This is not a haunted house story. This is what happens after.
Because Jia hasn’t stayed in a single place for long ever since she left the House. In those ten years, she’s gotten to be an adept cryptographer in the hidden ciphers of AirBnB, an expert in the secret lexicons of middling reviews, sussing out red flags in words left unsaid, warnings in doublespeak and innuendo. Jia hasn’t much to fear from perverts or peepers. More common courtesy, since she couldn’t hold the House back and defend herself at the same time, and she wouldn’t wish the House on anybody, even those that lived in digital equivalent of lightless caves.
So Jia scans the ads, scrutinizes comments, losing herself and letting base instinct take over. Like those stupid 3D images from the nineties, the ad she needs popped up from the chatter. She makes her booking.
Like the Gregorian calendar, Jia marked the start of her life with an event so traumatic that it reverberated backwards and forwards in time. There was the House, and there was after. This was what happens after you survive a haunted house.
First came the law. Not much help, because money is above the law; and the things that suppurate under the skin of the world are beneath it. The law came in uniform, with rules and starched uniforms. They applied sledgehammer questions to the delicate blooming bruises of fresh loss. Next came the vests, measuring blood splatter and taking tiny pristine cotton swabs in baths of saline, but they could not capture the meaty snap of bone dislocating, the last sighed breath as life left the body.
Then came welfare, who wielded kindness like a weapon, with soft words and hard eyes; nicotine stained fingers curled around pens like tree roots, ticking comforting platitudes off a checklist. Jia asked if there was a five point plan to thank a deceased parent for sacrificing themselves, and treated herself to a look at the molars of the welfare officer before she walked out.
The vultures came last, and Jia danced with them for a while, because even at seventeen she figured that she would be fucked up for a long time coming, and her trauma was going to work her, so it might as well work for her as well. So she sold her story; dialled up, amped up, dressed up, as long as it sold. Then, she snuck back into the old House with its overgrown garden, its wrought iron grills like eyes by the route of Picasso and its eczema coat of white paint, and set the whole thing ablaze. A House isn’t alive in the same way people are, but you can kill one all the same.
A year later to the day she burnt the House down, it came back.
Jia had been living with a relative; an aunt, someone she only recognized from weddings, funerals and the Lunar New Year. The family did not mistreat her, but handled her as one would an ancient vase or bauble, with unearned reverence and delicacy. She grew to dislike her cotton wool, bubble wrapped existence; constrained from the outside by a tight box of second glaces and reassuring touches, swelled from within by grief until she was fit to burst.
In her vulnerability, she rebuilt her room around her, subtly, one moved item at a time, pulling the blanket of familiarity over herself. And then, like a face appearing out of the clouds, or that picture with the young and old lady overlapping, her room in the House had been there in her Aunt’s place all along. The same limpid cheap white paint on the walls, punctuated with little commas of lizard shit. Her bed and her sisters, hers with the palimpsest of crayon graffiti, stick figure people haunting the laminate. And flat against the wall, the ancient wardrobe, the first gaping mouth of the House. The one that ate her sister.
It had to be her sister first, severing the only bond that was indivisible, leaving the naturally unbalanced state of Jia, her mother and her father. Her family had started out at peace with the House, Jia remembers, setting up an altar to Kuan Yin in a corner, staining the ceiling with curling tendrils of sweet smoke from joss sticks.
They’d been playing hide and seek. Ying, the younger, had been hiding. Jia had been seeking. The best hiding places are not the hardest to find, the best ones are those where people will not look at all, and it was part of the childish condition to not look upwards for danger. So Ying scrambled to the top of the antique wardrobe, toes finding purchase on dark teak the colour of old blood, fingers poking into the furrowed brow of warped and gnarled wood.
The crash brought Jia running, and all that was left of her sister was a spreading nimbus of hair leaking from the corner of the toppled wardrobe. This would not line up with the version of the story serious men bearing passes and smelling of cigarettes would discuss with Jia’s parents, but it was the truth. Jia’s sister was dead immediately from the falling wardrobe. Because there are versions of things that keep the world sane; that obey all the rules people choose to live by. Then there are other versions, like the version where the spreading cloud of hair slowly retracted under the wardrobe, and she hears the gristly crunch of bone grating away from bone.
This, Jia remembered, when the House came back. This, she remembered when she turned to see the same wardrobe take the place of her temporary Ikea plywood and sawdust one. It was right up close to her, so close that it filled her field of view. Creeping into the top of her vision, draped down from the top of the ancient cupboard, greasy strands of her sister’s hair. Ying had finally found her hiding place after all.
Tearing herself away, burning tears on her cheeks, Jia ran and threw herself against one of those familiar white walls, which had taken on the colour and consistency of dead flesh; pallid, marshmallow soft and yielding, cool to the touch. She pressed her face into it and breathed in the milk and shampoo smell of her dead sister, overlayed with the heavy incense of funeral rites.
“You never found me,” said her sister into her ear. Ying’s breath not cold as stories said it should be, but hot; hot like the last flakes of burning incense paper, hot like the furnace that consumed her wrapped body. Of course Jia hadn’t found her sister, she stopped looking years ago until the House finally found her again.
That was the day Jia ran away from her auntie.
“Uncle give you PIN number for door later, easy to remember,” says the old man renting out his spare room. Jia nods, sparing him a glance. He is a cut-and-paste uncle, a catalogue uncle, a stock photo uncle; with his thinning buzz cut hair, and his day-old rotisserie chicken skin, the clothes that fit the man he used to be sagging, loose cloth on loose skin.
Jia takes it in, the frozen smell of a haunted house. But not just the smell, the houses Jia looks for are alive and dead, Schrodinger cat houses. In their own way, they are dead things, like the yellowed curling textbooks that Jia remembers from her own youth, neatly stacked under the coffee table; like the dusty magazines next to the shoe rack, proudly displaying coiffed ladies with outsized shoulder pads. In their own way, they are alive, movement in the curling smoke, snaking up over crumbling joss sticks; funeral portraits looking woodenly over offerings. Later, when Jia is alone, she will interrogate this flat, this place, this refuge for her. It is only in these in-between places that she feels safe, only in the haunt of another that her own hauntings abate.
The landlord does not introduce himself beyond Uncle, and refers to himself in the third person, Uncle this and Uncle that. Uncle is a dry man, sorrow wringing tears from him like a twisted washcloth, nothing left to show for it but scars. He shuffles Jia to the room that she’s renting, and it’s exactly what she wants. She sees the ghost of the room it used to be. The scuffs in the parquet flooring where a child’s bed was set, the lighter shadow on the wall where a desk used to be. Jia smells old death and she feels safe again. The Uncle leaves her, mumbling something about breakfast. Even though the apartment is small, his shuffling footsteps fade from earshot almost immediately. Jia dumps her duffle bag, the only things that matter to her, on the bed and heads to the bathroom.
Experience has moulded her in the same way shears mould a bonsai, and she feels the poorer for it; a tree of stature kept forever youthfully small, a person with their potential stripped away, one leaf at a time.
Jia would have been easy enough to track down; Singapore was a small city and her Police were notoriously efficient. No, they were happy to be rid of the strange little girl who rearranged things habitually, seeking a unique sort of disorder, an entropic state far from the structure of her memories.
She was still at the point before she’d monetized her nightmares, so she lived off credit, both hard credit and the forbearance of her friends. Home was the next couch, the next guest room. Jia tracked the passing of time by the changing scents of soap on her skin, always running from something undefined. After a long day of nothing, with nothing more significant than her bubble tea shop running out of her favourite drink, she returned to her latest sofa bed, opened the door to the bathroom and found herself staring into the lidless eyes of her mother.
The door shut behind her, not with the sudden thunderous slam of a door caught in the wind or at some supernatural impulse, but with the gentle finality of a beloved store shuttering forever. It was not her parent’s bathroom as she remembered it, with the stained bathtub, chipped ocean green tiles and the apothecarial spread of makeup, soaps and lotions. The bathroom that the House caught her with was mirrored all around, such that the closing door trapped her in infinity.
She looked back at herself through her mother’s glare. From insider her mother’s face; there was no one else in the constellation of reflections but the pallid body of the woman who birthed her, flesh gone a slick bluish grey, a tint shared by the stillborn and the drowned. Up and down her arms, and her legs, and her torso, were gaping lines; her mother a glass doll, broken by the death of her secondborn and glued together again. The cuts on her like the ones that took her, lines peeling back to show raw flesh underneath, but dry. All dry, eyes with no more tears to give, body had no more blood to spare.
“Where are you, Jia? The House is empty without you.” Her mother’s voice was a whisper, a dead leaf of a voice, the belch of air from a cupboard long sealed.
I’m out, I got out, said Jia behind her mother’s wide eyes, behind her scarred lips.
Jia’s mother got into the empty bathtub, mildew and soap scum around the fixtures. The motion reflected across the hundred mirrored tiles in this twisted version of her home. She left one arm draped over the edge just as Jia would find her. Jia knew this, knew that at the moment her mother was filling an empty bathtub with her life, Jia was only a metre away, separated by cold tile, dry concrete, and the ocean’s breadth of a dead daughter. Would Jia have heard the plink of slowing lifeblood on ceramic, if she hadn’t been listening to Britney on repeat? Could she have seen past the dark navy blue polish drying on her fingernails, through the wall and into the bathroom?
“This is where they cut you from me, Jia,” said her mother, tracing the old scar under the puckered flesh of her lower belly. “So lonely without my girls, so empty.” Her mother’s sharp nails sank into skin and began to tear at the pasty tissue. “Ying is gone but still here, Jia is still here but gone.” The scar parted, an old seam coming undone and Jia’s mother belly smiled. “Why are you running, Jia, when all you need is here?”
Just before Jia opened her mother’s mouth to scream, she saw the tiny hand reach out from the ruin of a belly in front of her, the nails a familiar dark navy blue.
Tell me your secrets, Jia mouths to the rented room. The room has gone dark, and in the constellation of lit windows in the adjacent block has winked out, more dark than light now. She is used to the pervasive smell of incense through this new house, the smoky sweetness of it. Her life is an extended action movie chase sequence; her haunted house gaining on her, each new haunting she uncovers an obstacle she tosses behind her to frustrate her pursuer.
It’s the middle of the night, that pause in the ebb and flow in the breath of time. It’s the point that a prize fighter pounces on, an opportunity. For Jia, it’s when the world is soft, when drunks and ascetics see the invisible; where Jia finds a break in the armour of accepted wisdoms and pushes.
She does this to keep her own House from owning her; to escape her sister, her mother, her father. So she interrogates other haunts; instead of being sought, she seeks out the dead fathers, the dead mothers, the dead sisters. She hunts them through the internet and now she lays traps for them in the inky blackness of a 3 am bedroom, looking at the ceiling and hoping that perhaps she’ll find the dead boy dimpling the bed next to her, the dead mother under the bed scoring the parquet floor with her purple fingernails.
This house smells different to the others, there’s a taste in the air that’s familiar. She can feel it like the contented hum of air conditioning, a satisfied purr she can feel from the soles of her feet up to the tips of the standing hairs on the back of her neck. Jia knows the eyes of a person living with a haunt and a person living with death, that flat unfocused look, the same one she’s seen on soldiers who have been through war. No longer looking forward to the good in life, nor looking out for the bad – no fear of hell because they’d already walked through it. Uncle was different, Uncle was at peace. Something that continued to elude Jia, reminding Jia of the tiny silver fish in tidal pools that she tried to catch, slipping through her bare hands no matter how much force she brought to bear.
Nothing. This place was haunted but it wasn’t haunting her. At least, not yet.
Jia unlocks the door to her room, thinking to try her luck with the altar, or the kitchen, or any of the other places of power in a household. Of a haunt, like the Uncle, she has little to fear, not from this flat, and not from the dozens she’s seen. Her scars, invisible to all but herself, mark her. Calling back to the biblical Passover, the blood of innocents innocolates her, gives her right of passage. And so she strides, into the half lit spaces of her latest haunted house, the only light from the corridor outside, lifeless fluorescent reaching in with yellowish fingers and dragging shadows long.
The Uncle is there in the living room, a king of his household, in the place of honour facing the television, behind the coffee table with his dead son’s textbooks and dead wife’s magazines. They are not gone, not for him, for in the dead light of the in-between hour, Jia can finally see them. They are, the pair of them, splintered messes, the product of a stop on hard concrete and ten floors of height, white bone from white flesh, limbs fluid with the addition of new joints, tangled together in a knot of twisted flesh, perching on the shoulders of their surviving family. When the man stumbles to his feet, harm in his eyes, Jia takes a step back, even though she stands taller than him. This house has a way to hurt her. She’s seen that look Uncle’s face before, and it reminds her that there’s more than one way to cope with loss. There was hers, always moving, always one step ahead of the House chasing her. And there was this way, to give in, to feed it. Same as her father.
Backing away from Uncle and his riders, she finds herself in the kitchen, separated from the shambling man by a simple cheap door, which she slams.
Jia turns and blinks away the glare of the morning sun, and when her vision returns, she’s back in her old kitchen, back in the House and her father is there waiting for her.
Her family used to eat in the kitchen, around a table that sat four, but barely so. It was plywood and cheap pine laminate, but still the beating heart of the House, where they gathered for breakfast before the day and dinner after.
With a wave of his hand, her father invites her to sit and join the family for breakfast. Each has a plate, each holds cutlery. But the plates are completely empty, smooth bare porcelain. Her father, like her mother and her sister, is faceless, bare skin stretched over skulls; they turn their heads this way and that, sniffing at the air like pit vipers. Jia takes her seat, of the Uncle and the other house, there is no sign.
The kitchen door rattles, first gently, then more urgently. Her father casts a faceless glance at it, and it is still, at least for a while. Jia has unfinished business with her family, since her House has made an appearance, it’s good time to put some old ghosts away. Of the dozens of times the House has caught up with her, whether it be bedrooms, bathrooms or toilets bleeding from the crevices of her broken soul, she’s never seen her father. Not since they made their last escape from the House. Her father told her not to look back, but he had been too proud to heed his own advice; in the way of most men, he placed his own strength beyond what experience dictated it should have been. After looking back, he let go of Jia’s hand, went back into the House and never emerged again.
“Hello Pa. Hello Ma. Hello Ying,” Jia says, force of habit still compelling her to lift the heavy wooden chair instead of dragging it. Her family doesn’t reply, even though she sees jaws chattering under taut skin, uneven teeth straining like a lover’s hand under a sheet. All the while, they clinked cutlery against plates, scraping at food that isn’t there to feed mouths that didn’t exist.
The door is starting up again.
Her family stops chattering, they glare at the door. It falls silent. They have power here, but not nearly enough. She looks at the largest one, dressed in her father’s clothes. Jia’s father had never been one for long conversations, even when he had a mouth, but she’s been holding one last question for him. The scrabble of metal on crockery ceases when she opens her mouth, even the door falls silent.
“Why did you leave?”
Something started at the edge of her hearing, a high pitched whine, reminiscent of old power cables or young bees. Jia found the sound coming from the throats of her smooth faced family, saw the gnashing teeth straining against skin. Her father, frustrated with the process, lifts fingers to his mouth and begins to rip at it with long fingernails, at first scoring furrows, then blood, then reducing the covering over his mouth to ragged flesh.
“Hello Jia,” he says, and that tone is so familiar to Jia that her heart is fit to burst, save that the mouth from which it issued had more in common with that of a lamprey or a leech, with misshapen teeth jutting out in concentric circles.
“You didn’t answer me,” she pressed. “Why did you leave me and go back?”
“How could I not, I turned back and saw my family,” her father says, and that simple sentence is perhaps the single worst thing she has ever experienced in the House to date, worse by far than gut twisting fear, worse by far than the regret of seeing her mother kill herself again and again, perhaps worse then her father placing her on the ground, so gently that her feet made no noise, and turning to stride resolutely back in the direction they were fleeing from. “You can come with me,” says her father, “Or this house can take you. I cannot hold the other house forever.” On cue, the door begins to shake, as though something rabid on the other side was flinging itself bodily at it.
When the realisation came, like the young lady turning into a crone in that picture and back again, she knows, or stops hiding for herself, that her family is long gone and it’s the House talking to her now and it’s always been. The House in the shape of her sister has torn itself a mouth and speaks, “You will be safe with me, Jia. You know this.” Her sister’s voice sloughs away from that of the House, childish piping giving way to the bass of refrigerator hum, the treble of wind through windows and the glottal stops of slamming doors.
Jia knows this, knows finally that the House, in its own way, loves her and is the only thing that loved her for the past decade. Her mother whispers to her in House’s voice to come back, to come join them, to give up the chase. Jia is tired, tired of running, tired deep to her bones. She wonders if she could choose the Uncle’s path, to give in, to feed unknowing tenants to his house. Or go on like she’s always been, giving of herself to the House, a bit at a time, as it catches up with her again and again.
Or there is something she’s forgotten how to do, because she’s spent ten years running back to the House in her way, hunting those like it, speaking to those like her. Maybe the reason why her House always found her is because she’s never really left. She has more in common with the Uncle outside than she’ll ever admit. Survivors both, but not unscathed. Jia can run, but she only needs to run because she still gives power to her House. Uncle has to appease his house with a supply of fresh meat. The House is winning, it wins every time. She’s done playing, she’s leaving now, at her own pace, because she has nothing to flee from. Not anymore.
Her hands shake a little when she places them on the sallow cheeks of her eyeless father, and kisses him gently on his lamprey mouth, her own lips brushing against his jagged teeth. The banging has gotten loud enough to shake the cupboards, a single plate falls off the drying rack by the sink and shatters on the tiles, the pieces vibrate and rattle on the ground before melting away like frost in the sun.
“I’m going for good now. Goodbye, House.”
Jia’s never been in an earthquake, but the kitchen is giving her a good go of it. She only finds her way to the door by clutching at the sideboard, pushing herself off the table and grabbing for the doorknob. She can’t help but give one last look back, the very thing that undid her father, but the kitchen is empty now, even though she can still taste drying blood on her lips.
The kitchen door, when thrown open, shows the weak morning sun peeking above the next block of flats. Uncle is back at the sofa, his riders looking fainter in the light of day. Behind her is the kitchen that greeted her when she first came to this rental, and her House, jealous thing that it was, has given her one last gift after all, holding her safe until morning came. The broken, mangled pair on the Uncle’s shoulders looks at her with tired eyes.
Jia lights a joss stick from the dying embers of another and bows to the funeral portraits in the living room three times, the stick pressed between her flattened palms. When she turns to leave, the spin whirls curlicues of sweet smoke towards Uncle and his ghosts, and they breath deep of the smoke, perhaps the only thing that crosses from Jia’s world to theirs. She doesn’t stop to grab her stuff before she leaves, same as the last time she left a haunted house, but this time she’s walking out on her own terms.
Perhaps the Uncle will find a better way to keep his house alive. Or perhaps like her, he will find his own way to put it to rest. The air outside the Uncle’s flat is sweet, and Jia doesn’t look back.