mousie. He told Lana about Mousie, about how his mum had given five babies back to God before his surviving sister was born, how her name was Marcella, but she was Mum’s Miracle, and if he was Kitten, then she was his Mousie, and when Lana asked, instead of his story about Mousie marrying one of his mates, he told Lana the truth: that he’d sent Mousie back home from the market on his fifteenth birthday and gone to meet up with his mates, and he entered the house on a dare, and he never saw Mousie or Mum or Father again. And when Lana’s phone summoned her home and Kitten went back to the iron-red house, he thought about all of the Julys he’d passed alone, wondering if he could call Lana a friend.
A column of names, places, and objects decorated the inside of the house’s front door. Kitten started it in the beginning of his tenure in the house, when he hadn’t an inkling of how or why he was there, what would happen to him the longer he stayed. It was his list of remembrances and desires, started with ‘Mum and Father and Mousie,’ followed by ‘Angelica Wilson’ and the names of his mates. It got vaguer from there on out, included things like ‘mutton’ and ‘my good shoes’ and ‘a real bed.’ In more practical moments, he’d included the dates from the two times the whole world had gone to war and a sort of genealogical tree he updated every time he learned about a new member of the royal family. The notation ‘John the dog’ helped him recall a shaggy, gray puppy that had followed him through a 1970s July. The hound bayed piteously when the house made its departure; Kitten wept at the decision to leave John in the world. If he hadn’t, maybe he’d still have a dog-friend, maybe he wouldn’t need the passing fancy of a little girl.
Nonetheless, one day he gave Lana two dollars and asked her to buy him a permanent black marker from the drugstore. She asked why he wouldn’t do it himself and he told her that the house wouldn’t let him keep anything that wasn’t a gift. She said she didn’t believe it, but came out with the marker tied up in a red ribbon. To the painted, carved, and penciled-in list, he used the marker to add the name ‘Lana.’
One day, Kitten didn’t go into town. He talked aloud, telling himself lies about wanting to explore the parts of the coast people didn’t inhabit, to see the animals and contemplate the black waves of the sea and its cobblestones. The truth gnawed at him. July was winding down, a week left at best, and he needed to distance himself from Lana. She occupied his thoughts when he returned to huddle by the woodstove at night. He’d recall games and jokes he’d shared with Mousie and wonder whether Lana would like them or if they were too old. He’d flip the pages of his bestiary in the slim stove light, looking for neat tidbits to share with her. And though he wasn’t ungrateful, he wondered if it had been a mistake to make a friend. One hundred and fifty years he’d missed his family, his friends, and the time made the missing fade. He hadn’t had to miss anyone new, and suspected it would hurt all over again, like he’d never missed anyone before, because already it hurt to think about how, once the house left, he wouldn’t get to see Lana again. The house hadn’t chosen the same place twice, not since Kitten had been with it, but even if it picked this part of Oregon again, another century might have passed, and Lana would be dead, the railroad tie rotten, its keys sunk into hard-packed gray earth.
Kitten didn’t go to town the next day, either. He rode his bicycle in the opposite direction instead and delighted to find the factory the people had built for their cows. He spent the day going on the guided tours, learning about the making of cheese and ice cream and watching the cattle grazing in a pen so huge, Kitten felt he’d traded seas of water for seas of beef. He tasted free samples of ten different kinds of cheese, tiny spoonfuls of 36 flavors of ice cream, sampled snippets of jerky, and watched children crank a machine that left smiling cow faces stamped into their pennies. With a bloated belly and a smile on his face, Kitten rode back to the house, where a pink bicycle streamer fluttered in the grass by the front door.
By the time he found Lana, pouting over a cup of hot cocoa in the Cow Belle Café, the cold on Kitten’s skin seemed like a side effect of the cold in his belly. He didn’t know what to say. He didn’t want to admit to the house, not after he’d told Lana the truth about it, so he ordered a cup of coffee and sat across from her, enduring her scowls, waiting for them to turn into words. Lana’s silence continued until Kitten suggested they go sit on the boardwalk across the street. There, Lana admitted she thought Kitten had left without telling her goodbye, so she biked along the beach, looking for his camp. She demanded an explanation for his two-day absence, and when Kitten said he’d only wanted to see what was in the other direction, Lana sneered and said it was only the Tillamook factory, that she’d been on a field trip there for every year she’d been in school, and she never wanted to eat another piece of cheese in her life (a statement she undermined the next day when she helped herself to half of Kitten’s grilled cheese sandwich). She also admitted to finding the house, which had never been there before, and she wanted an explanation for its appearance. She refused to believe it wasn’t his, an edge in her voice when she recounted his tale of a moving, mysterious building capable of swallowing time and life. But Kitten couldn’t humor her. Kept seeing the pink streamer from her bike curling in the grass and getting a feeling like he was sweating inside when he thought about her pushing at the door or standing on tip-toe to peer in a window. He pointed to a jagged rock formation.
“Look, Lana,” he said. “Look at all the murres.”
Squinting at the ocean, Lana nodded. “Did you know that a group of murres is called a fragrance?” she asked. “I know you like words and information and stuff.”
“A fragrance? My bestiary says they’re called a bazaar,” he said. “A fragrance. Like the fragrance of myrrh. I like that. I think I like that one better. I’m going to miss you, Lana.”
“You are leaving, then.”
“Soon,” Kitten said.
“And will the house go with you?” she asked. “If I go back there, after you’re gone, that house’ll be gone, too, won’t it? You weren’t lying to me or making up stories. I felt it, when I was there. This strange feeling. The same feeling I got the first time I saw you. I didn’t go in. Just so you know.”
“Don’t,” Kitten said. “Don’t you ever go in. Promise me, Lana. Promise me you won’t ever go into a strange house by yourself.”
But Lana didn’t promise. Wouldn’t promise, talked instead until the sun slipped low in the sky. She pulled her wad of yarn and string from her pocket and picked at it while she talked about wanting to leave Rockaway, Oregon. How she thought she never would and her mom didn’t seem to care, and how Kitten had become a better friend in a few weeks than anyone she’d known in her whole life here. Kitten patted Lana’s back and stroked her black hair while she sniffled adolescent girl sniffles and despaired of her future. Told her she’d leave Rockaway one day, she just had to be patient, and she’d grow up strong and smart and beautiful, move away to a big city, live a brilliant, exciting life. But Lana only bit her lip and thanked him for trying. When her phone squawked, she got on her bicycle and rode off without saying goodbye.
The sewing kit scrabbled at the walls of the cabinet throughout the night, flung itself at the cabinet’s door, keeping Kitten awake. He got up, once, opened the cabinet, removed the kit, walked it through the crisp night air to the overhang, used all of his might to throw it into the Pacific, and waited for a splash he’d never hear above the waves. By the time he got back inside, the kit was back in the cabinet, and the cabinet dripped saltwater from its corners.
Four more days. Four more days of hot food and the sight of people, being in the world, and Lana’s company. The girl acted subdued. On the fifth day, Kitten woke to the knowledge that this was the last of July. That he’d go back to the house that night and not emerge again for decades untold, and for the first time in years, he found himself wondering if he could outwit the house. Perhaps he could live on the beach, camp like he’d told Lana he did. Find a job, save money, build a house of his own, one he wanted, one without doors. Yet even as he thought these things, he knew it was useless. Who would hire a gray-haired man with no experience in any trade, who barely understood what a computer did, who’d never once spoken on a telephone? If he’d learned anything from Lana, it was how ill-fitted he was for this new millennium, or it for him. His thoughts opposed themselves. Maybe he’d never come out of the house again. He never understood why it let him out some Julys but not others, and maybe it was to keep him human, to keep him sane, and the real way to end it would be to never come out, to fall deep, deep inside, to go mad with the house, become its soul.
Kitten took the rest of the money to town with him. He’d spent some time looking around the house for some token to give to Lana, but the only thing that seemed appropriate was the bestiary, and Kitten couldn’t bring himself to part with that. Instead, he treated Lana to a big waffle breakfast and ice cream for lunch, bought her a knapsack she coveted from a shop on Main Street. He assumed he’d return to the house once Lana’s mum called her home. He hadn’t expected it to be so early. Midafternoon when she jumped up from the railroad tie where they’d sat to contemplate the keys together one last time, and she said something about a dentist’s appointment, how she’d begged her mom not to make her go, to change the appointment to a different time or day. She hugged Kitten long and hard until his neck ached, and he hugged her back, sorry to see her go.
One last meal at the Cow Belle Café before walking his bicycle through the main street of town, saying silent goodbyes to Rockaway, Oregon. Kitten rode slow, looking at the coast but not seeing it, thinking instead of all the places he’d been, the places the house had taken him: The tip of Florida where no one would look him in the eye; a deserted Italian shore where he hardly saw another living thing; the coast of North Carolina, where he’d met John the dog; a frozen lake where the inhabitants didn’t speak any language he knew, and who gave him salted fish and a hard, flavorless bread in exchange for his coins. Only the sight of the Tillamook factory shook Kitten from his memories and, confounded, he pointed his bicycle in the other direction. He rode back and forth, seeking the house and not finding it, secretly hoping it had gone without him, suspicious of that thought from the outset. He sought the overhang and the forked rock formation instead, the one always covered in a fragrance of murres, and when he found them, he dropped his bicycle to the ground and stumbled forward, sobbing before he even knew what he saw.
Pushed-down grass marking the footprint of the house. Empty ocean shore and the sound of waves rattling the stones. A hollow in a rock full of fur and bones. A blue bicycle with pink streamers on its handlebars lying in the weeds. And nothing more.
Lana is nineteen by her own clock and twenty-eight by the world’s the first time the house lets her leave. She experiences an acute sensation whenever she remembers her initial hours in that warped and damaged place. How she opened the knapsack Kitten had bought her, the one she stuffed full of all the things her ten-year-old mind thought she’d need to hide out there and run away with Kitten. How she found the knapsack empty and was convinced she’d freeze or starve, because she hadn’t believed Kitten when he’d told her the house would provide.
She still trembles a bit when the second door opens and the floor shakes and groans and tilts sideways, giving her a glimpse of a plain, unfurnished room that unfolds, unfurls into a growing black spiral, finding depth, seeking distance, Euclidean geometry stretching itself thin before it sucks her through. It has happened so many times now she’s lost count and isn’t as terrified as the first time she got lost in the house’s secret, shifting maze.
The sewing kit bothered her a lot those first few years. It pounded and scraped, battered the cabinet, might as well have been battering the inside of her skull. She doesn’t remember when she fished the knot of tangled thread from her pocket, when she set the knot next to the kit and watched, tears pouring down her face and a bad feeling in her stomach, while the two objects danced. Lana only knows that this is a recent development, this sense of what she needs to do.
The July air is warm when she steps out of the house. She doesn’t know where she is, and hardly thinks it matters. Lana doesn’t wait. She walks to the nearest town as soon as she picks it out, inquires, finds a crafting store. She spends all of the money she has, save the price of a hot meal, on yarn and twine and embroidery thread, then she goes back to the house.
It is excited. It knows that she knows. Atonal, piping music plays from behind the second door. The sewing kit jigs on the table, spins in circles and hops up and down, its needles sharp and shining, ready to be used.
“Shut up,” Lana snaps. “I figured it out, no thanks to you. Have some patience.”
She finds the marker she bought for Kitten when she was ten. It still has a red ribbon tied around it, though the ribbon has faded and split, and Lana cries a little bit, thinking about it. She wonders if she’ll be able to find Kitten again, if it’s as simple as she thinks and the house will be fixed and she will be free. She tries to remember being ten and what it was she’d been thinking. She goes to the front door, runs her fingers down the list Kitten made. She’s read it so many times she can recite it by heart. Then she kneels, lowers herself to her elbows so she can reach the door’s bottom-most edge, uncaps the marker, and makes her first and only addition right beneath her own name.
Kitten, she writes.
K.L. Owens is a picture framer who occasionally tends bar at gallery openings. She holds a B.A. in existential philosophy, and received her MFA from the University of New Orleans’ Creative Writing Workshop. In 2004, Owens received the Quarante Club Prize for Women in Literature, and in 2015, she was the runner-up for the Svenson Fiction Award. Her work has appeared in The Riding Light Review, freeze frame fiction, and Fur-Lined Ghettos. She lives in New Orleans with her husband and three cats, and while she moves with some acumen through space, she has yet to successfully travel in time.