9 min read

Hauntless House, by Madalena Daleziou

Rows of terrace houses, some of which are painted bright blue and yellow
Photo by Belinda Fewings / Unsplash

Content warnings

Threat. Control.

You’re back again tonight. Back on the sofa you and your flatmate swore had sleep-inducing properties. The night carries the faint scent of the chamomile you used to brew when the two of you gossiped until the wee hours.

Chamomile and the occasional beer; guaranteed to make you yawn more than the sofa ever would. But you’d rather believe in its sleep-magic. Or else in the drugs the previous tenant must have sewn into the grey fabric before moving out. I saw him the other day, dozing in front of the TV, dreaming of me. Past midnight is the only time his little siblings leave the console alone. He moved back with his parents after graduation. Coward.

You met him on campus once or twice before he left. Freshly ironed shirts, and a smile that reeked of relief. He couldn’t wait for you to sign the paperwork so that he could get me off his back. He even whispered a warning of sorts (are you sure about this?) kind fool that he was. He had nothing to do with drugs, and no drug you’d heard of would make you sleep just because it was under your pillow a year or more later. The idea was fun anyway. You’d use it in your “Princess and the Pea” retelling, you said. In all honesty, though, it was a silly story to make your flatmate laugh. If not for this new person sleeping next to you, I’d say you were a little in love with her.

You yawn, stretch, but you can’t get comfortable in your favourite sofa tonight. It’s as if the sofa no longer has enough space for you.

Confused, you change sides and come face to face with the landlord’s pillows– ugly reds and yellows that made the room look like a travelling circus if she asked you (she didn’t). Didn’t you hide those in the cupboard when you first moved in?

Then, there’s your cactus on the coffee table. A pile of books spread over the carpet. Some of the second-hands you bought for this semester’s teaching, and, oddly, a couple shiny hardbacks from your own childhood back home. That coat you donated to the charity shop you volunteer for on Sundays. And the breadcrumbs from the takeaway you hoovered the other day.

Like a Jack-in-a-box, you jump to your feet. Fishing out a tote bag from under a cushion, you start shoving everything in it so hurriedly that the cactus prickles your fingers. You were supposed to be out of here days ago. But where are the keys?

No—this isn’t right. You dropped the keys in the post box when you got out for the last time.

Cold sweat starts from the roots of your hair all the way down your spine. Your heart is hammering. It’s a month since you moved out.

And yet.

Many a time I heard you talk about how you failed all your math exams back in high school. You were the artsy type, word-vomiting at the little desk by the window where you watched the squirrels chase one another. No matter. Even without science, your reasoning was something else.

“Why don’t they simply move out?” you’d ask your flatmate again and again, cross-legged on the sofa, consuming horror films like water, laptop plugged on the TV. “They find out the house is haunted,” you’d say, “and they wait for the ghosts to come get them. Just why don’t they get out?”

You didn’t have much in terms of savings. The food crumbs falling in the gaps between the kitchen tiles tasted cheap. But you didn’t need tons to smell of privilege. Plainly put, you thought hauntings are worse than not having a roof over your head.

I can almost hear you. “At the first sign of a haunting, why don’t they run away?”

Think I haven’t asked myself the same?

Not that you’d spare a penny for my thoughts. You were a storyteller, in love with your voice, good at answering your own questions. “It’s poor imagination,” you ‘d tell your flatmate. “Bad writing at its best. Screenwriters can’t come up with a way for the house to keep its tenants after they decide to leave.” When she challenged you to come up with a better way, you asked her if she wanted another cup of tea.

But you, dearest, you pretended not to know the meaning of home. You acted as if your own country spat you out of her womb and kicked you, wingless, out of the nest. And yet, you were always on the phone with your mother, chattering whole evenings away in your own language that I learnt little by little. How to make phyllo pastry like your gran? How to fake three years’ teaching experience when you only graduated three months ago? Sometimes, you’d shed nostalgic tears on the window seat, in the shower. Other times you’d pace in your bedroom late at night, wondering if your anxious breathlessness would kill you.

You love your mother. And your country. You left them anyway.

Should it surprise me, then, the way you left me?

Who is this person sleeping by your side? Are they a man, a woman, bit of both, none of the two?

I can’t tell, dearest. They’re a blur to me. I only know those parts of you that you gave me before you turned the key for the last time. The long hairs you never hoovered, the rotting rodent body behind the kitchen counter after you dialled Pest Control’s number wailing, your tears and starry-eyed hopes, your gran’s tea towels. Don’t you fret now. I’ve kept them safe for you.

I’ll keep you safe too, in dreams, when you visit.

You were back again last night, writing in your little desk, only the letters on the laptop screen were upside down, as was the clock on the wall. You turned to paper but ran out of ink, so you had to use blood from the veins. You woke up in your new place biting your cuticles raw.

You’re here tonight, too, but will you remember when you wake up? How can I know? I can only take in the sight of you kneeling by the bookshelves in your old bedroom. You bite your lip most handsomely when you realise that they’re not the sturdy ebony ones your landlord let you use. No. These wobbly ones are from back home, so heavy that they yield bellies bigger than your father’s.

With nightmare-stiff fingers, you search for the books you’ve forgotten to transfer. The paperback signed by your favourite author. A dusty, broken-backed tome that belonged to your grandfather, and the first book you got in a language other than your own, to practise. You try to shove them all in a suitcase. It’s too small, though. It spits them back. But you can’t go without them. How could you? They’re part of you.

Dearest, when did you forget I’m part of you too?

It’s been two months since you left. The landlord gave you the TV for fifty quid, so you took it with you. Without it, without you, there’s a gaping hole in the living room.

You cared once; you patched my wounds tenderly and scrubbed every speck of dirt from my body. I wait and wait for someone to patch me up once more, but the landlord’s son is coming to take the sofa, too, I heard. Another gap, another bullet wound in my skin. There’s nothing to look forward to, apart from white paint, perhaps—a bloody memory-wash I didn’t ask for.

I see you in the living-room once more, cross-legged on the sofa, deep in thought. You brought a friend tonight to help you move, it was becoming too much. Even after swallowing two painkillers, your head didn’t feel quite alright. But each time you try to speak to your friend your voice comes out muffled and they don’t hear a word.

Dearest, I always listened to you, even when you stayed silent, even after you started complaining that my embrace wasn’t warm enough, that you could no longer afford the internet, or the central heating, or the space and anything in it. I flatter myself that if not for your emptying purse, you wouldn’t have left as abruptly as you did. You dream of me so often that I believe my own flattery.

Perhaps this is why I warmed up to you, more than the tenants who came before. It’s heart-wrenching to see someone so lost, so desperate to be welcomed home, and yet secretly savvy about all that having a home entails; the joys, the burdens, the nightmares. I did welcome you. I always did but you didn’t listen. You only pressed your phone harder against your ear.

Sometimes, when it gets too lonely, I wonder if you only took care of me for the money—there was a plump deposit for you to lose if I was neglected. Your soft soapy sponge, your gentle brush; was any of it real? It hurts to think ill of you, but you must understand. Losing you was like the gnawing hunger you felt waiting for payday.

See, people don’t die at home anymore; loneliness is certain as rain. They banish death from their presence, in white rooms so full of antiseptic that even hauntings flee in terror. I can hope for no ghosts. I must content myself with the company of the living. But the living fly away like the wee sparrow that soiled my window the other day.

In your plane of existence, I had no hold of you.

So, I created a new one.

In my dream plane, I hold you tightly in a never-ending embrace. Breathing in the slight humidity, my sole perfume, you think to yourself that you’re finally home.

Then you claw at your throat, pinch the paper-thin skin on the top of your palm, whatever it is you must do to escape me. Or else you run up and down, combing me for trinkets you’ve already taken away, once in real life, ten times in this dream world I created just for the two of us. Panic rises up to your throat as you realise that no matter how much you run, or to which room, you always end up in the same place.

In dreams, I hold you, and my pipes unfreeze out of joy. To you, of course, it looks more like a nightmare where you lost your keys.

Why do I crave company so badly, the mice ask? Why, demand the spiders. The squirrels knock on my muddy windows, waiting for you to leave peanuts at the windowpane once more.

I listen, if only to keep them a moment longer. There’s little for an empty house to hope for. How can I keep you if you decide that a box of a flat is better than my little garden? How can I bring you back except in dreams that everyone waives off as mere anxiety? Your mother did tell you that moving is one of the three most stressful events in your life.

For another house, she would be right. But deep inside, you know there’s something more sinister going on. You feel it in your humidity-aching bones. You know you shouldn’t be dreaming of returning as often as you do. For now, my doors can still open and close, to let you out into the waking world. But with no one to oil them, they grow stiff. Tomorrow, I can make no promises.

I pondered long and hard, you know, and I think I’m beginning to crack your horror movie scepticism. Some of the tenants that came before you also return to me in dreams, once in a while. But none as often as you. Is it working, then? Should I flatter myself, that you seek me out, or that I’m finally, finally managing to keep someone?

I know how sometimes, in bed, you would freeze for full seconds after waking up, feeling your body like a sculpture’s, paralysed. There’s a legend, where you came from, of old hag Mora sitting on your chest. For those seconds you would panic, fearing you might never fully wake up.

But sleep paralysis is nothing to worry about, the internet said. You were just trapped in a dream for a moment longer than most. Your body needed a second to come back to its senses—your ever-gnawing anxiety hardly helps. Which places did you dream of when you lived in me, I wonder? Did you travel someplace else, in that homeland you resent and crave? You never told me.

Some nights, in our shared dreams, you freeze again. You look at me, and I feel your glance to the depths of my bedrock. You never eyed me like this when you lived here.

Then you pinch the top of your palm the moment your limbs become your own again.

Of course, dear. Don’t mind sad old me. Dry the sweat off your forehead, nudge the new person who sleeps beside you, tell them of your nightmare. They’ll listen. I listened to you, too, once. Don’t bother with a sad tenement’s monologue. I can’t do much. I only dream of those I used to hold, spiriting them back for a little bite of night.

Though I do hope that one of these days I’ll manage to keep one forever.

Madalena Daleziou

Madalena Daleziou is a writer from Greece currently living in the UK. She holds an MLitt in fantasy literature from the University of Glasgow. Her work has previously appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, The Deadlands, and other venues.