The house diminished every morning. Lately, it had been during sunrise, as if shrinking from the warmth, and not from the fearsome house echoes.
Clea woke when it was still dark out, and made herself a breakfast of toast and blueberry jam. There wasn’t much bread left. There’d once been a jar of strawberry jam, which Clea much preferred to blueberry, but it had been in the back of the fridge, and that had been part of the diminishing a few days earlier. When she’d relocated the supplies the day before, she’d placed a bag of dried apricots in what had once been the linen closet. Those would be tasty, but she felt compelled to eat things that needed the fridge while she still had them.
How much longer would she have to wait?
There were still four mugs in the cabinet. She remembered times when they’d all been in use at once, clustered on the table, a mirror of those who drank from them.
Today Clea chose the red mug with a floral pattern. Gaby’s. She filled it with coffee, but when she reached for the container of honey, her hand hit only solid wall. She frowned. Apparently the night had included its own small diminishing. That happened sometimes.
There was nothing else left to put in coffee, which meant it was too bitter for her, but she sipped it anyway.
A quick series of sounds interrupted her silence, and she started, spilling coffee onto the sleeve of her comfortable green sweater. She pulled the fabric away from her skin, hissing at the heat, and went to run cold water on the burn, only to find the sink half the size it had been the day before. The cool tap water, when it came, was thin and unwilling.
She wasn’t bothered about the stain. Who would see it but her?
The sound came again. Knocks on the door. It would just be one of the house echoes, hoping for new prey. Easy to ignore.
Clea’d been the only one left in the house since the end of the summer.
The heat had gotten less reliable lately. She had on two pairs of socks, and a scarf wrapped snug around her neck.
She hadn’t thought her friends would make her wait this long.
It had seemed the perfect solution for the four of them to rent the house together. They’d all been close for so long, and they’d all been looking for new living arrangements.
Clea had been relieved when it all came together. The four of them had moved everything in on their own, accompanied by a playlist of favorite songs from musicals they’d seen together and plates of the chocolate-ginger cookies Rae baked when she was stressed.
Living with her friends, Clea was convinced, would bridge those moments when she feared the spaces between them were too large. Moments when she missed a cue, or didn’t think to include herself, or worried her exclusion was deliberate on her friends’ part.
It was easier with these friends than it was with nearly anyone else, which was the result of time and risks and choices on both Clea’s part and theirs. She was so grateful for her friends but still, sometimes, she worried.
It helped, sharing the house. Their contrasting schedules meant Clea normally got enough time on her own to feel centered, and plenty of time with the others to feel connected.
No, it still helped. They were still close. This was temporary.
Their friendships were strong enough to make it through this.
The house echo knocked on the door a third time.
Clea sipped at the now half-empty coffee, its flat bitterness pushing weakly against her tongue, and started toward the door. She wouldn’t open it, but the echoes were kind of fascinating to watch. The remnants of houses long-diminished, reduced to nothing but thick air and sinuous, flashing images of the homes they’d once been.
The front hallway was nearly gone, reduced to a sliver. She winced as her already-bruised hips bumped against the walls. The ceiling was a little shorter, but unevenly sloped, so, as usual, she didn’t notice until it rubbed against the top of her head. She ran her fingers through her hair, wondering when she’d washed it last. She’d been rationing the last bottle of shampoo, which made her feel both silly and sensible. The remaining space of the hallway widened a little, directly in front of the door, and the window next to it was still there.
She paused, just before looking through the window. She hadn’t seen another person since Gaby was taken by the diminishing. When was that? There’d still been milk in the fridge.
The house echoes were always trying this kind of thing. All they needed was an open door or window. They craved the comfort of another being made of rafter and railing.
Clea missed being able to have the windows open.
The house across the street from them had opened the door to one of the echoes. Gaby’d been watching at the time and had sworn the house had opened the door all on its own, though none of the others had believed her.
In the eight months between moving in and the start of the diminishing, the house had always kept the four of them safe. Even when lightning struck the property next door, even when half the houses on the street needed their roofs repaired after a hailstorm, this house had been untouched, and they’d been grateful.
The worst part of the house was the heat. It worked, sometimes, though they were all convinced the temperature was never actually the number on the display.
There’d been a lot of nights of the four of them around the kitchen table, draped in sweaters and scarves as differently-scented steams rose from each of their mugs.
It was getting colder, and Clea was the only one left.
She still hadn’t looked out the window. Would the house echo knock again?
She was fine. The house was much condensed, but the plumbing still worked and the heat was no worse than it had ever been. The coat closet was still there, and she was relieved to find another scarf inside, rich purple and soft, which she wrapped around her shoulders.
Between the four of them they’d had six can openers, which had stopped being funny after the first diminishing took one. She’d scattered the remaining five around the house along with the food supplies. She’d placed pads and bandages in every room.
It couldn’t be much longer.
And she knew better than to open the door to the house echoes.
It hadn’t been a big fight.
It had just been… everyone’s jobs, and everyone’s exhaustion, and the noxious cocktail of the two. That could lull anyone into unwanted isolation, snappishness, not thinking through their own boundaries or those of their friends.
Rot, hidden too deep in the house for anyone to see. Like the fear that made the houses diminish.
Susan had been the first one to say something, and they’d all agreed to a Saturday morning spent together. For food and conversation and shoring up their connections.
They all put it above work and workouts and errands and the weird news stories about collapsing houses. All of them were conscious that something precious was at risk.
The night before had been the first time Clea had slept well in a while.
That morning, the house diminished for the first time.
Susan was gone. The outside wall of her bedroom had moved inwards, cutting off all but a few inches of her bed and all of her.
Clea, Gaby, and Rae clustered in the kitchen after seeing Susan’s room. Everything was out of true.
“I can’t do this.” Gaby muttered, storming outside. She’d then started taking measurements, tape measure shooting out in all directions like the strikes of a skilled swordswoman. Writing everything down in the small blue notebook that lived in her purse. Desperate to defend them not with steel, but with facts.
“The houses are terrified.” Gaby said the day after the diminishment took Rae.
Gaby’d been opening and closing the refrigerator for three minutes without taking anything out.
The house echoes were getting more frequent, pulsing silently against the outside of every house in view. In response, Gaby explained, the houses grew smaller, shrinking from the reminder of their already-lost kin.
“But I don’t think,” she squinted, again, at the solid wall where the bowl of leftover chicken soup had been, “the house is trying to hurt us.”
Gaby didn’t explain anymore. Said she needed time to think.
Three nights later, she was gone.
There’d been three nights between Susan and Rae. Another three between Rae and Gaby.
Three mornings later, Clea woke to find the wall near her bed had drawn closer, slicing off the bottom corner of her bed and one of the slippers she’d left on the floor. The remaining half of a slipper lay overturned, purple and fuzzy and looking lost.
“Is anyone in there?” Another flurry of knocks, and someone yelling.
Clea bit her lip, finished her coffee, and turned back toward the kitchen. Once the sun rose and the day’s diminishing was over, she needed to redistribute the remaining food around the house. She did this every day, to lessen the chance of a single diminishing taking all her supplies.
She’d realized Gaby was right. The house was still keeping them safe. Their house might be as scared as the others, but it wouldn’t abandon the four of them.
Besides, her friends had promised they’d never leave her behind.
Here she was safe. She only had to wait for the others to come and get her. They would, eventually. The house would enfold her.
Things would be easier soon.
She had so much to tell them all once they found her.
The knocking came again, fast, overlaid with a wary voice. “We figured out how to hold off the houses!”
The front door of the house burst inward, and Clea placed her hand against the nearest wall.
The sun rose, and the house diminished.
© 2022 by Devan Barlow
Devan Barlow’s fiction has appeared in the anthologies Upon a Thrice Time and 99 Tiny Terrors, as well as in Lackington’s, Abyss & Apex, Truancy, and Daily Science Fiction. Her fantasy novel An Uncommon Curse, a story of fairy tales and musical theatre, is forthcoming. When not writing she reads voraciously, drinks tea, and thinks about fairy tales and sea monsters. She can be found at her website https://devanbarlow.com