A Small House for Five People
Sun 10 January 2021
I'm the only person dumb enough to be out of the house this late on doomsday afternoon. The seven darkened houses on First Street line the road like the uneven teeth of a broken zipper. Our body's shoulders hurt from lugging two gallons of water halfway home from the village well. We stand at the peak of the last hill before we descend into town, looking out over the clutch of quiet houses that huddle together in the valley. It's a pinpoint of a settlement, especially compared to Chicago, the volcanic explosion of human activity where we lived before we moved here.
Sarah wants to put down the two jugs of cold water and stop for a break at the top of the hill. Maybe take a drink. But I don't let her. I rarely get to front, to control the body. Sarah usually fronts. The one day a week I'm guaranteed control is doomsday. On doomsday, I don't listen to any of the other four who share the body with me. We'll fetch the well water my way. Then we'll do the doomsday ritual my way.
Even in a town this small, the frigid quietude at three-thirty in the afternoon in late winter feels eerie. I can just see the vacant front porch of the general store one street over through skeletal trees. Old Niedermeyer is missing from his post sitting out in front, trying to draw anyone who passes by into conversation. Nobody is walking their dog, or trying to entice a stray cat. Even the stray cats have had the good sense to vanish, unlike me. They're gone, even though the doomsday beast usually leaves animals alone.
A few dozen people live in the village. We have to drive to the big town an hour away when Vicky, another alter who shares the body, wants to go on a date. Strangers wonder why we stay in a town that is cursed. The doomsday beast lives here; we could live anywhere else on Earth and there wouldn't be a day of the week called doomsday.
Some of the old folk here grew up here, and they're used to it. They're missing a finger, or an eye, taken by the beast, and they're proud of it. It's a rite of passage. They know what to do on doomsday and they're confident they won't mess up. (Even though, once or twice a year, someone does, and we have to hold a funeral and spend hours scraping their remains together.) They can't imagine living a different life, losing the confidence and rhythm that comes from escaping a great evil once a week. They wouldn't know what to do with themselves if they moved.
The younger folk, well, it varies. For me, the crux of it is this: the beast keeps people out. This is a town that will never, ever, become a crowded metropolis, and that's enough for me.
We drag the water past the seven houses. The body's shoulders are screaming by the time we reach the isolated house at the end of the road. Our shared body is twenty-six years old. It's five foot nothing, slender like a reed. Its limited abilities are my enemy. Sarah is chastising me, as I set the two gallons of water down on the creaky, postage-stamp-sized front porch, for pushing the body too hard. She says when she next fronts, her shoulders are going to be sore. I tell her they aren't her shoulders, and she shuts up.
I roll our shoulders, then lug the water indoors, careful not to knock over the cup of chalk just inside the threshold. The front door shuts behind me. Our home is tiny. Just big enough for one body. A little small for the five people crammed into the body together. But it's quiet, and it's ours; that's all we wanted, after Chicago. I swing the water up onto the counter in the kitchen. The greasy cast-iron skillet resting on the stove still smells of sausage. Sarah is getting antsy about cleaning up the kitchen: wiping out the skillet, scrubbing the grease smears off the counter, finishing braiding the drying garlic on the table. I have to remind her we have more important tasks.
I take down a ceramic box of salt from a top cupboard the body can barely reach, and plunge my hand in, drawing out a fistful of fine salt that scatters over the counter to begin the ritual.
The five of us all react differently on doomsday. Sarah is anxious, Vicky is unconcerned, Theo is terrified. But Lady is the worst of all of us: she's the most anal backseat driver imaginable about how the ritual gets done. Everything I do on doomsday is wrong in her eyes, even though I've always kept the body safe. I took too long getting to the well to fill the water jugs, I took too long coming back home. I shouldn't have even left the house for water in the first place. I never salt the windowsills enough. I put the wrong colored candles in the wrong rooms. I should shatter all the mirrors in the house with a hammer. One day she's going to front and I'm going to wake up and find that she has powderized all the smooth glass surfaces in the house.
Each of us alters have our own roles that we begin to play as the ritual starts. Lady watches me like a hawk, alert for any mistake. Vicky retreats far inside, choosing not to observe what I do. Sarah tries to keep Theo calm and prevent him from fronting. Theo is the child alter of the body. Most of us alters serve a purpose--I'm a protector, Sarah's an academic, Vicky's a socialite, and Lady is a paranoiac--but Theo is... just Theo. Being twenty-something and sharing a body with someone who seems to be about seven is difficult. If he ever fronts on a doomsday, he'll crawl right under our bed to cry until the monster walks right over the unsalted threshold and slaughters us. So Sarah and I cooperate each doomsday to make sure Theo doesn't front. Sarah keeps Lady back too, so she can't ruin the ritual by taking so much time making it perfect that she doesn't finish the important stuff, like the salt barriers.
Somehow, we've never made a mistake--we still have all of our fingers and eyes. For five fucked up people sharing a body, we have done well so far.
Thick lines of salt protect the sills of the two small windows in the kitchen now. I flick off the overhead light. The tiny room is dim, fuzzing with darkness at the edges; the high, small window is an eye of dull copper light. I take our matches out of my pocket and open the candle drawer. I fish around Lady's dozens of colored and scented and tapered and poured candles and find two white tealights, which I light and set on the kitchen counter. Lady doesn't like my color selection and she thinks I should light one more candle.
We have to cover up all the mirrors and reflective surfaces for the ritual. There's nothing particularly reflective in the kitchen, but just in case, I put all the knives into a drawer, and throw an old piece of canvas over the metal basin of the sink. Jay, the ambassador who welcomed us to town when we moved here, taught us these rules: that the monster seeks out and destroys electric appliances if they're left on, is attracted to mirrors, and can't cross a line of salt.
A single, twisting hallway connects all the rooms in our minuscule house. I squeeze through it to the utilitarian bathroom: not much more than a sink and toilet that are nearly spooning each other, opposite from a tiny shower stall. I light a blue tealight on the sink, pour salt over the windowsills, and stand in front of the mirror to drape a sheet over it.
My face in the mirror is made hollow-eyed and eerie from the candlelight from beneath. The silvering on the mirror is scabrous, making our skin look damaged. Theo hates it. I feel his fear spike, like a silent shriek. Right away, Sarah tries to calm him down. We both struggle to keep him from taking control of the body. I have no patience for his fear. My job is to protect the body, not to comfort and soothe those who live within it. Sarah tries to quiet Theo down while I stand in front of the mirror. I'm vacant-eyed as I focus on the internal drama, Theo's brief struggle for control.
Then I'm kneeling in the hallway with a new, shallow scrape on the side of my elbow.
I don't remember how I got here. My heart kicks up and I break out in a panicked sweat as I stand. Sarah reassures me that Theo only took control for a moment. I dart back into the bathroom and look out the window. The sun is still setting, maybe a hair lower than before, but not touching the horizon. I've barely lost any time. Slowly my breathing starts to even out. That slip could have been much worse. But it wasn't. We're okay. Sarah is okay.
I take a deep, trembling breath. I have to keep control of the body for tonight. Sarah's safety depends on it. I exist to be fearless. I will fulfill my purpose.
Setting the "almost"s aside, I go to the shoebox bedroom, sidling between a twin bed heaped with secondhand feather duvets and wool blankets, the shelves against one wall, and the small, glossy-white writing desk Lady carried home from the side of the road.
The signs of our different personalities overlap and clash here. The bedroom is a palimpsest of our lives, and a reminder that the others who share the body don't always let me see everything they do when I'm not fronting.
Sarah has neatly made the bed, so it's an organized stack of blankets instead of the thrashed-up pile I left it this morning. Above the bed, the last dregs of sunlight paint the windowsill deep orange. I kneel on the blankets and salt it, but first I have to move a small brass key to the shelves. I don't recognize the key; I don't even know which one of us owns it. I return to the window, which is decorated with a pane of stained glass Vicky made at a workshop, on a date with some woman, several months ago. It's an image of a yellow daffodil. I think it's chintzy, but Sarah likes it. I lay a thick line of salt through the sunlight.
The shelves along the adjacent wall are crammed with our things: books, notebooks, loose scraps of paper, old mail, paintings, trinkets, toys, art supplies, even some secondhand electronics, like a point-and-shoot camera. Sarah has a small library of science-fiction and murder mysteries. Lady has books on the occult, lavishly-decorated hardbacks with polysyllabic authors like "Triplemoon Silversparrow". Theo has colorful picture books on the lowest shelf. Even Vicky has a few books, like "How Not to Marry a Jerk"--some kind of dating guide for women. I wonder if she thought of me, a jerk, while she read it.
In front of the books are movie ticket stubs from other dates Vicky has gone on, a pile of grimy pennies and nickels (no quarters, we're always out), a set of little colored elephant statues from a trip abroad Sarah made with her parents, before I existed.
Down by the corner of the shelves, near the baseboard, someone has scribbled on the wall with crayon.
Lady has left half-burnt colored candles and some tiny bundles of drying herbs on the writing desk. I don't know where the herbs came from; they appear hand-picked. There's also a small, grimy mason jar, filled with a fine greyish powder, some twigs, a strand of plastic Mardi Gras beads, and a fragment of metal with saw teeth on one edge. Sarah doesn't know what the jar is for, and Lady refuses to explain it. I leave it alone.
Aside from Lady's things, there's a crayon drawing by Theo, which I think is of a boat. There are some loose notes and sketches next to it in a more mature hand, either Vicky's or Sarah's. Sarah has put up worn posters about tree and mushroom identification above the desk, right next to Vicky's poster of a boy band.
Lady wants me to burn some of the herbs on the desk to smoke-cleanse the room. I wander over to the desk, not of my own volition, but still the body's hands before we can pick up the herbs. All we're doing is lighting candles and pouring salt around, so I can go finish the ritual in the foyer.
Vicky is waiting for Jay to call. He'll call in a little while, to check that we haven't forgotten anything, or gotten so distracted burning herbs that we forgot the chalk wards in the foyer. He always calls to check on the newest person in town on doomsday. Which means we will get a weekly call from Jay, until someone new moves in and we're on our own. Which is fine. I would never let Sarah down and forget a part of the ritual. We don't need Jay. Even if Sarah might want his attention.
Lady wants me to light the rest of the candles on the desk, and I finally break down and do it. "Are you happy?" I mutter to myself. I can feel that she is, and it pisses me off. I go back out into the foyer, through the dark crooked hallway. The whole house is jumping and flickering with candlelight. The mirror in the bathroom, draped in its sheet, looms shapeless and pale over us as we pass by.
The last thing to do is the chalk diagram in the foyer. I place a few candles around the perimeter of the room and kneel in front of the front door to begin, taking a piece of dry white chalk from the plastic cup next to the door. I sweep out a big circle on the worn wood. Add the star inside, and the writing in Latin around the circumference. I'm careful not to smudge the chalk. But my body is so tiny, I can fold into the corner of one point of the star, balancing on my toes, and never smudge the chalk. I'm larger in my mind.
I finish the pentacle while it's still twilight and go outside, hurry around to the side of the house, and shut off the electricity entirely, for good measure. There are only a few minutes of safety left until the twilight vanishes completely and it is truly night. The town is quiet. But not sleeping. Waiting, alert in its stillness. I hustle back inside and lock the door behind me, barring it with salt.
I tiptoe through the chalk drawing to a leather sheath hanging from a nail in the wall, beside the front door. I unhook it from the nail. In the sheath is a long hunting knife. Everyone else in the body refuses to touch it. Back at the forestry school, we learned to snare and hunt small game. Sarah would set traps, but she refused to kill an animal. She'd push me to the front, thrust me into the body in dappled sunlight or dawnlight or twilight, out in the woods somewhere and sitting in front of a trapped, squirming rabbit. I'd been taken out of my sheath. Like the knife, I was Sarah's tool. I did my job every time.
Now I take this tiny body into the kitchen and lean our back against the counter. The other alters' anxieties swirl through me, but my mind is as clear as the night. My cell phone rings. I flip it open. "H'lo," I say gruffly. My soprano voice surprises me, as it always does.
"Hey, Sarah. Just checkin' in to make sure you're all clear for the night." Jay has a smooth baritone.
"All clear," I say. Making almost no effort to pretend to be Sarah. Sarah would have said more. She and Vicky both want to bed down with Jay. If they ever accomplish it, I hope I lose time and don't see it happen.
"Windows salted? And you drew the wards in the foyer?"
Jay hesitates. Sarah isn't the "yes, sir," type. I usually let her talk to him on the phone. Let Jay think she's the only one in this body. But other times, I want to make him a little uncomfortable. Sarah hates it when I do this. She thinks I'd sabotage her chances with Jay. Maybe I would. I don't trust Jay. I don't trust anyone who comes from outside. I complain plenty about Sarah, Theo, Lady, and Vicky. But in my experience, everyone else is a lot worse.
Jay forges onward. "Settled in for the night?"
"We're fine here. Thanks."
"Alright. I'll see you at the worksite tomorrow." For a trail improvement project. Sarah volunteered for it. We'll be up early tomorrow morning.
"Lookin' forward to it," I say, and hang up. Sarah will be fronting. I won't even be there.
Now isn't the time to dwell on Jay. Tonight we face the beast. Maybe as a cold breeze outside the house. A whisper of a suggestion of musk outside. The glimpse of an antler blocking out the moon for a moment. Or maybe this week I've finally forgotten something. And we'll see the beast close up. We'll feel teeth against our skin. The type of bone-shattering pain we left behind at the forestry school, where the men used to push us down and grind our fingers into the dirt with their steel-toed boots. But probably not. Probably it will be a dark shadow crossing the window. A trickle of salt sliding off a windowsill, drifting to the smooth wooden floor like snow.
I draw the hunting knife out of its sheath, and set the sheath beside the crock of levain and garlic from the kitchen garden. I lay the naked blade across my thighs. I let it catch the dying glow from the window. The reflection is a little taunt to the beast. Yea, though I walk, and so on.
My back is straight. The knife is cold and the blade glints. I wait for night to come.