The Ceiling of the Porch is Blue

5

I’m twenty-seven, and the ceiling of the porch is blue.

I grew up in Addison, Louisiana. Among other things I can’t shake, all the food in my fridge: the zucchinis and kale from the Co-Op, the expired sour cream, what looks like the makings of a casserole. Except casseroles are too big for one person to eat before the leftovers go bad, even when I take them in to the office and they stink up the car—

I thought maybe, ten months since McAfee hired me, a steady job, and if I bought the little brown house in northeast Des Moines, if I wasn’t renting, if this time the move was permanent—

I thought maybe, I own a car now, a used gray Prius, if I own it, maybe—

I wake up in a wood-paneled bedroom. I turn my head on the pillow and there’s the hexagonal window, curtained pink, tattered near the sill from Missus, the cat I owned when I was sixteen. The cat I left behind.

When I bought it, the Des Moines house was tiny, enveloped with feathered grass and a rust-stained flat driveway—and, especially, no porch. Just a few concrete steps up to the stoop and a green front door. I purchased it for the smallness, the price, its lack of resemblance to the house where I grew up.

The pink curtains shudder—the window was cracked open eleven years ago—and at the foot of the narrow twin bed is a chest with sewn quilts and, nestled into them, Baba, my stuffed mouse, whom I took out sometimes when I was younger to hug before tucking him away again. The toy, the chest, the bed, the curtains, the blue-painted porch ceiling: all features of the house as it was that day, when I was sixteen.

I waste a few minutes in the half-light wishing there’d been some premonition of change this time around. I can’t decide what’s worse: a few things shifting first so I know it’s coming, or waking up one day, engulfed.

Now the light is too strong to ignore, and I stumble into the kitchen with my phone flashing a missed call from my boss. I could call back, tell her why I’m late, that I’m haunted, and I don’t mean that figuratively, but I’m scared she will answer to a different name than the one in my address book. Maybe she’ll be friendly like Winnie or cruel like Myra Henderson, that bitch, but she won’t be the person I’ve worked with for the past year, the shy computer geek and administrator, who gave me a chance at a real job despite my work history and community college degree. Her generosity I repay with ghosts.

I put on some coffee and consider where my plan failed, but all I have is all I’ve ever had, the feeling of my new start sinking back into the well of that day.

I pour creamer into a mug shaped like a cat’s head, something my father bought for me when I was a kid. I don’t entirely hate that it followed me here. I like the whimsy of it, the memory of when it held sweet tea, rich and slippery down the throat the way it feels to slide down a tarp while the hose is running. The world hot-handed but the tea cool, even after it sits in the sun awhile.

I step outside and inhale steam from the mug. The smell is good, at least. I drink it because coffee in cities is camouflage.

The lawn of the small brown house was the size of a car. Now it stretches far to the street, space distorting to make room for my childhood house. My older neighbor walks his Pomeranian. His blue bathrobe stretches over his beer gut, though his legs are spindly. He’s acquired a swagger, and I suspect if I call him Clarence, he’ll answer.

“Mercedes,” he says. “How are you?”

“Fine.”

He comes up the sidewalk before I can go back inside. The dog yaps at me. Clarence didn’t like dogs, which I take as a sign that my neighbor isn’t subsumed, not yet.

He climbs up the steps to the porch without asking and peers past the front door I left propped open. The house is now bisected by a central hallway that runs to the back door, whose screen has peeling mesh and a broken lock. Past the kitchen table are the stone counters where my mother used to chop vegetables. I remember her slicing mangos and holding out a sweet sliver for me. It’s not always bad.

Then there’s the porch. The baseboards curl like sly feet, the ceiling a shade between noon sky and tropical water. A chandelier lamp hangs over the planked floor. I dug splinters out of my fingers for weeks afterward and I never got them all, it feels like, lodged as they were to the bone.

“Are you remodeling?” my neighbor says.

I set the coffee on the railing. “What? What do you mean?”

“Nothing.” He scratches behind the dog’s ears.

“No, really. Is something different since the last time you saw the place?”

He looks around. “Well, no. I just figure that’s what people do when they move in, remodel, you know.”

“You don’t—” I press my palms into my stomach. “You don’t notice anything? About the porch, maybe?”

“No, sorry, chickadee.”

The nickname jolts me. Clarence is an odd choice. I was only a few years younger than him, and the neighbor is old. But there’s a hiccup in his voice that tells me what’s coming—a frog in his throat, my mother would say—and over time he’ll look younger and younger. He won’t thank me for the change. He won’t believe I have anything to do with it.

After he’s gone, I think about checking for the usual details. The framed photo by the bed. Baba, in the chest. Maybe it won’t be exactly the same this time. As I think it, the hope erodes. I will always live in a house with the bear’s head knocker that my father picked up in Appalachia. The brown stone kitchen counters strewn with half-complete homework, pencil rolled against the metal lip of the sink where I dropped it when I was sixteen.

I go back to the bedroom and drop the phone face down on the spring-scented sheets—my mother’s detergent, not the odorless natural kind I like. Chemical, powerful. Inevitable.

4

I’m twenty-five, exhausted in the last semester of my degree, and the ceiling of the porch is blue. My first thought is that my laptop is safe because I left it in my locker at work.

I picked this apartment in St. Louis because the change seemed impossible. The complex is five stories, directly adjacent to a sloped street that roars when it rains.

I thought there was no way—but the world has made space again.

The new porch sticks out, four floors up. I’m impressed and nauseous. The house is squashed in the middle of the apartments above and below mine. This transitional stage is frightening, a Frankenstein’s monster of a structure.

I climb up to the second floor. I hate being in the stairwell so late, trapped in the narrow corridor while I fumble with my keys and pepper spray and imagine men in the dark, men with a salesman’s smile.

The change came on slowly this time, so slowly I thought maybe it’d worked, picking a building too crowded for the curse to handle.

My roommate is stretched out doing yoga in the living room. One of the couches is ratty and tan, a Goodwill purchase, and the other is the black leather sofa that used to sit across from the television at my parents’ house. My eyes skip around the apartment—the stairs to the extra story that sprouted three days ago, the homework that appeared last month. I knew the appearance of the porch was imminent, but coming home to it is painful.

“Hey, Mercy,” my roommate says, tipping her head so she can see me around the wall separating the living room from the kitchen. She glances at her wrist and looks surprised not to find a watch.

“We’re out of paper towels,” she says, and bends back out of sight.

I’m ashamed at my relief. I wasn’t sure until now, but I’d rather have Winnie, sweet and wry and familiar, than anyone else. I could live with Winnie if it meant nothing else changed.

I drop my keys and pull off my sweater. It’s too hot for the layers but I hate wearing thin clothing in public.

“We have a porch now,” I say.

The comment lures her into the kitchen. “What’s that?” She pads in and grabs a water bottle from the fridge. “You made spaghetti.”

I look in at the Tupperware on the top shelf, a new addition since this morning. “I didn’t make spaghetti.”

“Sure. You just didn’t want to share any.” She smiles.

I should leave it alone. I’ve been doing so well these past weeks. I thought if I let things happen, didn’t prod too much, the change would stay gradual. But the porch, God, the porch.

“My mom made spaghetti nine years ago,” I say.

She holds the uncapped bottle. “What?”

“Remember when you moved in here, and we went around taking pictures of the place?” I fish the envelope out of the junk drawer and spread the glossy photos by the sink.

She blows hair off her cheek and leans in to look. The apartment building in the pictures is long and lanky, as if stalled in adolescence, and crowded by structures of similar dimness from the same era. The interior shots are of the linoleum and brownish water stains. I hold up each photo to compare the shape of the stains to the ones on our walls, to prove the place has shifted around us.

“Why would anyone put a porch on the fourth floor?” I say. “It’s dangerous. It wasn’t there this morning. See? I didn’t make spaghetti. And these papers, I throw them away but they keep showing up. It’s happening again.”

“What’s happening?” Her tone warns me to stop but I can’t.

“I’m cursed. You believe in curses, don’t you?”

“Well, I don’t know, I haven’t really thought about it.”

“Isn’t it possible? People can be ghosts. Why not places?”

She sighs, tilting her face up, and all the tiny changes in her appearance come together. Her cheeks are longer, skin pinched around the eyes. Winnie always had dramatic facial expressions. I was sure the alterations would be impossible to miss. I thought I had time.

“It’s changing you,” I say before I can reconsider. “It changes the people around—”

“Mercy, you have to hear yourself. A ghost house? Look, I’ll go grab us some ice cream. We can watch a movie and hang out and forget about all the woo-woo stuff. Just, I don’t know, take a pill or something.”

Winnie would never tell me to take a pill. Her father died of an overdose. I feel my shoulders relax, and I decide a few more nights wouldn’t be terrible. The porch isn’t speckled with blood. There’s no picture by my bed of us with Norma and Jack, my parents’ friends. Jack taught us woodshop in high school, and Norma made sun tea so sweet a spoon could stand in it. Clarence, their son, was a few years older than me and snuck us contraband: cigarettes and dime bags of pot.

I’m restless through the night, checking to see if the picture has appeared. By morning, it hasn’t, but I look terrible. My hair is darkened to straw-colored with grease.

It’s not hopeless, though. I’m interning with a cybersecurity company in June. If I own things, if I’m somewhere permanent, this will stop happening to me. I need roots. Uncontaminated roots.

I go in to work at the grocery store, where I fill orders for birthdays and anniversaries. My manager hands me a request for funeral balloons.

“You’re doing good work,” he says. “Keep it up and we’ll see where we can put you. Somewhere a little more exciting.”

He puts his hand on my shoulder, his knuckles dry and split.

I jerk away.

“We Louisianans have to stick together,” he says.

I go to the bathroom to vomit. There’s a sock sticking out of the sanitary disposal bin. An appointment card for an oil change is crushed into the corner. I unhook my nametag and drop it on the floor. Mercedes, it tells me. I’ve never tried to change my name. My parents still have my birth certificate in a drawer in the old house, the actual house, in Addison. They never show up in the faces of the people I meet, maybe because I call them up once in a while. They were gone, visiting my Aunt Cece in Baton Rouge, that day.

I finish heaving and flush. I know then that I won’t finish my shift, or my lease. Who wants balloons for a funeral, anyway? To mark locations, I guess, but I picture them tied to the coffin. At the end of the service, the coffin is unmoored and floats up until the wind tilts the body out. The flesh splits open, and the mourners go home.

3

I’m twenty-one, a newly declared Computer Science major, and the ceiling of the porch is blue. I return from running errands to find the addition jutting out above the shop window like an awning. I check and find nothing else out of place, then call my landlady to take a look. She’s a middle-aged Wiccan who runs the store, The New Brew, downstairs. Last week, she adopted a third cat.

The stairs rasp. She knocks gently—she’s been doing everything more slowly lately.

I let her in, relieved to see her coiled-up red hair and the emerald snake brooch on her lapel. She blames her exhaustion on the maladjusted cats. I hear them, too, muttering all night on the stairs. I don’t hold anything against her. She let me skimp on rent two months ago when I was fired from waitressing for unfriendliness.

“Hello, love,” she says.

I hold in a breath, afraid, but I lead her to the new porch anyway. “Look what happened,” I say. “It appeared when I was out.”

She takes in the addition, three paces wide and stretching the length of the building. The chandelier is there, but the door has no knocker, not yet, and the planks are bare of blood.

“Sorry,” she says. “What was it you wanted me to see?”

“There was no porch this morning. Don’t you remember?”

She grunts and shuffles over to rummage in my mini-fridge. When she doesn’t find what she’s looking for, she takes down two tall glasses and fills them with tap water. She closes her eyes at the first sip. I take a drink as well, finding only bitter water.

The apartment above the shop isn’t large. The bedroom is visible from the kitchen, the bed a double I picked up on clearance off the back of a truck. On the nightstand is a framed photo. I have this sick feeling I’ll be ninety and still be waking up next to the picture of Norma and Jack with me, Kim, and Winnie at my parents’ annual barbecue. Norma has her hands folded in front of her apron, splotched from helping my mother cook, and Jack’s arm is slung around me, his hand stretched toward Kim and Winnie.

It’s the reaching hand that gets me. Jack was a foot taller than me. He made Clarence look short. We used to hang out in Jack’s woodshop after school and carve little animals for our menagerie. Winnie especially loved making tiny, lifelike bears and deer. But it was Kim that Jack favored, putting his hands over hers to guide them.

A couple months before I moved in with Kim, she called me sobbing, and wouldn’t say what was wrong, and wouldn’t let me come over.

“You alright?” my landlady says. “Getting enough sleep?”

“Yes, ma’am. Nothing looks changed to you? The place has always had a porch on the second floor?”

She smiles. “I’m not as old as this building. No one is. But its strangeness has always drawn me. Like calling to like, I suppose.”

She finishes her glass and asks for another. I pour from the tap, drop in ice, and watch her face. I’m certain she believes it’s sweet tea.

“I declared a major,” I say. “Computer science. I don’t think working in an office would be too bad, you know? Normal.”

“Oh, good for you, love. Have you told Jack yet? He’d like to know.”

“He’s out,” I say. My hand tightens, and water sloshes over the lip of the glass.

“I’ll give him a call.” She starts to rise, moving toward the phone hung by the thermostat.

I catch her wrist. Her skin is papery. Maybe I squeeze too hard—she gasps, and I let go.

“No, Norma, please, it’s okay, I’ll tell him later.”

She doesn’t protest the name. She doesn’t seem to notice it. My mother thought it peculiar that Jack—handsome, she said, a smile that could win over anyone—had married someone older than himself. Her tone implied that Jack had settled.

I say, “Do you remember when I moved in? I told you I’m haunted.”

She thinks for a second. “Sure, I remember something like that.”

“I told you the house would change over time. Things would start appearing that didn’t belong. You’d start to act different, and if I stayed long enough, there’d be a porch.”

“Mercedes—”

“Don’t you remember?” I take her hand, moist from the sweating glass. “You gave me a pouch of herbs and some crystals and I’ve been using them how you said. There’s one under my pillow. I mean, last I looked, there was.”

Norma makes a low tut-tut in the back of her throat that I remember from when she sat with my mother on the floral sofa and gossiped.

“You must remember. You spread smoke before I moved my stuff in. You said evil couldn’t break your protections. Please.”

Her eyes well up at the corners. Her irises are more hazel than blue, her neck wrinkled in loops like nooses. I don’t know if those years are lost, or if she’ll get them back when I move out. I’ve never gone back.

I’ll try again, I think. There must be someplace the curse can’t change, some structure too complicated. Someone besides me must see what’s wrong.

“I’m sorry. Sorry, Norma. Forget I said anything.”

Norma returns to sipping. I turn my head to where the back door will appear tomorrow, or next week. My father, grumbling about the heat, put off installing a bolt on the door, and I have to live with his shoddy choice forever.

We’ve nothing to steal, he said. We’ve nothing they’d want.

2

I’m seventeen, living with Kim and saving up for a place of my own, and the ceiling of the porch is blue. It was green when I went to sleep, I’m sure of it, and there are Missus’s claw marks in the curtains and my initials carved on the sill.

I roll out of the sleeping bag spread next to Kim’s bed and run to the bathroom. I touch my face, my nose, the chapped lips. My hair is always oily in the humidity.

My heart calms once I’m sure I’m me and that the bathroom is Kim’s, yellow walls and a tub with mold growing in the tiles. Her house isn’t as nice as mine, but I’d rather live here, and my parents don’t know what else to do, so they let me stay. The police say I waited too long to report it, and Kim never made a report, so we can’t prove anything, and I can’t go home.

It’s dark out the blurry bathroom window, so I take a shower and put my pajamas back on. The panic is gone, smoothed over.

I open the door to Kim’s room, and it’s my room—I wasn’t imagining things. She’s asleep in the twin bed, my bed, and there’s the hexagonal window. I jolt back so hard my head hits the doorframe. I clutch the wall and pain knives up my fingers. I can’t leave the scabs alone—I pick them so they never heal.

I slide into the bathroom again. With the light on, I breathe as slowly as I can. The tub smells like dye from when Myra called Kim’s hair ratty, so Winnie and I dyed it rainbow colors.

“Mercy?” Kim says when I come back to the room and turn on the overhead.

I kneel by the bedside and pull back the covers. “Kim, wake up.”

She snaps upright. Her panic fragments into confusion. She looks around the room, then she looks at me, like I’m what’s wrong here. “What? Why are you up so early?”

I open my mouth, then shut it. I say, hoarse, “This is my room. This is all my stuff. But it’s your bathroom still.”

She collapses back into the bed and mumbles, “Can we talk about this when it’s not the middle of the night?”

I can’t wake her then—she’s determined to go back to sleep. I touch the curtain, and the bookshelf with my girl-warrior series, and the glass dolphin Aunt Cece gave me when I was twelve. The switchblade I stole from Clarence to ransom back later that I didn’t think to carry with me. I open the chest at the foot of the bed and there’s Baba, half under a shawl, tucked in up to his chin.

The closet is full of Kim’s clothing and her stack of muddy tennis shoes. Everything else is mine, flipped so suddenly that this must be a nightmare.

I can’t stand the suspense. I run out and find Kim’s parents’ oak-wood kitchen, capped with black formica, and a rectangular table in a breakfast nook. But there are papers with equations next to the coffeemaker, and I remember how heavy the front door was, how long it took to open.

I turn on the inside lights so they spill across the porch, and then I can’t look anymore and slam the door shut. Fear is a second body beside mine. I grab onto the table’s straight edges, afraid they’ll shift under my hands. Certainty leeches in that nothing will remain as it should be. How else could it be, I think, when the details are preserved so perfectly, down to the ones only he and I remember?

“You’re up early,” Kim’s mother says, shuffling into the kitchen. She squints in the brightness. Her neck is wrinkled—she’s aged overnight, and her lips turn up, kindly and terrifying.

“Norma?” I say.

I’m paralyzed as she answers to the name. As she, first thing, reaches into the fridge for the sweet tea, then pops some bread into the toaster.

“Norma,” I say again. The second body hovers over mine.

Kim’s father comes in and sits at the table across from me. I tell myself nothing has changed. He was always this tall, this wide in the shoulders. His hands were always cracked, his smile white and square.

“Good morning,” he says. “Is Clarence up?”

“I haven’t seen him, love,” Norma says. She piles toast on a plate and shuttles jam and butter from the fridge, while he gets up to retrieve a newspaper from the porch. No one mentions the blood stains. I could get close enough, smell him out. Fried food and sweat and a whiff of kitty litter and ammonia. I don’t move. I can’t.

Norma works around the homework on the counter as if it’s a blank spot in her vision that her mind skitters over. Her husband settles into the chair across from mine and flips the paper open with a snap of his wrist.

“Have some toast,” Norma says. “I’ll make you some eggs.”

“Yes,” Jack says. “Aren’t you hungry?”

1

I’m sixteen and standing at the counter filling in answers. I left my homework to the last minute, but I never get a weekend to myself. Mom and Dad are coming back tomorrow and the space will be full of them again—Dad’s loud TV and Mom bothering me about chores. I guess I should’ve done the problem set sooner, but I hate being bored. I had Winnie and Kim over earlier. Kim didn’t want to drink, and Winnie drank too much, so Kim had to help her down the steps. Now it’s almost evening, the orange light thick as water, and it’s fall, my favorite season. I’m copying out a string of variables halfway down the page when the backdoor screams. A draft curls around my ankles. Maybe it’s Kim returning from dropping off Winnie. I wonder why she didn’t come to the front door. She never told me why she was crying, though the sound comes back to me—it’s a memory but it feels real. I decide we’ll sit outside with some cocoa. It’s a familiar place, and she’ll finally talk to me, where the moths gather on the windows lit from inside, and the ceiling of the porch is blue.