I move into my new house after the construction is finished. The exterior shines with fresh paint in the cool hues of grey, navy, and white. Modern, just the way I like it. It’s calming, unlike my ex-husband’s house: muddy brown, grease yellow, stained white. I bring my daughter’s shadow with me.
The neighbourhood was quiet when I first visited a year ago; it is still quiet now. A deafening silence that sings relief in my ears. A welcoming sound compared to my ex-husband’s snores, the traffic from the highway next to our old house, the screaming children running past our door daily—our daughter’s screams included. Here, it’s peaceful. Here, no one knows me. Here, there are no children, only shadows.
I clutch a single suitcase and a box of kitchenware that I tucked under my arm. I brought little with me when I left Johnson’s house. The new house seems a little too big for just me. I’ll fill it soon, but not with people.
When the house’s wooden door with frosted glass panels swings open, it feels much larger than I remember. Then again, looking at a half-finished building differs from being inside one that’s completed.
A shrill ring echoes through the halls. The box shakes against me when I jolt at the sound. I reach for my phone. Click.
“Ara! I’ve been trying to get a hold of you for hours.” My mother’s voice sounds high strung on the other end. Her weary expression comes to my mind. She always starts our conversations like this.
“I was on my way to the new house.” A nervous chuckle.
“Is everything alright with the house? No floods? No fires?”
An easy laugh shakes my body.
“I just moved in!”
My mother fusses about making friends with the neighbours and getting out of the house more. I reassure her, though I don’t plan on following her advice. This is what you want: the silence.
The best time for walks is when no one is around. Or worst case, whenever there are few people out. But here in this neighbourhood, no one is ever awake. I sometimes see shadows behind curtains, but never the shadow owners.
At 5 p.m., I pull on my fall coat before leaving the house. The wind runs through my hair, like fingers through the strands. I find myself pulling my coat tighter around me and shoving my hair inside my hood.
A house down the street catches my attention. It sits half painted, the other half peeling white, with a quarter of the driveway paved. The cracks are still visible. No curtains are hiding the empty rooms and halls. Bald patches litter the front yard where the weeds were pulled. There seem to be no attempts at reviving the lawn. A shadow passes by one window in the upper-level. It looks like my daughter. I know it can’t be. I left her shadow inside the new house.
By 9:00 p.m., it’s already dark out. But that doesn’t stop me from noticing that the yard of the house behind mine is infested with weeds, peeking through the low barbed wire fence separating the yards. Tomorrow, I’ll call to complain.
But they’re beautiful, whispers my daughter’s shadow beside my ear.
I grip the cup of water I filled. The boiling heat burns my skin but disappears when a sudden coldness rises at my fingertips.
I look at the weeds again. “Yes, flowers like razors.”
It’s 5:00 a.m. My eyes wander to the kitchen window. The lights are on in the house behind mine. Both our kitchen lights are off. Both our windows are shut, but why do I hear laughter? It sounds like choking.
The half-painted house tore out their barely paved driveway and placed hexagon tiles on half of the naked ground. Patching wouldn’t do much better. Cracks never leave.
Today, a silhouette dances across the crumbling panels of the rooftop. It still looks like my daughter. At least my house is perfect and quiet; my daughter’s shadow is quiet, too.
It’s been a week since I’ve moved in and there’s laughter coming from the walls. I try to drown out the sound with noise from the TV, but the TV whispers in the same tone my daughter whispers me her secrets:
I saw Daddy… A giggle. Down the street. Sometimes he brings me too.
My daughter’s dancing shadow never leaves my mind as I lay awake at night. White sheets pool around me. My eyes stay open for so long it looks like the sheets are floating.
The lady, she’s nice… More laughter. Daddy says she’s nicer than you!
The windows are open and the curtains billow. My daughter’s shadow dances behind them; my mind dances with her.
At night, I hear the sound of children running down the hallway, footsteps slamming against the creaking wooden floor, rocking the entire house. I cling onto my floating sheets, shaking with the house.
The lights are still on in the house behind mine. I see its glow from where I lay. From the window, the laugher like choking drifts in.
I laugh. I laugh. I laugh with the walls and the wind.
Tea used to calm me, but the water boiler hisses, screaming, screaming, screaming. Then stops. A click. The boiling water fizzles out. I don’t realize I’m holding my breath the entire time. The smell of steam—the faint scent of burning metal and heated plastic—dizzies my mind.
I empty the tea and last night’s dinner into the toilet. Wipe my mouth with a new towel and toss it in the trash. My fingers tip the lid of the toilet downwards. It falls. I flush, imagining the water spiral and refill.
My hands cannot control themselves when I open the tap. Water splashes everywhere. It sounds like something deflating, losing air.
The neighbours never show their faces, but I know they have a daughter. I see her shadow by the window at night, lit by a warm light.
I light my cigarette and watch the shadow move into and out of the blurred window. Smoke drifts upwards from my parted lips. It looks like my daughter. The shadow, not the smoke, but maybe the smoke too.
My breathing syncs with the neighbour’s daughter’s pinwheel, fluttering in the wind until it’s whipped from its position attached to the deck’s wooden handrails. We all have the same handrails and the same deck behind our houses. But my wood is not chipped, theirs is.
I imagine clawing at the pinwheel that blows away in the wind.
My daughter is not a shadow, theirs is.
Daddy said you can’t take care of us anymore.
I buy plants the next day. All and any they had at the store. But I didn’t quite understand how to care for them, so I water them all the same: cupful upon cupful upon cupful.
Daddy said you should leave.
All my plants’ roots rotted, over-watered. Some of them dried because I didn’t go to the rooms I placed them in.
You’re never here. My ex-husband’s voice floats into my mind with the white sheets at night. But Maggie… Maggie’s always here.
My daughter’s dancing shadow, no longer a shadow, but still dancing, pauses. She flutters towards me before lying down next to me. But when I turn, she’s a shadow again, lost in the sheets.
Most times I’m on the couch, listening to the whispering TV and stampeding children. The laughter from the walls an old friend. My daughter’s shadow also dances here in the living room now. I sit in a thick fog made up of the cigarette smoke that escapes my lips; the smell of burning metal, plastic, and water; and now, the sourness of rotting plants and the untouched food from the fridge. I had given up smoking outside. The white walls tint with yellow. You’re destroying this family.
I laughed then; I laugh now.
The bottle of wine makes my head swim.
Johnson never told me privately, only publicly in court when we ripped at the pieces of our daughter. She’s better off with me. He grabbed more pieces than I ever could, and I’m left with only her shadow.
My husband used to be clean-cut: suit and tie, clean-shaven, not a hair out of line on his gelled head. Was I only imagining that he was wearing a stained wife-beater, three years into our marriage?
I used to wear heels so tall it was difficult to stand, let alone walk, and clothing so tight that my smile followed in suit. My laugh was like the hiss of boiling water, the screams of the high-pressure tap. Laughter like the walls.
Enough was what my ex-husband said when he could no longer listen to my laugher, and no longer loved my tightly stretched smile.
Enough was what Johnson said when I began dancing with my wine bottle in hand with our daughter cowering in the corner of the living room.
Silence lets you think. Too much silence leaves your mind wandering.
I turn up the stove. The water boils over the pot, sizzling when it meets metal. I stand and watch with my daughter’s shadow beside me.
I hear you’ve been sleeping with other men for work. Maggie. Does your husband know? I see them dropping you off sometimes.
Maggie, who used to be my best friend in high school. Maggie, who lived down the street. Maggie, who stole my husband. Maggie, who stole my daughter. Maggie.
Maggie is not here, and neither is Johnson.
But you, Eleanor, you are here, my mind whispers to my daughter’s dancing shadow behind the screen of the half-painted house’s front door, mocking me as I walk by. She never shows her face.
But why did you give up on me, Mommy?
I laugh. I laugh. I laugh and said, Never.
I clear out the rotting plants and food from the fridge and paste wallpaper onto the walls to muffle the laughter. I rip out the curtains hanging in front of all the windows and open them all.
Now, I sleep in the curtains, having abandoned the sheets. They no longer billow or float. My daughter’s shadow does not dance by the window. And the house no longer shakes. The sound of running footsteps disappeared, too. I don’t boil water and I don’t touch the sink.
The house behind mine now sits dark at night. Even the wind is silent.
When I take my walk the next day, I notice they’ve begun replanting grass and flowers in the bald patches of the half-painted house’s front yard. The windows frames are now a warm, chocolate brown with yellow accents; the rest of the walls are white; they replaced the tiles that had slid off the roof with new ones.
On the second floor, curtains cover the windows. I still see a shadow.
Johnson and Maggie’s faces hovered above mine with matching smiles as I plunged into the water. They know I can’t swim.
At my funeral, they shed matching tears. I tried to help her. She wasn’t stable. Poor Eleanor, their voices sang, harmonizing.
I laugh. I laugh. I laugh until I choke.
When I return to my house, the grey, navy, and white paint is missing. The roof is gone and so are the walls, leaving only the thin wooden frame of the house in its half-constructed state.
I knock everything down, the wood already rotting in the ground, and it all topples like dominos. I dance towards the newly painted house and float up the completed driveway with cracks, open the front door, and weave myself into the walls, curtains, pipes, and floorboards.
I run down the halls. I scream through the taps and boiler. I laugh through the walls and windows.
At night, I dance by their window with the curtains and floating sheets. I laugh. I laugh. I laugh until the lovers wake up and my daughter comes to join me, and until the house becomes unpainted like my own.