No and the Walking House
This is my favorite short story I’ve ever written. It came from my aunt and uncle’s home in northern Wisconsin, which is the house equivalent of a set of nesting dolls: an artist and inventor’s retreat attached to a modest family home built onto a one-story farm house built around a shed at the turn of the 20th century. Their house is in such a constant state of construction that it almost seems to be growing like a living thing. I sat down in their spare bedroom to write about a living house in January 2009, and out came this strange story about a lonely little girl called No, a troublesome toy bird, and a Sears home that just wants to feel the wind on its pipes.
In July 2010, “No and the Walking House” was published by Kazka Press. I’ve just started work on what I hope will someday become an illustrated version. (If there’s a particular line or bit of imagery you really want to see illustrated, comment below to let me know! I’m open to suggestions.)
This story is dedicated to my Aunt Suzy, who’s always wanted a house with a view, anyway.
No and the Walking House
No’s hands were small for her age, and her parents never held them. Her mother, a militant hypochondriac, refused to so much as pat the child’s hair except during a bath. Her father liked only grown-up things like online stock trading and arranging his class syllabi, so he usually held a laptop instead of a little girl. They had no other children. By the time No was five, she had begun to suspect they’d had her to fill an empty spot in their home decorating scheme, like the leather ottoman in the living room that no one ever put their feet on.
The realization that she was convenient furniture didn’t much bother No. She didn’t mind being ignored, especially when her mother contracted imaginary pandemics, and like the ottoman, she enjoyed the occasional compliment on her appearance from guests at her parents’ parties. There was one key difference between her life and the ottoman’s, though: the ottoman didn’t get blamed for everything.
The ottoman never got yelled at for banging copper pans on the travertine tiles in the kitchen. When a few first edition Vonneguts showed up bent open on the floor of No’s father’s study, he never gave the ottoman a two-hour lecture on respecting classic literature. And had the ottoman ever protested, “It wasn’t me! That painting jumped out of its own frame!” maybe No’s parents would have believed it. If they believed in things like talking ottomans, which they didn’t.
The ottoman, though, would probably be lying. No wasn’t – not about the painting, or the pots, or the books, or anything for which she usually took the blame. She had explored every bit of her parents’ suburban development house, from the modular shelving in the upstairs linen closet to the poured cement in the basement storage room. Ikea and Martha Stewart furnished the house, and the original purchase stickers and tags clung to every surface. Her mother was wrong, No thought after her first exploration. Germs weren’t lurking everywhere in the house – nothing lived there.
But then she’d found her mother’s heirloom cookware and her father’s library of collectors’ edition books and the ugly landscape painting, all of them loved and definitely alive. As soon as she’d touched them, the objects had been eager to prove just how alive they were. The pots had danced and clanged their way out of the cupboard. The books had fluttered like bird wings and snapped at her fingers. The ugly landscape painting had wrenched itself from its equally ugly gold frame and waddled five steps toward the door before its life ran out and it smacked to the floor.
The ottoman, No thought, could never come to life like that. She’d touched it a few times to be sure, but it had been purchased new from an outlet store in Minneapolis.
No earned a scolding every time she brought something to life. The spark didn’t last, so when her parents looked for the source of the ruckus, they found their scrawny blond child sitting in the midst of the mess, wide-eyed, stammering out her only defense.
“But—but I didn’t do it! They did it themselves!”
“No, they did not,” came the beleaguered answer, or “No, don’t be stupid,” or “No, you’re cleaning this up in 3…2…”
It had been years since her parents addressed her any other way. She rather liked the name – “No” sounded almost musical when stretched into five or ten syllables. The scolding, on the other hand, hurt her ears. Worse, it usually preceded her getting locked in her room, denied dessert, or withdrawn from school.
And so at eight, No was a lonely piece of furniture in a large suburban house with no place left to explore.
It was the wooden bird at the garage sale that got No kicked out of her parents’ house. One May morning, her father decided to bring her along on his weekend errands. Each time she stepped out of the car behind him, he hissed the same warning over his shoulder: “Don’t touch anything.”
No wasn’t planning on it. She rarely let her hands out of her pockets outside her house, except when she was collecting. Shoved far back in a desk drawer in her room was a red pencil case containing the few alive objects she’d allowed herself to pick up over the years: the stained handle of a teacup she’d found in a parking lot, a handful of old keys, and a chipped jade dog figurine she’d rescued from her mother’s trash bin after Christmas. The dog was her favorite. When she picked him up, he broke his stiff pose to lounge across her palm, his marbled tongue lolling out. He even listened when she spoke – unlike the teacup handle, which only rattled, or the keys, which were only interested in hopping. The pencil case was nearly full already, and No hadn’t considered adding to her menagerie in nearly a year.
So she slunk behind her father into the garage sale, her hands planted deep in the pockets of her jeans. Her father headed straight for the boxes of books at the back of the place, where it smelled like potting soil. Books were the only thing he ever bought secondhand, and only because of the potential for value in first editions. No didn’t care for books. Her mother home-schooled her, and the smell of inked pages reminded her of reading assignments and neuroses. While her father dug for the literary canon, No hung back by the open garage door. A box of mangled holiday themed teddy bears stared at her from one table, and rows of polished china glinted at the next. Right on the seam between the two tables sat a small wicker birdcage, with the wooden bird perched inside. Its paint matched her bright yellow Ikea bed at home, except it had been rubbed down to bald wood at its forehead. Its sharp black beak was open as if to sing.
No pictured the bird perched in its cage on a child’s bedside table, its smooth forehead stroked every night while someone read a story. Wondering what its voice might sound like, she eyed its size and price sticker. The bird ought to fit neatly into her pencil case and her allowance. She reached through the cage bars and ran her finger down its head to try it out.
Several things happened in three seconds. The wooden bird cocked its head and beat its wings, knocking into the back of its cage. No stumbled backwards, startled, upending the box of holiday bears onto herself. The bird cage tipped and rolled into a stack of hand-painted china cups, raining them onto the floor, and two of the teddy bears that No had fallen into – Halloween and Christmas – blinked their eyes and ran for freedom. The bigger bear, a stiff green creature wearing a candy cane scarf, hit its head on the homeowner’s checkout table, spilling the change box right at No’s feet. The birdcage rolled to the floor.
And then those three seconds were over, leaving a pool of broken china and scattered money, No clutching her shirt in the middle of the mess, and a dizzy wooden bird hopping away under a table. No’s father didn’t see the bird.
“No!” he exclaimed, his beady eyes bulging.
“My money!” cried the homeowner, a round woman who’d been stacking CDs. “Stop the little thief!”
Every set of eyes at the garage sale turned on No – except for those of the teddy bears, who were lying limp on the cement. No curled her knees to her chest and ducked her head, pretending to be furniture.
Her father dragged her back to the car and locked her in the back seat. No hugged her stomach as she watched him negotiate with the homeowner. The windows muffled their voices, but No thought she heard the words “police” and “damages.” Her father slouched and pulled out his wallet – a faded buckskin billfold he’d had since college, which had scuttled under the couch the one time No had touched it.
The ride home was silent. When they got into the house, her father sent her to her room so he and her mother could talk. No took out her pencil case and curled up in bed with the jade dog between her hands. The dog didn’t mind her crying on him, only licked her cheek with his polished stone tongue. The keys weren’t nearly so sympathetic. No dropped them back into the pencil case after only a few hops.
Her parents called her downstairs an hour later, both their mouths set in lines that matched the dining room chair rails.
“Pack your clothes,” said her father. “You’re going to live with your grandparents until we decide what to do with you.”
Her grandparents? No didn’t remember meeting them – the ones that were still alive, anyway. They had once sent her a secondhand game of Operation for her birthday, but the man on the board had gone berserk bzzting and blinking his nose when she’d touched it. She’d had to euthanize him by stuffing the game board under a couch cushion and sitting on him, which earned her two hours’ time out. What kind of people, she wondered, would send a child such an awful gift?
“I don’t want to go,” she said.
“You don’t get a choice,” said her father.
“The embarrassment you’ve brought to this family–” her mother started, her voice straining.
“I didn’t do anything!”
“Young lady, we’ve had enough of your lying,” her mother said sharply.
No’s cheeks burned. She stood up, took five steps into the kitchen, and raised her hands, giving her mother her best scowl. “Y’know what I touched today? Old stuffed animals and pennies.”
“No, don’t,” her mother gasped.
No flattened her palms against the granite countertop and made a circuit of the kitchen, wiping her germy hands against every clean surface she could reach. When her father sprinted after her, she ran up to her room and slammed the door. Downstairs, she heard her mother screaming, “You little monster!”
In the morning, No’s father loaded her things into the trunk of the car, buckled her into the backseat with the child locks on, and took off. After five hours of public radio and no stops, No stepped out onto the gravel driveway of her grandparents’ house for the first time. The chilly spring air shocked her – it was already t-shirt weather in the cities.
The house was built on a hill and surrounded by pine trees taller than anything No had seen in the suburbs. Its flanks were dotted with windows of mismatched sizes, and sections of cracked wooden siding and pale green vinyl slats meshed together like quilt patches. Smoke-spouting vents protruded from its roof, alongside one unused chimney. Some parts of the house looked like the farm houses No had seen in the car windows on the drive up, but others stuck out at odd, squarish angles, as if someone had built additions on using plastic blocks. She buried her hands in her pockets, wondering how old the place was.
No’s father rapped on the front door, and a plump woman in a floral dress answered it. She had a face as square as the house additions and looked how No imagined her father’s stern features might if he melted slightly, but with a ruff of white curls up top. The woman clapped her hands and opened her arms wide to No. “It’s so good to have you here, dear. Come give your grandma a hug.”
No took a quick visual inventory of the brassy antique jewelry dangling off her grandma’s bust, the hand-knit shawl sliding down her arms, and the scuffed leopard print slippers on her feet. Shaking her head, she shied away.
“Takes after her dad,” her grandma said with a sniff. “Ah, well, munchkin, we’ll work on that.”
No’s father didn’t seem to appreciate the comparison. “I’ll get her things,” he said, slouching back toward the car.
“Who’s here?” called a bristly voice from inside the house, and a short old man with a push-broom mustache followed it. He was dressed in ratty plaid and denim and thick gloves from the elbows down. “Ah, of course,” he snuffed, spotting the girl, and shook her hand as if she were a business associate. “Look how you’ve grown, peanut! Why, the last time I saw you, you tried to eat my watch!”
“You were teething,” her grandma informed her. “Don’t mind your grandpa. He’s got a bit too much drywall dust in his brain.”
Gravel ground in the driveway, and they turned to see her father’s sedan retreating toward the street. Staring at her bags piled on the driveway, No was beginning to wish she were furniture again.
Her grandma made a sour noise in her throat. “Come on, dear. Your grandpa will bring your things upstairs.”
No pressed her arms to her tightening stomach. How long would it be, she wondered, before she was being dropped off in another strange driveway? Her grandma led her inside. From here it looked like most of the house had been renovated, with modern architecture that didn’t seem like it fit the exterior. The sunny living room smelled like new paint, drywall dust, and baloney. Still, No’s eyes wandered up the walls and along shelves of hand-thrown pottery, hanging paintings, a well-worn cat tree, a handmade metal coffee table, and two patched recliners in front of the TV.
Not terribly long, she thought.
The trick to staying out of trouble here, No discovered in the first day, was to avoid touching anything she hadn’t privately tested for safety. The Southwest themed kitchen, whose renovation had been done with entirely new materials right down to the cowboy hat over the fridge, didn’t even shiver when she grazed a hand along its cabinets. The first floor bathroom, which was tiled in 1970’s pink, didn’t move so long as she kept to the new ceramic fixtures and didn’t step off the bath mats. The burgundy wallpapered dining room was safe so long as she didn’t reach for the centerpiece, an ornate chandelier her grandpa had welded in his metal shop.
Her grandparents’ workshops in the new addition, on the other hand, were too dangerous to set foot inside. No stood at the threshold of her grandpa’s metal shop for an hour, staring wide-eyed at shelves of in-progress chain mail, weaponry, and armor as he explained to her how his online store worked.
“People pay ridiculous amounts for this gear,” he said, snuffling over an unsharpened sword. “No practical application whatsoever. Take that fellow.” He motioned to a full suit of armor standing in the corner nearest No. “Buyer cancelled on me at the last minute. What’m I gonna do with him? Utterly useless.”
The suit of armor stood proudly over a bucket full of washers, its helmet tilted slightly sideways. No had to clench her hands in her pockets to keep from poking it, just to give it a chance to defend itself.
Her grandma’s pottery shop on the first floor was somewhat less deadly looking but just as crowded with handmade goods, and No got a frown off her grandma when she declined a demonstration.
This house sang at night, in a deep voice of groaning joints and wind through cracks. No lay in her new bed in her refinished attic room, listening while her grandma tucked her in. She still had her hands shoved into her pajama pockets, even though she was fairly certain the child-sized furniture and undersea wallpaper in her room was all fresh out of a catalog. The house’s voice was enough to make her wish for a pair of mittens.
“Haven’t you ever lived in an old house before?” her grandma asked, patting her chest through the comforter.
“No,” said No, swallowing as the pipes grumbled.
“They talk at night,” her grandma said, smiling with lipstick-smudged teeth. “The older they are, the more they have to say. This one’s got almost a hundred years to it. A century ago, somebody built this house from a Sears kit. We added some bedrooms and work spaces on after we bought it and freshened some things up, but it’s still got its original bones, somewhere under there. That’s the part that talks – nothing to be scared of.”
No nodded, hiding her hands under the pillow as her grandma said goodnight. In the dark room, she thought she could hear the house’s additions grinding against each other, a century of competing design elements complaining from the close quarters. Deep beneath the layers of drywall and tile and wood laminate, she imagined a small, neglected catalog house straining to speak up.
No spent her days exploring. Her grandma’s two fat tabbies, who knew the house better than anyone, led the way, and No followed them from room to room with a backpack full of explorer’s supplies, testing walls as she went. A few rattled against their studs, but by and large the house was new enough to be well behaved. The cats led No through half-finished attic rooms where she didn’t dare touch the beams, down into her grandpa’s study where his cherry desk tried to bite her hand, and through the second floor’s maze of bedrooms and sunrooms, where power tools and tins of paint and putty roamed free-range. The cats weren’t fazed by things coming to life under No’s hands. They cared about very little other than food and their evening naptime.
Like the cats, No’s grandparents were also creatures of habit. She curled up on the floor while they watched their morning TV, ate fried baloney sandwiches with them at noon, and set off with the cats when they disappeared into their respective workshops after lunch. She liked being furniture in this house much more than in her parents’ house. Even the fashionably placed ottomans in this house got attention from the cats, and while she got about as much conversation here as with her mother, it was far less likely to center around the likelihood of her carrying deadly viruses. And when she got sick of the living room floor, there was always more house to explore.
During her second week with her grandparents, No found the original parlor. It was through a narrow door inside the linen closet off the first floor landing. The door looked new, but its hinges creaked like old bones when she opened it. The cats sniffed the musty air before setting paw in the room. No felt for the light switch, and the wall shuddered under her hand.
The light blinked on, bathing the room in the colors of a stained glass ceiling fixture. A narrow room stretched before her, one wall covered in shelves of dusty National Geographic magazines, the other housing a brick fireplace. At the far end, a window looked out into the back of a drywall panel. No stooped in front of the fireplace. It looked older than anything else in the house – even her grandparents.
“Did you come with the Sears kit?” she asked it. The fireplace whistled low in its chimney. No dropped her backpack off one shoulder and dug into it. She’d packed herself a peanut butter sandwich, a notebook, and her pencil case for the day’s exploration. Opening the pencil case on the hearth, she brushed her hand along the menagerie inside and let them roam free across the bricks. The fireplace whistled again in a stilted pattern, like it was laughing.
No smiled, sitting down in front of it with her sandwich. “Can I eat with you?”
The fireplace didn’t seem to mind.
Every morning while her grandma paged through paint color swatches in front of the TV, No crept into the parlor and opened up her pencil case. The room had to be lonely after all this time without a visitor, so she sat with it, careful not to touch the bricks with her bare hands. The old parlor wouldn’t get offended if she turned up her nose at its gross dinner offerings or wanted to sleep through breakfast, and whenever she came into the room, its fireplace whistled cheerfully. It sounded happier to see her, she thought, than her grandparents or their cats ever were. So it was the parlor No fled to when things went wrong.
One evening, while her grandma was singing in the pottery shop and her grandpa was talking aloud to his metal creations, No touched a pink coil pot in the living room. It was an accident – she’d been chasing one of the cats, slipped, and caught herself on the lowest shelf of her grandma’s pottery display.
The pink coil pot, to its credit, was fairly well behaved. It wobbled in excitement but didn’t try to escape. The shelf beneath it was another matter entirely – a slab of old train station pine screwed to brackets, which bucked against the wall as soon as No’s hand slapped against it. No pressed back on the shelf, trying to make it stay put, but that only gave it more energy. The pink coil pot rolled off its edge and landed with a shatter, and the rest of the pots and bowls displayed on the shelf followed suit, raining to the floor. The singing in her grandma’s shop stopped, and No backed away from the wall, pottery shards crackling under her feet. The shelf took this opportunity to wrench one of its ends from the wall and swing in an arc, hitting two paintings, a lamp, and the next shelf up. When No saw the second shelf of pottery shake, she took off running. Both workshop doors opened behind her, and she heard her grandma’s voice crying, “No, my pottery!”
The cats scrambled to hide in their cat tree, which No knocked into when she tried to look behind her. The cat tree stretched its rope-covered neck and got three steps closer to the dining room before falling over and spilling fat tabbies on the floor. No sprinted through the kitchen, across the first floor landing, and into the hidden parlor door. Clutching her shirt, she stared back at the door. Outside, she heard her grandparents’ voices rising. Through three layers of drywall and two doors, they sounded a lot like her parents.
No sank to the hearth, her hands wrapped around her knees, and waited for the sounds to stop.
She woke curled up in the fireplace, her hands folded between her head and the brick. The house was singing. The fireplace bricks shifted slightly as she sat up, making room for her head. No gasped and scuttled out of the fireplace, pressing her hands into her lap. Her back hit the stack of National Geographics, and the top half of the pile slid, hitting her head on the way down. The magazines burst open on contact, flapped their pages, and took off flying. Subscription cards fell to the ground and skittered into a dark corner. No covered her head as the cloud of National Geographics migrated upwards, spinning and bumping into each other like birds in an undersized cage. A 1978 copy panicked, caught itself on her hand, and left her with three paper-cut fingers before joining the group. No sucked on her fingers, crawling toward the exit. When the door opened, the National Geographics poured out into the linen closet, forcing the closet door open in front of her.
The house was different than it had been the night before. The kitchen walls had shed their khaki backsplash, littering the countertops with broken tile. The dining room’s wallpaper was peeling in strips, its baseboards pushing out their nails. Somewhere upstairs, a hammer sounded. No stepped into the living room, and her stomach knotted. The broken pottery, at least, had been cleaned up. The one empty shelf hanging over the recliners couldn’t hide the deep crack forming in the wall.
No pressed her hand into the crack. Inside, hot air and old lumber brushed her fingers.
“There you are!” cried her grandma from the shop stairs. The old woman wore her dress from yesterday, with a leather carpenter’s belt hung around her waist. The tools rattled as she rushed down the steps.
No’s throat constricted. The lumber inside the wall hummed under her hand.
“Young lady, don’t you ever–” her grandma started, and was interrupted by a groan from beneath the floorboards. The house shuddered, knocking her grandma into one of the recliners and No onto the floor. Somewhere upstairs, her grandpa’s voice hollered, “Who’s moving furniture?”
Several things happened in three seconds. The house leaned north, then south. The crack in the wall gaped, overpowering the fresh paint smell of the living room with the scent of old pine. The kitchen cupboards ejected from the walls, spewing cereal and boxed pasta across the loosening floor tiles. No’s grandparents’ house gave itself a good shake, flinging vinyl siding and porch boards across the lawn. Then, with a tearing of cement and a straining of pipes, the house stood up on its original piled stone foundation and began to walk.
No did the only sensible thing she could think of: she shrieked and hid under an end table. Her grandma struggled to get out of the upturned recliner. Footsteps pounded down the stairs, and as No pulled at the slats of laminate flooring that were sliding apart, her grandpa ran into the room, swaying with the motion of the house.
“Oh, good, she’s found you,” he said, spotting the girl. “We were up looking for you all night, peanut. And patching holes – this place is coming apart–”
“Herbert!” cried No’s grandma, rolling off the recliner with her knees in the air. “The house is walking away!”
He glanced out the sliding glass porch door, which was hanging on by a strip of screws. “So it is,” he said, his mustache twisting. “That’s new, isn’t it?”
Pine trees scraped past the exterior wall as the house started uphill. No’s grandmother pushed herself upright, wincing. “Oh, my porch. How on earth–”
The wall to the addition gave a tremendous crack, spilling half-dried pots and unfinished metalwork across the living room floor. The suit of armor landed three feet from No’s nose, and she leaped up, knocking over the end table. Her grandparents yelled as the ceiling ripped apart. Back issues of National Geographic swarmed out of the hole into the morning sky.
No ran for the dining room, stumbling over the suit of armor. When her palm touched its helmet, it flailed one creaking arm, trying to right itself. The girl grabbed both her grandparents’ arms, pulling them toward the middle of the house. “It’s not safe here.”
The linen closet was already in pieces on the stairwell floor, cleaning products scattered across the peeling linoleum. No sprinted through the door to the original parlor and dropped to her knees in front of the fireplace. The occupants of her pencil case were hopping about the hearth, and the jade dog wagged its tail when it saw her. Her grandma’s cats were already stationed in the far corner, chewing on a National Geographic they’d caught.
“Goodness,” said her grandpa, “I had forgotten this was here. Wouldn’t it make a lovely centerpiece for a living room?”
No flattened her palms against the hearth and pressed her forehead against the bricks. Beneath it, she felt narrow pipes humming with water, wiring too old for microwave ovens snaking away from the newer electric system, and the original Sears house pulling itself out of the construction. The house hit another patch of tall trees, and walls upstairs rattled loose.
“Please,” she whispered to the house. “Please stop. Just go back to the way you were. Please?”
The house’s stone piling legs didn’t even slow. Hopping a gully on the hillside, it shook off its new roof.
No pulled her hands into fists and pounded them against the brick. “Why won’t you listen? You things never listen!”
No’s grandma knelt next to her. “Dear, what’s going on?”
No swayed with the house, her throat tightening. She couldn’t look up, knowing that if she did, she’d see a scowl, and the backseat of her father’s car, and another strange driveway to be dropped off in tomorrow. If there was another strange driveway that would even take her after this.
The house shrugged off its topmost floor, and No heard it hit the hillside. The additions had all been dropped now, and the house’s original shape swung in the air, missing most of its siding and several exterior walls. The fireplace let out a fireplace equivalent of a whoop, and the house gave a hop. The remaining stack of National Geographics toppled as the drywall encasing the parlor cracked, and those magazines that landed against the girl took off into the air, sending her grandparents reeling backwards.
It was about then that something knocked at the parlor door.
No raised her head. The suit of armor stood at the door, its shoulders hunched and its helmet tilted to the side. It gave No a little wave with its creaky fingers and thumbed back toward the living room, where the walls hung open.
“You—you wanna help?” No said.
The suit of armor shrugged and folded its arms casually.
No leapt up and hugged its welded waist. “Come on,” she said, pulling it out toward the remains of the living room.
“That’s my knight,” her grandpa said, scratching his head.
No got on all fours and crawled to the edge of the living room floor. The forest brushed past on all sides, and pots and metal scraps fell away into the trees. The suit of armor groaned as it lowered itself onto the floor beside her. From here, they could see the trail of bent trees and debris leading down the hill to the house’s empty foundation.
“Do we have any rope?” No asked the suit of armor. “Some way to anchor it to the trees, maybe?”
The suit of armor reached under the edge of the house. It fished around for a few seconds, then yanked out the end of a copper pipe.
No clapped her hands. “You’re a genius!”
The suit of armor stood up, cracked its neck like it wasn’t a big deal, and extended a hand to her. No took it, clambering up its back. Wrapping her arms around the base of its helmet, she pointed back down the hillside. The suit of armor didn’t need the encouragement. It leaped from the end of the living room and swung down into the trees below, pops echoing after it as the piping dislodged from its holdings under the house.
Trees whipped past, and No batted their branches away from her face. The suit of armor hopped from side to side, weaving between tree trunks.
“There!” No said, steering the armor toward a cluster of thick-trunked pines near the top of the hill.
The suit of armor sprinted sideways, holding the pipe in one hand and grasping No’s wrists in the other. They hit the pines hard enough to make No dizzy, but the suit of armor kept running, circling the tree trunks. Up on the hilltop, the house lurched and groaned. The suit of armor dug its heels into the dirt and bent the end of the pipe over itself, tying it to the cluster of trees.
No’s grandparents house whistled shrilly and strained against its pipe, swinging east, then west. Then, sighing loudly through its chimney, it slumped down in a clearing at the top of the hill.
The suit of armor gave a bow in the direction of the living room and slid No out into its arms. She hung her head off its shoulder, not wanting to look back at the house. Her stomach still moved, like a parlor’s worth of National Geographics winging about inside her.
The old Sears house sank its foundation into the hillside, singing sadly to itself.
No hid in the parlor while her grandparents talked, her legs curled up to her chest and the jade dog resting against her shoulder. The house still breathed slightly underneath her, but it had given up on running away. No was just beginning to think of that herself – she wondered if her bags were somewhere down the hillside, still packed.
When her grandparents called her out of the parlor, they were both seated in their recliners, rocking on the open porch that had been their living room.
“Look at that view,” her grandpa said, gazing down the hillside at the farmland and small town in the valley below. “Wanted a view like that my entire life.”
“Come here,” said her grandma, and No slunk forward, her eyes on the wood laminate. “Is there something you want to tell me?”
“It wasn’t me,” No said, and swallowed. “The house did that itself. So did the garage sale stuff, and the pots and books and paintings, and all of it. I didn’t mean for any of it to happen, I swear.”
“Well,” said her grandma with a chuckle, “I believe that.”
No looked up. Her grandma was smiling – with a bewildered look in her eye, but still! Smiling! “You’re not mad I broke your house?” No said, her voice small in her throat.
“Oh, we’re plenty mad,” her grandma said. “But it was an accident, and no one got hurt.”
No gripped the insides of her pockets. “You’re not—you’re not gonna send me away?”
Several things happened in three seconds. Her grandma’s mouth opened slightly, and she rocked forward in her recliner, scooping up the girl. The brassy antique jewelry squirmed between them, and the recliner popped its footrest, beginning to rock itself. No relaxed into her grandma’s arms, suddenly exhausted. The old woman stroked her hair.
“Oh, little one,” said her grandma. “We’re not going to send you away. We’re going to ground the heck out of you–”
“Absolutely,” piped up her grandpa. “Help with reconstruction and no desserts for a month, at least.”
“But we’re not sending you away,” her grandma finished, kissing her forehead. “This is a family of talents, dear, and you definitely have—well, something.”
“Do you think you could get my knight to help us run the utilities up here, peanut?” asked her grandpa. “We could use the extra hand. ‘Specially if the insurance doesn’t come through.”
No stared out at the landscape. Down below the edge of the living room, the suit of armor was securing the pipes with strips of sheet metal. She’d never thought of herself as talented before. And she’d certainly never been called “dear” or “peanut” when she’d done something wrong. Sinking into her grandma’s arms, she realized that no one had addressed her as “No” since the house had begun to move.
“I can try,” she said, smiling.
Up on the remnants of the roof, amidst a flock of National Geographics and a collection of curious sparrows, a yellow wooden bird began to sing.