Her House – Sreya Sarkar, Chicago

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Urna rubbed her eyes and yawned. She must have dozed off on the kitchen counter. The half-finished glass of milk was sitting on one side of the counter staring at her accusingly. She had forgotten to place a coaster under it.

It was late at night and she had come down to take a break from her work. The manuscript was due in a week’s time and she could not afford to sleep the nights away like this. She tried to remember what she was editing and her head felt woozy. The long manuscript on dystopia that would run into sequels. No, that was a few months ago. A manuscript on paranormal shapeshifters with a devastating ending—no, that was not the one she was working on. A sizzling romance between a Victorian age Duke stuck in a time loop with a present day artist who meets him at Louvre. She didn’t like that particular manuscript that much yet she had fallen in love with the Duke’s character—but that was last year!

What the hell was she working on presently? She could not remember. She should take the long vacation her colleague kept telling her about. Escape to a sunny island, spread her mat on a beach and fall asleep with a straw hat on her face. The mere thought of it made Urna crave a glass of wine but— No, first things first! Go upstairs and finish your work missy! she reminded herself. If only she could remember what she was working on.
And then the noise caught her ears. Her vintage 1920s built house had plenty of drafty windows and rattled every time there was the slightest breeze outside. Her handyman, Mike had explained to her that old houses are made of different materials and they contract and expand at different rates causing creaking and popping sounds. But it was not that kind of a noise. Nor was it the hissing and gurgling radiator noise.

It was a scratching noise. Like someone was trying to get out or come inside. A shiver ran through her, what if someone was trying to break in? But that was unlikely. Her house was the tiniest in the neighborhood. Most of the other houses were million dollar homes. There were very few like her’s in the neighborhood and were almost always missed by passersby.
Then could it be an animal? She had paid a good amount to insulate the house. The pest control company had come in last month and checked every nook and corner from the attic to the basement crawl space. Cracks and holes were either sealed or metal screened. Still a critter had crawled in? They must have missed a hole from the garden.
The noise stopped. Perhaps it was a figment of her imagination, thought Urna.

Five years ago when Urna had set her heart on this house, everyone had warned her. Her father had grumbled. “Old houses have so many maintenance problems. You will end up paying a huge amount of money repairing it, perhaps more than the amount you spent buying it.” Her brother-in-law, a real estate agent, had called it a money pit. “There is nothing good about the house expect the fireplace”, he had pointed out. But Urna had fallen in love with the little house with a bright red front door and a charming fireplace. Yes, the upkeep of the house was expensive but she did not mind.
Her job required her to fuel her imagination and entertain fantasies about a whole range of supernatural beings and a post apocalypse World. She was a commissioning editor at a publishing house specializing in fiction for young adults. The age group 18-25 was the most emotionally confused phase and needed super-stimulating stories. There was no way she could freely travel into and back from that World of outlandish stories in a generic city condominium or her parent’s big townhouse in Downtown Chicago. She needed a house that she could make into a home, her home. Her house had to be like her—whimsical and extraordinary.

Urna heard the noise again. Was it coming from the attic? She needed to find out. As she took the stairs up to check the attic her eyes fell on the staircase wall. She had lined it with pictures of her family. Some of the pictures were black and white and really old, some new, a few goofy and a few other formal and rather solemn. As she reached the second floor landing she took in the charming empire style table she had bought from a flea market on a whim just like the house. The vintage table had looked worn-out when she first laid eyes on it but its tiger claw foot had given it a regal dignity that had inspired her to buy it. She had applied a fresh coat of varnish and Voila! It was perfect for her second floor landing. There wasn’t a speck of dust on it. Urna took such good care of her house. Just like her work, her house was her passion.

But whatever she did and however much she tried it was never enough for her mother. Her mother would wrinkle her nose critically and tell her in her condescending tone that work and house can never be substitutes for a spouse. “You need people to spend your life with, not an empty house”.
“I have enough people to spend my life with. I have my family. I have my friends…”
“It’s not the same as having a partner. Why don’t you have a partner? Are you…do you like girls?” her mother would ask her in a complaining whine.
“I am not having this conversation with you again and again. I am straight. It’s just that I have not found the right man.”
“You are forty and you still don’t…”
“These things can’t be rushed!”
“You can buy a broken house and repair it, you can get ancient furniture and fix them up but you will not take your chance with a man”
“Men and houses are not the same”
“Fine. Do what you like. But I don’t like you living all alone in this house like this”
Her mother had expressed her despair of finding her daughter single at forty several times but Urna could not help it. She had had plenty of romantic relationships by now and lately did not have the patience for new romances any more. Romance and companionship were not for her she had declared to herself quietly.

She peeped inside her bedroom. It had a big luxurious writing desk with neatly stacked papers and a sleek silver laptop. A window was open. The summer gave her the opportunity to air her house so she would keep the windows open to let Mother Nature into her paranormal Universe from time to time. Perhaps the open window was causing the scratching sound. But the noise had stopped again.

She should sit down at the desk and finish her work but she didn’t feel like. She waited for a few seconds and walked into the other room. This was her spare bedroom. It had its walls covered with more pictures but these were from her vacations. Urna loved travelling. She had been to a lot of exciting destinations, yet she had a bucket list of places she had to cover in her lifetime. The travelling had given her enough fodder to write a juicy travelogue that had gone on to become a bestseller in U.S. In her twenties she went backpacking around the World discovering her appetite for new places and her interest in reading and writing fiction. Her thirties were spent experimenting with several styles of writing and focusing on her career in a book publishing firm. Now in her forties she had finally attained the clarity to understand herself and settle down to do what she enjoyed the most. Her new found love for carpentry had helped use her creativity in a constructive way. Urna found enormous happiness shaving off wood, putting on fresh paint and adding new hooks and hinges to convert abandoned furniture into pieces of art. Some of her well off neighbors had started taking interest in her work and visited her garage which was more of a studio now.

She had almost forgotten about the strange noise when it hit her ears again. She made a quick trip to the attic. Like the rest of her house, her attic was spic and span. The boxes were labeled and stacked on top of each other in order. It was as spotless as the rest of the house.
In the far corner stood a collection of home décor pieces in a row that she had not used in her house. They were mostly from an ex-boyfriend who could be-friend her even after a bitter break-up and years of hiatus. She could never do away with the grudge she held against herself for deciding to let him go for what seemed like flimsy reasons now but he had not held it against her one bit. Michael was a father of a toddler now and had a complicated relationship with his wife yet had not slipped back to flirting with Urna. He was happy being just her friend. Though Urna had craved for more secretly. He would get her beautiful antic pieces to adorn her home but she did had the heart to display them. It was a good thing that he could not visit her to check on that. He was an Archaeologist, travelling to antique excavation sites, picking up temporary teaching gigs on his way. He spent his time digging and restoring remnants of a different time. Once she had teased him that it was his fancy for old fossilized past that had made him dig out Urna again and he had laughed his big uninhibited laugh. How Urna still loved that laugh but she knew that Michael was a closed chapter in her life now. There was no point picking at old scabs. They would open and bleed and finally settle into being a nastier one.
She could not hear the strange noise she was following before. What could it be? She needed to find out. There were rumors about an increase in burglaries in the area but she had never paid heed because she felt there was nothing in her house that could attract attention but all of a sudden she remembered now that her garage was full of unfinished cabinets and tables. There was one particular piece that was of interest to her. She had found an antique trunk to which she had attached movable leg knobs and added a thick glass on top. Now it looked beautiful. Her neighbor Mr. Cooper had seen her transform the tired looking piece into a rather interesting center table and had wanted to buy it from her. He would back his car all the way up to her garage and take away the trunk center table tomorrow evening when he got back from work he had told her.

Was the noise coming from the garage then? Did she leave the garage door open by mistake? Lately she had become frightfully forgetful. She would leave lights on, doors unlocked, even taps running, meaning to turn it off but forgetting all about it a second later. She took the stairs down to the first floor and stood at the foyer straining her ears to check for noises. The sound had become more distinct than before. And this time she heard something else as well. A bumping sound. This was most unusual. She stepped down to check the front door. It was bolted shut from inside. There was another door to outside behind her mud room that led to the garage. As she proceeded towards the back of her house beyond the kitchen she noticed peculiar things. The plant she had affectionately tended to and placed in the passageway leading to the back of her house was overturned. Blackish brown dirt spill out of it. There were shoe marks and glass shards and more dirt. The framed paintings hanged crookedly and one had been dislodged from its designated peg altogether. There were magazines strewn haphazardly in complete disarray all over the corridor. Also some loose papers from editing projects she had the habit of carrying around the house even when she did not work on them lay there. But what were they doing here? And then saw her cordless phone lying on the floor. She felt a squeeze of fear and slowed her steps. She was standing in the mud room now. A big pile of unwashed clothes and bed linen stood on top of her washer in a basket. She had meant to finish laundry the day before but forgotten about it as well.

The door to the garage was partly open. It was this door that was causing the noise. Something was blocking it and making a bumping noise. Something was scraping against it. As she drew near she saw a feet. She froze at her spot. Her legs refused to carry her forward. The feet was wearing one of her favorite anklets. Her mother had given it to her many years ago. It was a family heirloom, passed to her from generations ago. And then she saw the rest of the body blocking the door. The eyes were open, the face half covered in blood that was still dripping on to the floor next to the face. There was a disappointed look on the face, as if life had not done justice to it. Urna stood staring at her own face.

Now the memory flew back to her. She had forgotten to roll down her garage doors after she had worked for an hour getting the trunk table ready for Mr. Cooper in the evening. She had unmindfully gone inside, had dinner and walked up to her room to continue editing a manuscript. Late at night when she felt the need for a break she had come down for a glass of milk. That is when she had heard someone in her garage and realized her fatal mistake of keeping the garage door open. She had rushed to the back of her house and found a man trying to force himself in. She should have dialed 911 and locked herself in a room upstairs but her mind had gone numb when she saw him succeed in breaking in through the back door, coming face to face with her. He charged towards her and the cordless phone slipped from her hand. Think Urna think she told herself. But she could not. And then she charged towards him as well with all her strength. She should have known that she would have never succeeded in stopping him but she hated the idea of someone coming into her precious house uninvited and violating her private space. A black rage filled her up and she attacked the intruder. After a rough scuffle Urna had almost succeeded in pushing out the man. That is when he struck her head with something sharp. She was determined not to let him in so she sat at the back door as she could no longer stand, while she kept a watchful eye on her attacker. The man looked nervous after he hit her and backed off. He laid his hands on whatever he could find in the garage–some petty cash she kept in her tool cabinet, a few tools that he could carry, a knick knack shelf she had recently made, and walked out of the garage. At least she had not allowed him to come inside the house she had thought with pride before she slipped away into a thick sleep.

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