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The House Holds Its Breath

What do you wear to rummage through the belongings of the dead? Jeans and a sweater? The dress you wear to church? The one you save for funerals? I choose the navy sweat suit I wear on my morning walks, the worn material soft and comforting against my skin.

I wait on the sidewalk for Zelda, who hurries across the street, a peach scarf tucked around the curlers nestled in her lank gray hair.

“I still can’t believe this,” Zelda murmurs in greeting.

I link my arm through hers, binding our bodies together as if to give us strength for the task ahead. We pick our way up the walk, brittle brown leaves skittering around our feet. We pause, as if paying our respects to Tommy’s overturned skateboard, left once and for all in the middle of the path. We stop again at the porch where Missy’s red tricycle is parked. Its white wicker basket cradles a baby doll who waits with droopy eyelids and pursed lips to be fed from her plastic bottle.

I stare down at the key in my hand. “Valerie said it was for emergencies.”

“They brought a lot of joy to this tired old neighborhood.” Zelda smiles. “You could hear those children laughing all the way down the block. And Steve, always willing to clean a gutter, Valerie to run an errand …”

I open the door and we step into the front hall, our gasps in chorus as if rehearsed.

“It’s all just…just still here,” I say.

Throw pillows slump on the rug. The remote control perches on the arm of Steve’s recliner. A coloring book lays open on the coffee table and crayons, free from their box, loll on the rug. Green army men crouch behind forts made of blocks, scale walls made of DVD cases.

Zelda moves into the living room, her hand to her heart. She picks up a magazine, open to an ad featuring a young blonde promoting her all-natural apple-scented shampoo. The page’s corner is folded over. “It looks like they’ll be back any minute, like they’ll walk through that door …” Zelda turns, hope flitting across her face.

“I was in the yard when they left. They were going for pizza. Steve called over, asked if I wanted to go with them …”

Zelda takes my hand, squeezes.

“They weren’t going to be long. Tommy had homework, and Valerie needed to make cookies for a bake sale.” I shake my head. “They never thought they wouldn’t be back.”

“Who does?” Zelda says, her voice tight with unshed tears.

I glance up the stairs. In the den, bills wait to be paid. In the laundry room, clothes wait to be folded. In the bedrooms, toys wait to be played with and teddy bears wait to be hugged. The house holds its breath.

I put one hand on the banister, and take the first step.


Madeline Mora-Summonte reads, writes and breathes fiction in all its forms. Her story, “The Empty Nest,” is included in Hint Fiction: An Anthology of Stories in 25 Words or Fewer (W.W. Norton, 2010) Visit her at


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