*This story was an entry to the 2021 Wintermute Spec-Fic Contest and was highly commended by our judge.

Content warnings: death

Reconstruction energized me right from the first sentence...this piece deserves its place among the finalists for its intriguing centerpiece: the relationship between a girl and a house who wanted to help but didn’t understand how.

Alexandra Munck, 2021 Contest Judge

The house tried to eat Nomi every day.

When she woke to the sun in the window above her desk, she also felt teeth circled around her pale wrists and ankles like manacles. It wasn’t painful—more like the affectionate gnawing of a cat seeking companionship—though Nomi peeled back her sheets sticky with that week’s heatwave to display pinkish indents lined up on her skin, matching the teeth of an unnamed jaw.

Nomi dragged herself to the mirror, where she slapped her cheeks and pinched her eyelids until her face brightened. She rubbed ointment on her wrists and ankles, softening the marks. The house was just lonely, she told herself, though that was its own fault, and Nomi would never fully forgive it for swallowing her parents.

“I’m going out,” she informed the wall, which was still hot pink from her childhood. At sixteen, she had contemplated painting it the color of a winter breeze. She even drove to Benjamin Moore to compare paint samples and mounted the contenders on the walls to judge their compatibility with her beanbag and wilted succulents. Then the walls had shuddered and seeped around the samples, absorbing them. So, Nomi kept the pink. And the childishly aesthetic fairy lights, and the floral mezuzah crooked on her doorframe, and the ceramic flower fairy sculpture she had painted for her tenth birthday and named Star. The house wanted her to remain young. Often, Nomi did too. But she was a high school senior now. She refused to be held prisoner any longer.

Nomi’s first problem, however, was that she couldn’t locate her keys. She’d attached a TARDIS-shaped charm to the keyring with the joking hope that it would be able to teleport to her whenever she needed it, but really, it reminded her of her father. Of first-edition comic books and mugs emblazoned with physics puns. When he would blare the sci-fi channel until her head turned to static.

Nomi’s second problem was that she suspected the house had hidden her keys on purpose.

“House,” Nomi said sternly, tapping her foot and crossing her arms. She wended around the front floor, ignoring the dishwasher’s red light beeping at her to be emptied, the napkins limp with sauce from Thai takeout two nights ago, and the compost bin that hadn’t been cleaned in more than a week. A lot of mess, but no keys. “House!” Nomi shouted, slapping her palm to the wall.

The wood rippled like the face of a pond.

Nomi shuddered even though she had been the one to wake it. She would never grow accustomed to its sentience.

“Keys,” Nomi demanded after swallowing back the heat in her throat. The wood burbled. “Keys, or I will storm out, sell this place, and leave the new residents to prise apart the secrets in your belly.”

They both knew how the outside world worked—Nomi from shying from it, the house from eavesdropping on the news channels Nomi watched religiously to remind herself that she was only one of many cumulative problems in the world. Besides, nobody would accuse the house of murder when the police peeled back the floorboards and gagged at the neatly-packed bones. They would pepper Nomi with questions. Do you live alone? Are those your parents? Who did this to them? Did you?

Nomi hated questions. But the house loved Nomi in the same way a mother bird loved its offspring until they learned to emigrate. It didn’t want new residents. It wanted Nomi. And a part of Nomi yearned for it back.

Finally, the house caved to her anger. A hole yawned in the center of the wall, silver gleaming from its pit.

Sighing, Nomi reached in, grasped the metal keyring, and yanked. The wall rushed upward, lapping at her still-fragile wrists.

“Shhh, shhh, it’s OK,” Nomi hushed as she wrested her arm free. The house was as possessive as Nomi had used to be with her stuffed animals. “I’m just meeting a friend. I have a friend, you know. But I won’t be long.”

The wood rustled—the house’s version of a sigh—but it subsided. Nomi walked out of the front door without a thank-you.

She slid into the driver’s seat of her father’s beat-up car, twisted the key in the ignition, and pumped the gas. The house watched her while Nomi watched the neighboring buildings that jutted over the uneven sidewalks of Lakeview Road and tilted into a cul-de-sac at one end.

Nomi blasted air conditioning until goosebumps prickled her arms. Earning her driver’s license was one of the last milestones her parents had witnessed in her life, and she made sure to exploit the privilege.

I could make my threat real, Nomi suddenly mused as she passed the ramp to the state highway. I could drive into the horizon and the house couldn’t chase me. She had her phone, a wad of cash stowed in one of four cup holders in the backseat, and an aunt who lived just a few towns over. Nomi could pocket a sizeable sum of money if she sold the house and transferred its emotional dependency to someone else.

But Nomi was a coward. She didn’t swerve onto the entrance ramp. Instead, when she braked at the dented stop sign erected at the end of the street, she skimmed the text message lighting her phone screen, remembering the other relationship tethering her.

          CHIAMAKA: i’m parked. where r u?

          There were no police cars perusing the intersection, so Nomi swiped to respond.

          NOMI: coming. one min


For the past three weeks, Chiamaka had engaged in a military-grade method of attack that entailed sending Nomi requests to hang out every hour. Nomi had disregarded them all—people exhausted her, and, in her defense, a recent thunderstorm had left the backyard in urgent need of landscaping—until Chiamaka threatened to implore her neighbor, the chief of police, to perform a wellness check. Nomi was a legal adult, but she couldn’t risk others burrowing through her belongings. If they tipped their weight on the wrong floorboard or toyed with the wrong off-kilter painting frame, the house would retaliate. It treated itself like a museum, a memory of when everyone inside had been alive, and it saved no empathy for those who violated that sanctity. Worse, the police would realize that Nomi’s parents had died quietly in the night and never left, that Nomi’s aunt had never offered financial support, that Nomi couldn’t even complete her college registration forms without tasting salt.

The car behind her honked. A middle-aged woman with dark sunglasses erasing her eyes leaned out the window, her palm poised to trigger the sound again.

Nomi turned without checking either direction for oncoming vehicles. Cars packed the parking lot by the lake, but Nomi instantly recognized Chiamaka’s. The bright pink and yellow flowers hand-painted on the hood made it near impossible to miss.

For a moment after she pulled into the spot, one wheel lodged over its faded white border, Nomi observed her friend as if she were a stranger. Three weeks allowed enough time for substantial changes to occur. For example, Nomi hadn’t confessed her inability to commit to college, nor had she requested to utilize Chiamaka’s charismatic way with words when drafting—and promptly deleting—Hello, I’m your niece and I exist! emails to her aunt. 

Chiamaka glanced upward. When her eyes alighted on Nomi’s, her dark cheeks split into a smile like a cored plum. Stiffly, Nomi unbuckled her seatbelt, unlatched the door, and ran to hug her best friend.

“How are you?” Chiamaka asked softly as they stepped apart. Striped purple-and-white socks bordered her off-white high-tops. “Graduation already feels so distant.”

Nomi shrugged. “The same. Anti-social. Dreamless. Constantly plotting my escape.” Everything came out without the edge of humor she’d planned. It was funny, though, since her current escape plan consisted of scrolling through course catalogs without registering for anything and stalking classmates’ social media pages without interacting with them. College was infeasible. The house would miss her, and Nomi would miss lowering her ear to the floorboards and pretending she could hear her parents’ skeletons chatting about the weather, or politics, or PTO scandals.

Chiamaka laughed as if Nomi’s joke had succeeded.

The middle-aged woman with no eyes glared from a few spots over while she unloaded toy shovels and Ziploc bags of frozen green grapes from her trunk. Her children wobbled around her, paying no attention to the two older girls.

“Let’s sit,” Nomi said uneasily. She led Chiamaka to the bench farthest from the throngs of beachgoers. Oak trees shaded them from view, dimming the vicious sun’s heat. “How’s your job?”

Chiamaka worked at a chronically understaffed Chipotle a few towns over. She hated her coworkers but still sweated with them at the gym and guarded the staff bathroom while they smoked. I have to be loyal, Chiamaka liked to say when Nomi advised her to report them, and Nomi couldn’t argue without being a hypocrite.

“I quit,” Chiamaka admitted, perching on the edge of the bench to avoid a smear of melted chocolate ice cream.

“What? Why?”

Chiamaka shrugged. “Does it matter? I quit.”

“What about college?” Nomi asked, thinking of the messy stack of bills in her car. “Don’t you need money?”

Chiamaka jabbed Nomi’s shoulder. “You better not be thinking of giving me any charity. Save it for yourself. For college.”

Nomi scuffed the sand with her shoe, letting granules embed themselves in the sole. “I’m not sure I’m going.”

Chiamaka elbowed Nomi. This time, the gesture wasn’t teasing. “Unacceptable. As your best friend—and sole friend, if we’re being brutally honest—it’s my responsibility to ensure that you get out of this small, insular town before it eats you alive.”

Nomi snorted. She wasn’t worried about the town, of all things, eating her alive. But she couldn’t disclose that without disclosing everything else—the bodies, the walls, the masochism in continuing to sleep among them at night.

“Yeah, yeah, I will,” Nomi lied. “Now be quiet so I can listen to the waves.”

The waves in question sucked sand into their bellies every time they breached the shore. Young children shrieked like birds when they dipped their limbs in the water and realized that it was still cold, that nature didn’t change as fast as their whims.

True to her word, Chiamaka bit her tongue, even when Nomi rose, wandered toward the flock of swimsuit-clad young children, and bent to submerge her hand in the water. It was cold.

“Nomi,” Chiamaka called when Nomi froze and the children began to titter. “You’re scaring the children.” She said it lightly, but she was right. The suburban mothers jumped to herd their children back to the safety of their folding chairs and water coolers. They were probably already gossiping about the dark-haired teenage girl with no family. And look how she turned out, they would say, and they would be right too.

None of them loved her as the house did, the house that dimmed the lights when Nomi’s head ached and guarded packages against rain when Nomi was too sick with loneliness and insomnia to lift them inside. And Chiamaka, who was standing next to Nomi and holding the shapes of words in her mouth so it looked like they were deep in conversation, loved her too. And Nomi’s parents, who had loved her before they loved others enough to see them at night, and throw lampshades, and refurbish a second master bedroom. Before the house had started spotting the floor with holes, rows and rows of mouths, that eventually gulped them down before they could separate for good. Before they could ruin Nomi’s life.

“Nomi,” repeated Chiamaka. “You’re scaring me.”

Nomi startled. She wiped her wet hand on her knee. “Sorry,” she stumbled. “I have to go. The house needs me.”

She hurried past the mothers who didn’t trust her and into the parking lot, where she hopped into her car and tore toward the exit before Chiamaka could even round the corner. A few seconds later, new text messages furiously interrupted her phone screen.

          CHIAMAKA: nomi why did u leave??

          CHIAMAKA: r u ok???

          CHIAMAKA: pls stop driving i’m worried

Nomi didn’t loosen her clutch on the steering wheel until she rolled into her driveway.

          NOMI: sorry sorry i’m ok, just taking care of something

Then she powered off her phone and buried it in the pocket of her sweatpants. Next, Nomi studied the house. The blue paint flaked beneath the front overhang, and the chrysanthemum bushes that marked the leftmost boundary of her lawn needed pruning. Nomi hadn’t been caring for the house properly. No wonder it was angry.

Subtly, the front door shifted.

Nomi squinted.

It shifted again, as if preparing to split open and scream.

Nomi sprinted out of the car. As soon as her feet ascended the three steps that fed the driveway to the front door, the door swept her inward, where she tripped to her hands and knees.

“I’m here,” she shouted, not bothering to shuck off her sneakers. Sand trailed behind her heels like breadcrumbs from a fairy tale. “You can calm down now.”

The floor did not calm down. A floorboard splintered off to snake around her ankle and bite her.

Nomi yelped and scrabbled at the wood, touching the pink-tender puncture marks that bloomed underneath. “That hurt,” she said, a little shocked. She readied herself to take another step, but the floor coiled again like a viper.

Nomi splayed her hands. “I know I mistreated you.”

The floor smoothed, briefly calming. Before Nomi could contemplate moving deeper inside, the wood receded in the center, replaced by a dark pit that burrowed through the house’s foundation.

Nomi gulped. She understood what rested at the bottom. She had marked the site of it with tape as soon as her parents died. Naively, she had planned to dig them out. But then Nomi busied herself with replacing the shattered lampshades and the upended bookshelves and the refrigerator of rotting food. She rode the bus to school, pored over homework at the marble countertop in the kitchen, laughed around Fruit Loops at Chiamaka’s house in the mornings. Simply put, Nomi’s life went on. Eventually, she stopped striving to save her parents at all, and she started blaming herself as much as she did the house.

“I don’t want to look,” Nomi whispered. She wanted to curl in the backseat of her car and cry. She wanted to order ice cream—French Vanilla, no sprinkles or sauce—with Chiamaka and confess.

Instead, the hole grew until its circumference grazed the four corners of the room. The couch with the missing beige cushion fell in, along with a reel of cheap string lights and Nomi’s blotchy elementary school family portraits. “I don’t want to look!” Nomi repeated, except it became a confession, a ragged “I don’t want to stay. Please, let me leave.”

The shadows exposed crisscrossed wooden beams and gleaming white lumps. Nomi couldn’t look but she had to. She did. “Thank you for protecting me then,” she managed despite the sour taste of her own lips, “but I am going to leave.” Nomi fumbled for the power button on her phone. As the house rocked to the side, almost tipping Nomi into the shadows, her fingers flew.

          NOMI: chiamaka pls come get me rn. at home

Unlike Nomi, Chiamaka checked her messages frequently and reacted promptly. By now, she was probably already speeding toward Nomi, which meant she would arrive in a few minutes. Nomi had never been more grateful for her close-quartered neighborhood.

“What do you want?” asked Nomi. She lifted her chin, if only so that her gaze couldn’t accidentally flit to the hole. To her parents. “I’ll bury them properly. I’ll beg my aunt not to sell this place. I’ll visit whenever I visit Chiamaka. Can we make that deal?”

The house answered immediately. The floorboards knitted together, covering its innards, and it ceased its rocking, allowing Nomi’s legs to steady beneath her. The walls murmured, and, despite her horror, Nomi stretched her arm to stroke the nearest one. The wood softened, thick and warm like honey against her skin.

Two fists pounded on the front door. “Nomi! Nomi, if you can hear me, let me in.”

“Let her in,” Nomi instructed the house. It obeyed so suddenly that Chiamaka toppled through the entrance, landing on her bare palms with a hiss. Her brows furrowed at Nomi’s position by the wall.

“Are you OK? What’s the emergency?” Apparently, there wasn’t one. But Nomi couldn’t trust the house not to renege on its gentleness.

“Drive first, talk later,” gasped Nomi.

Wordlessly, Chiamaka stood, ran to her car, and coaxed the engine to life. Nomi lagged behind her, pausing halfway down the front steps. “I’ll be back once I figure some things out,” Nomi said over her shoulder. While Chiamaka fiddled with the car settings, Nomi patted the doorframe. Heat simmer in the wood. “Thank you. I know you were only trying to protect me. But they wanted to get divorced, and I didn’t want them to, and then they died because I thought it would be easier than enduring them apart.”

Nomi felt lighter, even dizzy. The house was silent.

So, Nomi inhaled, pulled the door shut, and retreated to the car where Chiamaka waited with her black eyes wide and her lips pursed. Pop music streamed inaudibly from the speakers.

Nomi buckled her seatbelt and tapped three digits on her phone’s pop-up keyboard. She had already figured one thing out: it was time to see her parents. What age—and Nomi’s childish desire to preserve her family by any means necessary—had done to them.

Chiamaka maneuvered onto the state highway, glancing briefly at Nomi as her phone whirred, the sound quickly breaking for Nomi to make her request.

“Hello? 911?”

Dana Blatte is a high school senior from Massachusetts. Her work is published or forthcoming in Fractured Lit, The Shore, Peach Magazine, and Lunch Ticket, among others, and has been recognized by YoungArts, The New York Times, NaNoWriMo, and more. She is a 2021 alumna of the Adroit Mentorship, the Iowa Young Writers' Studio, and the Alpha Young Writers Workshop. Besides writing, she loves linguistics, illustration, book blogging, and honey almond butter.