When Father and Mother hurried Billie and Anna outside and into the car, I didn’t know that it was the last time I’d see them. The air was crisp and gray that day, sometime in early December. Father had spent the previous weekend hanging Christmas lights in loose half circles around the front porch, the large kind, red-green-white-yellow in an infinite sequence. They were still shining from the night before when the family came clamoring out of the house, and no one bothered to unplug them then. Anna dropped her blue plush rabbit, Flopsy, onto the front steps in the commotion, but she didn’t realize her loss until she was already buckled into her carseat. When she started to scream in protest, Mother didn’t understand what she wanted, and Father drove off before she realized her daughter didn’t have her favorite toy. The rabbit was left behind under overlapping incandescent halos. When night fell, Christmas colors reflected up at me from Flopsy’s black, glassy eyes. It knew then it had been left behind.
It took me a little longer to figure that out. I still didn’t grasp the abandonment when later in the month the electricity shut off and the bulbs went dark. It wasn’t until winter gave way to spring and the lights still hung that I understood the family was gone for good.
Ten years have passed since then, and I’ve been vacant ever since.
“The value is in the land,” a woman in pointed black shoes explains loudly to two figures in the drive. She fumbles with a padlock on the front door. It’s been so long since I’ve heard someone else’s voice that it takes me a moment to wake up, to understand. She teeters back to look at them over her shoulder, perched on heels like spindles. Her face is all angles and calculations, and she eyes the two like Father used to watch Mother when she wasn’t paying attention, busying herself with cooking or cleaning. Idle hands are the Devil’s playthings. When the woman turns back to me, the hunger fades, replaced with frustration. She sees a bag of bones. I bristle, and her key gets stuck in the lock. “Damnit,” she groans with frustration, then adds as if to hurt me, “the home is being sold as-is.”
When Maggie walks in behind the realtor, sunlight filters in through all my shattered windows. I don’t know her name is Maggie in this moment, but I will come to learn it, as well as a thousand other details about her: how she throws her whole head back when she laughs, how her feet pad softly on the wooden floors when she dances to bossa nova as she cooks alone. How her green eyes are flecked with gold, and how she turns them to the ground in silence when Rob reaches for a beer.
Maggie’s mouth falls open as she steps through the foyer, ignoring the ancient stairway with mauve floral print wallpaper and curling, damp carpet, and heads into the empty living room. The furniture is long gone, the most valuable pieces cleared out first by the bank and the remaining next by neighbors who scavenged what little was left. I feel barren without it because I don’t know that Maggie doesn’t need the dressing to visualize what will come to be; she is already rebuilding my broken frame in her mind’s eye. She steps directly into a beam of light, closing her eyes for a moment and inhaling deeply. At first I am ashamed by all the dust that floats in the air, but she is transfixed by the effect when she reopens her eyes. Thousands of little suns fill the living room, and she places one hand on her heart as if to check that it’s still beating. She places the other warm hand on the wall, feeling for my pulse. When she smiles, I know she’s found me.
“We’ll take it,” she says.
The realtor squeals with delight.
The first few months are exhilarating and painful, filled with renovations. Pulling loose nails from split clapboard, replacing insulation, scrubbing mold away with abrasive sponges, relaying damaged shingles, installing new windows. I am left raw and exposed, a skeleton from which Maggie intends to rebuild me. Rob, her partner, never seems certain that the efforts are worth it, but he can’t deny her this. My rebirth is his way to atone for something terrible he has done, though I can’t say exactly what that something is. The two circle the secret like moons to a planet, an invisible force that binds them together that they never speak about in full sentences:
“Are you sure this renovation is what you want?”
“You promised me after…”
“Are you all right?”
“Damnit, Maggie, I said okay.”
One afternoon, Maggie is hard at work removing the garish wallpaper from the stairwell. Rob is somewhere upstairs, supposedly stripping carpet to expose the original wood floors beneath, but I see him slip into the bathroom and lock the door behind him. Maggie’s putty knife coaxes the old paper off in large strips, and once it’s gone, she rinses away the glue with a damp washcloth. I shiver at her touch, exposed, and make the dishes rattle in the old kitchen cupboard. Maggie looks to the sound, her eyes wide, straining to discern if it was real or a figment of her imagination.
“Rob?” She calls up the stairs anxiously. Rob is sneaking a sip from the bottle of alcohol he keeps hidden behind the cleaning supplies underneath the bathroom sink. He doesn’t hear a thing. Maggie sighs at the silence, and I sense her disappointment as she steels herself against her fear.
“Old houses creak all the time,” she says out loud to no one, then returns to her work.
Under Maggie’s eye, I am a phoenix slowly reborn from the ashes. The electricity is rewired, the asbestos cleared from the attic. The stairway receives a coat of fresh paint, a pale blue the color of a robin’s egg. A large island is installed in the kitchen, along with a new industrial-style sink. Maggie giggles that the fixture is farmhouse style, because hell, this is a farmhouse and it sure as hell didn’t have a sink like this before! I would feel embarrassed if it was anyone else saying such things, but Maggie makes me beautiful by shining a light on the features that were already here: the intricate wood trim, the high ceilings, the decorative brass doorknobs and locks. Through her eyes, I am a thing to be cherished, and that which needs to be replaced is done so thoughtfully. She makes me a home. She makes me art. When she hangs an ultrasound picture on the refrigerator, I swell with pride as if the child is my own. Another family.
Still, despite Maggie’s best efforts, she can’t seem to correct the sour smell of mildew that appears whenever Rob enters a room. His rot can’t be gutted, can’t be sanded and refinished. His rot will fester.