My husband and I used to flip houses. If you aren’t familiar with the term “flipping”, it basically means we would buy broken down homes on the cheap, fix them up, and then resell them for a profit. We had been doing well for a few years. Sometimes we would buy houses that wound up being in worse shape than we thought, and we’d lose money. Often with these types of sales you have to buy a house without knowing all the details. Sometimes they have liens that have to paid, or structural problems that go beyond a simple renovation. However, despite these occasional pitfalls we were successful. My husband was savvy and could usually spot a money pit even at first glance.
Even though our little business was progressing and we were finally able to afford our own home for the first time in our ten year marriage, I was growing frustrated. Stephen didn’t really let me make very many decisions. He didn’t trust my judgment, nor did he think I was competent enough to really do anything for the business outside of picking paint colors or curtain patterns. I knew I could do more. I have a background in design and I was sure I could add some extra care and pizzazz to many of the renovations, but Stephen would never listen to my opinion.
Things were just as bad behind the scenes. Technically, we were partners in the business as well as husband and wife, but I had little say in how things were managed. I had no control over expenses, what houses we chose to buy, selling prices, or really anything. My name was on the business cards, but it was very much his endeavor. Whenever I did try to offer my advice on the budget, I was quickly shot down. Sometimes even in front of contractors or potential buyers. It was embarrassing, and even I was beginning to doubt my own capability. I started to see myself as incompetent, doubting my ability to even do everyday things like the laundry or having dinner prepared.
The insults were starting to get worse. We talked about having children, but then he would say that I wouldn’t make a good mother. I was too immature. I suggested getting a job outside of our business…just something to keep me occupied as we didn’t really need the money. He told me no one would hire me and besides, he needed me to keep the house clean and answer the phones.
So you can imagine I was especially surprised one day when he asked me to do him a favor. He called me from our office in a panic asking me to get to the latest house we had purchased, 1600 Cardinal Lane, and take some quick measurements of the floor of the living room. He said that his assistant was supposed to do it but he forgot and the carpet people were waiting for the measurements and there was a deadline and he couldn’t leave because he was with the realtor and so on and so forth. I was actually nervous. He had never asked me to do anything actually useful like that and I knew he was only asking because he was desperate. I didn’t want to mess this up. If I did, he would never trust me with a task again and not only that, I’d never hear the end of it.
So I drove over to 1600 Cardinal Lane, armed with a tape measure. I entered the code on the front door lock and went inside. The living room was large with a vaulted ceiling and an open skylight that bathed the room in warm sun. The house smelled of fresh paint and pine. I love the smell of a newly renovated house. It’s crisp. Maybe I’m too sentimental, after all Stephen used to say so, but I couldn’t help but think every time we fixed an old house and resold it, it was getting a new life. Stephen just saw the numbers. I saw fresh starts and new hope.
I took out the tape measure and started in one corner of the room. I measured each side twice to make sure it was accurate. I wrote the measurements down to be sure I wouldn’t forget, then called the carpet layers to relay the information. I cannot stress enough how important it was for me to get this right.
I drove home feeling like I had accomplished something. I know it may sound ridiculous. It was just some floor measurements, but for the first time I felt like I was contributing. It was sort of an adrenaline rush. I spent the rest of the afternoon preparing Stephen a wonderful dinner, and slept that night like I hadn’t in months.
My good mood continued on to the morning. I made breakfast, finished several loads of laundry, and was still riding the high of my minor accomplishment when my cell phone rang. It was Stephen. I wondered if maybe he had something else for me to do, so I answered with a cheerful, “Hey, Baby!”
“What the fuck is wrong with you!” His voice came loud and sharp over the phone and took me by surprise. I stammered a moment before responding.
“What do you mean?”
“I can’t even count on you to do one simple thing! Those measurements you gave the carpet layers are wrong. We’re short. Goddamn it, this is going to put us back another day if not more.”
“I’m sorry,” I said, “I measured twice-“
“Well apparently, you can’t read a fucking measuring tape!” That’s when he hung up.
I was floored. I couldn’t believe the numbers could be wrong. I started to think I was really that stupid. How could I mess up something so simple?
It bothered me the rest of the day. I couldn’t sleep that night. Not just because Stephen yelled at me, that was nothing new, but I couldn’t get over how I had made a mistake. After Stephen fell asleep, I got out of bed, got dressed, and drove over to 1600 Cardinal Lane, once again armed with a tape measure. I just had to see how I could have gotten it wrong. As I did the day before, I entered the code on the lock and went inside. I was once again greeted with the scent of fresh paint and cut wood. The stars shown through the skylight and just enough moonlight poured through that I could see the new carpet. I flipped on the lights and retraced my steps from the day before. I started in the same corner and measured each side.
What I found confused me even more. I checked the paper I had written the measurements on yesterday. They didn’t match. Stephen was right. I was six inches off. How could that be possible? I could understand being off by maybe an inch or so, but six? I measured again wondering if maybe my anxiety was playing tricks on me. It was the same. Six inches longer than the day before.
My heart dropped. Obviously, I was just as stupid as Stephen said I was. It may sound crazy to be so upset over something so small, but all his words from the past few years of our marriage flooded into my brain. “You’re incompetent. No one would hire you. You’re lucky to have me to take care of you because you would never be able to take care of yourself.” I sat in the middle of the empty living room floor of 1600 Cardinal Lane and cried. I hate to admit it, but I wept like a little baby and if Stephen had seen this display, that’s what he certainly would have called me.
After I composed myself, I got up and wiped the tears from my swollen face. “You’re such an ugly crier.”
It was getting late. If Stephen woke up and saw that I was gone he’d be livid. Even so, I couldn’t quite go home yet. I decided to walk around the house a little while. I had toured it before with Stephen just before we bought it, but now I could take my time. I looked up at the skylight and saw the stars blinking through the black rectangle in the ceiling. It was lovely. Whoever bought this house would be lucky having that to look up to every night. That was when I noticed something else odd. The skylight somehow seemed bigger. Wider. At first I thought that it was the difference in the lighting. I had never seen it at night before.
I’m not sure why, but out of curiosity I went into the kitchen where we had left a stack of pamphlets advertising the house. On it were pictures we had taken of some of the house’s nicest features, including the skylight. I flipped through one pamphlet to find the photo of the skylight. I couldn’t be sure, but it definitely looked smaller…by just maybe five or six inches, but smaller….thinner. I took the pamphlet into the living room and held the photo in the air up toward the skylight to do a back to back comparison. It was unmistakable. The skylight in the photo was a different size. I wondered if maybe the graphic designer had manipulated the photo’s dimensions to fit it in the pamphlet. That had to be it. That’s the only explanation that made sense. Yet, somehow it just didn’t satisfy me. With the pamphlet in hand, I decided to check out the rest of the house.
There were no photos of the kitchen in the pamphlet since it wasn’t completed yet before the photos were taken, so I went upstairs to the master bedroom. Stephen and his contractors had put a lot of work into that room, opening up the wall with French doors that would open onto a back patio, installing an ornate chandelier that would someday hang over someone’s bed, and enlarging the master bathroom and fitting it with all new plumbing fixtures and a brand new shower with multiple faucets. Also, in one nook of the room Stephen had installed custom shelves made to sit in the recess of the wall. It was a beautiful room after it was all said and done.
I compared the room to its photos in the pamphlet. Everything looked the same- the brand new shelves, the chandelier, the new French doors. Everything seemed to match. I was beginning to feel stupid again. Just what exactly was I trying to prove? A house can’t spontaneously change its size. I above all people knew that would take weeks of demolition and reconstruction.
I turned to go back into the hallway. I flipped off the light and as I took my first step across the threshold I heard a crash behind me. I knew that sound. It was the sound of wooden planks knocking against each other. I heard it all the time through all the construction and carpentry that went into renovating these houses. I flipped the light back on and turned around.
The shelves- Stephen’s custom shelves he had built especially for the recess in the wall- they had fallen down. I approached the stack of planks on the floor to examine what could have caused them to fall. I never touched them. My first thought was that Stephen was going to blame me, but I knew I could fix it. They were just simple planks that fitted on to slats in the wall. All I had to do was put them back. I thought maybe one of the slats had come loose. I could go downstairs where there were still plenty of tools lying around, find a screwdriver, and just re-secure it to the wall. No problem…I could do this.
I picked up one of the planks and tried to place it back on the slats. It fell down again. I tried once more and that’s when I realized the problem. The plank was too short. It wouldn’t reach all the way across.
A chill ran through me. That was just simply not possible. Just a moment ago the planks fit perfectly. They were specifically measured and cut for this space. Just a moment ago they fit flush with the sides of the recess. Now…they were too short. It was as if the wall had expanded.
I dropped the wooden plank and made straight for the door. But what I discovered was even more jarring. The door was gone. Where the door to the hallway had been was now just blank wall. Panic shot through my veins. I ran to the wall and began pounding on it and screaming. Solid drywall. As it no door had ever existed. I turned around and went for the French doors to the patio. Maybe there was a way down from the upstairs deck. The French doors were locked. I didn’t have any of the keys to the house, only the code for the front door. I thought about using one of the planks to break the glass, but I heard Stephen’s voice in my head, “What were you thinking? You know how expensive those doors were?! What were you even doing in there?”
I closed my eyes and took a moment to catch my breath. I took a long, deep breath and tried to focus on my breathing. It was a technique my therapist had taught me to combat my panic attacks. Surely I was losing my mind. I just needed to calm down. After a moment of breathing deeply in and out, counting to five with each intake and exhale, I opened my eyes. The door was back. I breathed a sigh of relief and ran out into the hallway, but just out of morbid curiosity I glanced back as I exited the room. The shelving planks were still on the floor. I wasn’t going to try to put them back.
I made my way down the hallway back to the staircase, but the hallway stretched before me, growing longer with each step I took. The top of the stairs stretched farther and farther away. I broke into a sprint and finally I reached the stairs. I looked down, the stairs that had been just a simple, single flight before stretched down into a vast darkness, winding in what seemed an infinite spiral. It made me dizzy to look at it, but I had no choice, I began to make my way down. After a few steps I had to stop and lean against the railing, once again taking deep breaths and trying to calm my nerves. Just like before, when I opened my eyes, the stairs were back to normal. Well…almost…they were perhaps just a bit longer than before…maybe by about six steps.
I nearly fell running down the rest of the way. I didn’t stop once I hit the bottom floor. I made my way straight to the front door, thank God it was there, and ran straight to my car. The drive home is a blur. I’m sure I wasn’t driving safely- speeding through red lights, ignoring stop signs, but I just wanted to get home. When I arrived, Stephen was awake, waiting for me inside and glaring at me as I opened the front door.
“Where the fuck have you been?” He asked.
I didn’t know what to say. My voice came out weak and squeaky. “I- I just went out..for a drive…I couldn’t sleep…”
“It’s 3:30 in the morning,” he said, then his voice softened a bit which I was glad of. “Come back to bed. I have finishing touches to make on Cardinal Lane tomorrow and then we have an open house. I need you fresh and well rested to put on a good face.” He always liked me to be at the open houses because people found me relatable and friendly. It helped put buyers at ease.
I didn’t tell him about what happened. How could I explain it? Even if I could find the right words, he wouldn’t believe me. I mean, who would? I was even doubting my own sanity. Somehow I managed to fall asleep. I think the exhaustion in the aftermath of such an adrenaline rush swept over me at all at once and before I knew it, I was out. I was still asleep when Stephen left in the morning. I’m sure that must have aggravated him, but as long as I showed up to the open house on time it wouldn’t matter.
I didn’t want to go. I knew I had to, though. I would never be able to explain to Stephen why I didn’t show up. He’d have me committed for sure. So after sleeping a little too long, I grudgingly got dressed in my best professional attire and made my way back to 1600 Cardinal Lane.
When I drove up, Stephen’s car was in the driveway. Already on the front lawn was the bright red and white “Open House Today” sign staked into the ground. I sat in the car for almost ten minutes, trying to get the nerve to walk up to the house. Finally, I got out of the car and walked up to the door. I felt like a fly walking straight into the spider’s parlor.
The front door was open. I thought that was odd. The open house wasn’t supposed to start for another half hour. I hesitantly walked inside. Everything looked normal. The staircase was the proper length. The skylight in the living room matched the photo in the pamphlet. Was it all some sort of hallucination? Was I really losing my mind? In some strange way the thought that I was crazy was comforting. Crazy I could deal with. I could get help if I needed. Mental illness was measurable, treatable, and while in no way fun, it was natural and of this world. If I wasn’t crazy…then that meant there were things happening in this house that went far beyond the natural, and that was something I couldn’t deal with.
I looked around for Stephen. His briefcase was on the kitchen counter, with his car keys laying beside it. I didn’t really want to go exploring through the house, but I needed to find him. I didn’t want to be alone in there. I checked every room, upstairs and down. When I got to the master bedroom, I saw the shelves were back on the slats just as they should be. I checked the backyard and the garage. No Stephen.
It was getting close to the time for the open house. He surely wouldn’t be late for that, and besides, his car was outside. There was no way he could have gone anywhere.
I was growing nervous…not just because I couldn’t find Stephen, but also because if he didn’t show I would have to handle the open house by myself. I had never done that before. What if I was asked a question about the house I didn’t know the answer to? What if someone made an offer? I didn’t know what the next step would be. The best I could do was take their information and have Stephen contact them later.
As it turns out, I didn’t have to do that. Stephen never showed up, but there were no offers that day. A few people came by the open house and expressed potential interest, but no one committed. I was actually pretty proud of the way I handled everything. I was gracious and professional, and honestly, the more I talked about the house to the potential buyers the more it began to grow on me. My fear of the place began to subside. I decided that the events of the night before must have been some kind of episode on my part. Those feelings I had originally for the house began to come back- my love of the beautiful skylight, the enormous kitchen with the marble counter tops, the brand new master bath with the luxurious shower, and of course, the beautiful view from the French doors.
After the last visitor left and there was still no sign of Stephen, I thought I would give the house one final once over, just me by myself. The night before seemed distant now, the way a nightmare fades after time. I went back up to the master bedroom. I opened the French doors and walked out on to the patio. The cool air hit my face and rustled through my hair, and from this view I could see mountains in the distance. It was comforting and lovely. How could a house with such a view be anything but good?
I came back inside, closed the French doors behind me and looked around the room. I imagined what my bedroom furniture would look like in this room. Where would I put the dresser? What curtains would I hang? I was lost in this fantasy when I heard a knocking, and the muffled sound of Stephen’s voice. I went to the bedroom door, opened it and said, “Finally, where have you-“ I stopped. There was no one in the hallway.
I heard the knocking again, and again Stephen’s voice, muffled as though behind heavy doors. His voice was more urgent this time, but I couldn’t quite make out what he was saying. I looked in the next bedroom over. It was empty. The knocking grew louder.
Once again I searched the house, but Stephen was nowhere to be found. The knocking, however, followed me everywhere I went, and Stephen’s voice…almost panicked now. Yelling and screaming, even though I still couldn’t make out individual words.
When I was back in the upstairs hallway, I placed my ear against the wall. I felt a bang as though someone was pounding on the other side of the wall. I jumped back. The knocking was coming from the walls, as was Stephen’s voice, but now it was getting quieter and even harder to understand.
Eventually, I couldn’t hear him at all anymore, and the knocking stopped.
That was the last I ever heard of Stephen. I went back to the house several times to look for him. But I never heard the knocking again, nor the sound of his voice. He never came back to our home either. Weeks passed, and after a while I found I wasn’t going back there to look for Stephen anymore. I was going back because I was growing attached to the house. It kept calling me back, and I found that each time I went I stayed longer and longer.
I now live at 1600 Cardinal Lane. I never sold it. Instead I sold the house Stephen and I had lived in together. I now run the business by myself, and I’m happy to say it’s doing better than ever. The only downside is that every now and then I have to replace a broken window, or allow extra time in the mornings when I get ready just in case the house “breathes” as I like to call it. Sometimes it takes me half an hour just to get down the stairs. Sometimes the doors change places. But now I know the house will never harm me. Not as long as I keep it fed.