He did not know how or when it began, but Peter realized over the course of many months that he was reluctant to go home at the end of the day. The excuses grew naturally out of real needs and wants: they were out of milk, he wanted to catch up with an old friend, traffic delayed him. But the excuses wore thinner and thinner. It was on a Tuesday, when he was looking at his reflection illuminated by the last rays of a sinking sun in the blacked-out window of an empty shop, when Peter finally came clean to himself: he truly did not want to go home.
He spent many days gnawing at the question. He was not tired of his wife, Nina. Their daughter Shannon did not treat him with open hostility. He had no reason to believe the two-story colonial gingerbread he lived in was haunted.
…but he paused on that thought.
What was a haunting but an unfriendly, unwelcome habitation? And, truth be told, when he came home without any family to greet him, he felt himself the unwelcome guest. He was haunting his own house.
Peter laughed. How could he haunt his own house? His paintings on the walls, his aftershave sharing the sink rim with Nina’s antiperspirant, his daughter’s growing heights notched into the dining room wall? True, his family was what made the house his home. But he belonged there, just as much as anyone.
Peter parked the Cheverolet in the driveway and stared up at the dim windows. From this angle, they had a cant that made them resemble unfriendly eyes. The front knob would not accept his key. Peter struggled with the lock, fighting down a growing dread.
“Peter?” Nina parked and spilled out of her sedan. Shannon pried herself from the passenger side under the bulk of the dry cleaning. Nina stepped primly up the front walk, drawing her key like a sword.
“I guess.” Peter’s face reddened. “Maybe we should call a locksmith.”
The knob accepted Nina’s key without complaint. The door practically fell open. Nina cast a critical eye to Peter’s key. “Maybe we should make another copy.”
Peter mumbled something.
The house was a cold blank until she hit the hall switch and suddenly they were transported to their home, with the ship-rope rugs on the bare hardwood floors and a photo of his grandparents hanging just above the shoe rack.
It would have been too easy to forget about it once snugly confined in the bosom of his family. Nina chattering over pasta, Shannon practising steps in the hall. Peter sat in a snug chair that had survived through college and felt very much at home.
But he did not forget.
“Maybe we should get a dog,” he said later that night. Nina, in bed with her magazine, gave him an aside glance.
“Who’s going to walk it? Shannon is full-time this semester, and I don’t have the kind of mental space for an animal.”
“I was just thinking, you know, when I get home, the house is so empty…” the reasons, so concrete in his head, slipped from his fingers. Nina put a small kiss just above his eyebrow.
“Oh Peter,” she said, in a tone that could have been pitying or contemptuous.
He embraced the time away from the house. He went to work and spoke with colleagues and lived. He was a person who belonged in the world. As long as he kept away from the problem, there was no problem, right?
After a few rounds of pool, long past dark and the point where Nina should be home, Peter received a text. He pulled over and let the cold screen light the car.
PRACTICE LATE. WE’RE GRABBING TAKEOUT. LEFTOVERS IN FRIDGE.
Peter parked askew in the driveway. His hands were shaking. Above him loomed the house, dark and disapproving as a tombstone. He sat in the car. How late was late? He could stay in the car, play it off like he’d just got home when they arrived. He thumbed through a paperback under his dome light. He played spider solitaire until his battery ran low. He ran the heater until his head hit the back of the seat and someone was suddenly rapping on the driver’s side window.
“Peter?” Nina’s voice was alarmed. Peter killed the engine. His wife and daughter gazed concernedly through the window. Flushed red, he tried to play it off.
“Late. Must’ve fallen asleep.” The dashboard clock said near midnight.
Peter got out of the car and stretched. Nina was not budging.
“You’re starting to worry me, Peter. You’re staying out later and later, now…this.” She indicated the car with her hand. “What are you afraid of?”
“Afraid?” Peter laughed.
“Daddy, come on.” Shannon looked at him through dewdrop-thick glasses. “You keep coming home late, and you won’t let us leave the house without you.”
Their gazes were sterile pins. He was being dissected. Nina shook her head.
“Come on,” she said, grabbing his arm and turning him around, “use your key. Go in. There’s nothing wrong.”
Peter tried very hard to make his legs bend, tried not to fight them as they pushed him up the walk, but he couldn’t make his body obey properly. The dead front window glared at him, showed him a room cold and empty and unwelcoming. He needed them to go first, to purify the air with their laughter, but they were behind him and pushing.
“There,” Nina stopped. “Key in the lock. You can do it.”
Peter fumbled with the keys. He dropped them twice. Nina was less than amused. The lock stuck, refusing to accept the whole key at first and then refusing to turn one way or the other. He looked to the girls for help. Nina nodded impatiently at the door.
The lock snicked open like a sudden jeer. Peter had to shove the door to get it moving. The front hallway was cold and dark.
He looked back. Nina nodded again. After you.
Peter’s footsteps carried reverb. He walked down the front hall, dark and strange to him. He couldn’t even remember where the hall switch was as he felt along the wall.
“Okay there, I’m…in.” He could bring himself to say ‘home.’ Where was the damn switch?
He turned back. The hall was dark. There was no door.