The house smelled like wet ash and bad memories. It was a heavy odor, one that reminded you of all the bad things in the world and all the ways that life could go wrong. It slithered its way around you, into you, until your brain finally shut down and accepted it.
The fire had really taken its toll on the building, but not enough. If it had been truly merciful, it would have devoured the house, burned it until it was nothing but a black stain surrounded by pale green grass. But the fire, capricious in its way, had left the greater part of the structure standing, as if even the most primal of destructive forces could not bear to stay for long. Walls still stood, though they leaned. The floors were intact, though they warped in ways that made them look like they had been shaped by the wind. The roof was open to the sky, and charcoal gray clouds scuttled overhead. Not as dark as the house, but close.
They said that the blaze was visible for miles, that fire trucks from three different towns came out here to Winter Falls to put it out. There were still puddles of water on the burnt and peeling floors, mixed with ashes into a kind of black slurry that got over everything. The March rains didn’t help either. The whole place was cold and damp, and the rotting smell of mold was already starting to insinuate itself into the dominant odor of fire and blackened wood.
The faint patterns of wallpaper could still be seen on some of the walls, a finely-drawn French pattern that might have looked good the day it was put up. There will still light fixtures in the walls, though their bulbs had exploded and their metal frames had started to sag and droop from the heat. The massive oak archway that led into the living room was still intact – it had been made of wood that had been preserved at the bottom of Moosehead lake for centuries, rendering it hard as iron. The fire probably licked at that wood and went out in search of easier prey. The living room beyond, though, was charred chaos. The antique furniture, the wall-sized bookcase, the two hundred year-old grandfather clock, all of them had succumbed to the flames. There was nothing left now but their ghosts, pale spots amid the ash and desolation.
The house was dead. Finally. But not dead enough. If you stood back, you could still see its ghost amidst the ruins. You could follow the lines of the burned and broken walls and infer where they should go. You could look at the burn pattern in the wet grass and see how far the rooms extended. The great greenhouse out back was still more or less intact, along with everything that resided in it. So was the ramshackle gardiner’s shed down the hill. And doubtless the basement had been untouched by the flames. That fact alone was enough to prove that although the house was injured, it was still very much alive. Its spirit still dwelt here on the top of this hill, a force that had been malevolent and angry before.
And now it was wounded. Now it was more dangerous than ever. Its influence would seek out those who could restore it, who knew what it was in their hearts, even if their minds rejected the idea as foolish, childish or impossibile. The force that resided here would not rest for long.
I stepped over the threshold, where the door no longer stood. I set my bag down gently on the burned and cracked floor, looked up and the grey and ugly sky, and felt the house embrace me. It whispered in my ear and touched my memories, hoping to win me over. To be honest, I wasn’t sure that it would not succeed.
“Well,” I said. “I’m home.”