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Safe as Houses

Avra Margariti is a queer Social Work undergrad from Greece. She enjoys storytelling in all its forms and writes about diverse identities and experiences. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Flash Fiction Online, Lackington's, Vastarien, Nature Futures, Asimov's, Daily Science Fiction (of course), and other venues. Avra won the 2019 Bacopa Literary Review prize for fiction. You can find her on twitter @avramargariti.
Our bed isn't ours tonight. Two people who are not us occupy it. When they reach out, their touch sinks right into us. They might as well have run us through with a sword as we gasp and howl to rival the wind.
The couple in our bed sit bolt upright. "Honey, did you hear that?"
They switch on all the lights, blinding us into invisibility. Their footsteps thump and echo through a silence once only broken by tiny mouse or cockroach feet. They talk in a language we recognize interspersed with words we do not.
Our room, we realize, is filled with strange items. Horseless toy carriages, rail-line worms, and metallic birds inhabit our dresser. Black apparatuses flash with color, chime with sound.
We see all this through a hazy film, gray with dust and cobwebs.
We look at each other with white-eyed fear, still in the bed that should have been ours alone. "I fear we are being haunted." It wouldn't be the first time.
Funny thing about sanctuaries. They're never as safe as they promise to be.
We're hanging upside down, memorizing the crown molding in mindless meditation when we hear it.
"Is this... music?"
It doesn't sound like any tune we know. The tempo jars and jolts. Discordant notes saw at our nerves until we have no choice but to cover our ears and scream. The bats flap awake. We would apologize for spooking them, were we not thoroughly spooked ourselves.
The screeching music mercifully stops. The interlopers come upstairs to investigate. They shriek when they see the bats. They wave brooms in the air, whacking the panicked creatures. A few bleed out on the floorboards, dust and ichor mixed into pink powder.
Who are these people? Why are they doing this to us who, like the dead bats, have done nothing to them?
"Great, now we'll have to hire a cleaner," the man says to the woman.
We remain flattened against the walls long after they've left. Eventually we slot together, two nesting dolls seeking comfort.
"This is no longer a safe house," we say, and we shiver.
We shake.
We still remember the ritual that brought us here. It was a different time. A life counted in years, not centuries. When we touched each other we felt warm flesh, not cool aether. And when people saw us together, they saw something wrong, abominable.
The ritual bound us here and kept the outside world at bay. When those who would rather see us dead came a-knocking, the house locked them out. When they lit torches, the house's drafts extinguished them. Their stones turned to flower-petals before they touched our windows.
Those people thought we would come out eventually, when the food ran out, when we grew tired of each other. They thought wrong.
Yet after we died, curled around each other in our now-usurped bed, the sanctuary claim died with us. New people moved in eventually, while we floated in the warm seas of time.
We still remember the spell. The chanted words, the joined hands, the lit candles. We try to shield ourselves, reclaim our home, but to no avail.
Dead men cast no spells.
"You have bigger problems than bats," the exterminator says.
The man and woman shudder. "Mice?"
"Ghosts." We watch as the exterminator digs through his case. A secret compartment reveals itself under the cleaning supplies. "Good thing I know how to rid your home of them."
The exterminator and his crew burn sage in every room. Our bodies smoke like flame-consumed photographs, curling at the blackened edges. Keep it together, old boy. Salt, white candles, whiter roses. Runes and chants of you are not welcome here. The exterminators are missing a key ingredient, which once glued our spell together.
Love. It was love.
Like petulant children sent to bed without supper, gone too long without a kind touch, we slam doors and punch the drywall. We only separate long enough for one of us to haunt the attic, the other the basement. Lights flicker with our grief. Our tears bleed water stains across the ceilings. Our fury shakes the house to its foundations, yet the interlopers and exterminators won't leave--
leave us alone, leave us alone.
We hold each other as best as we can, like rivulets of water or wisps of smoke. Dancing in the murk of the crawlspace, we promise we won't let them tear us apart.
Yet the lights, the noise, the sensory overload won't stop. The gray veil is slipping, everything more intense than before. Or maybe it is us who are slipping away along the streams of time. Exorcised at last, defeated after decades.
We dig our nails and teeth in. "No. This won't do."
We still remember the ritual, the spell. Dead men cannot enchant an entire house into a shelter. But perhaps this is about scale. While the couple sleeps in our lovebed--our deathbed--and the exterminators go home for the night, we float up through the floorboards of the house that shielded us, then betrayed us.
In the bedroom where we once danced, made love, and ignored the pangs of hunger in our stomachs, we find the couple's strange, novel belongings. On our dresser sit the toy rail-line worms, window-dotted birds, and horseless motor-carriages. We ignore them to focus on the dollhouse instead, a familiar sight at last among the toy models. Gathering our gossamer pieces, we move in, casting a spell of protection, smaller, but no less powerful than before.
The man and woman sleep easy that night. The howls, door slams, and rattling windows, all gone.
We sleep, too. Curled together like mice in the walls. Our miniature house is wood and plastic, and it hugs us snug and safe.
Sometimes the outside world creeps in. Strains of eerie music, sharp voices. They're distant, half-remembered.
"It's just a dream," we tell each other, settling closer. "Just a ghost."
The End
This story was first published on Friday, May 14th, 2021
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