I dug my key out of my backpack and slid it into the front-door lock. Before the door hit the stopper I clamped my mouth shut and tried not to breathe too deeply. I could tell from the thickness that hung in the air It was here, and tonight would be a rough one, along with all the nights after, until It chose to leave. I thought about shutting the door, locking it with my key, slinging my pack over my shoulder and walking to Mrs. Jenson’s next door, but I would still have to be home in time to start dinner. Besides, it was too late. I’d already felt It, and both of us knew the other was here.
I walked to my bedroom and threw my backpack on the floor. The warmth and cheeriness of the mid-May sun died at the windowsill, and the vibrant colors of my bedspread mocked me with false promises of what could have been a good day. I thought of the pile of homework in my bag, and for a few moments wished it was third period algebra again—because then I had the good fortune to not know how the day was going to end.
A few years ago, in sixth grade, or maybe even in seventh, I may have tried opening all the windows in the house. Back then, I still thought Its thick weight would dissipate if I let enough good air in. I’ve learned since then though. In school they taught us about black holes, and dark matter—how black holes would suck everything in and no amount of anything would fill one up. I understood then.
After I stopped with the windows, I realized our house is a shell. A shell my mom thought could keep us safe. She was kind of right. I mean I never saw It leave the house, and the sunshine stops at our door, because somehow the light knows not to waste herself on It. The shell keeps It contained in one space, keeps It from spreading over our threshold to smother the neighbors, the kids I go to school with, the whole rest of the world. Maybe the shell works because we’re on top of some ancient burial ground, or a shaman or somebody anointed the wood in our walls. Maybe, if, instead of keeping the outside world safe, the shell had protected those of us on the inside, maybe, then Mom wouldn’t have left.
I took two pounds of frozen hamburger out of the freezer and set it on the counter to thaw. Its in here too, stronger than in my room. I shorten my breaths, breathing shallow in through my nose, out through my mouth. I heard somewhere that mouth-breathing is bad—ingesting toxic energy, but I figure if I breathe through my nose maybe letting It out my open mouth is kind of like throwing It up. Then It can’t get all the way inside me by my heart and stomach and liver or whatever else is down in there.
In the pantry I find a box of powdered stuff and pasta. I head back to the kitchen and measure the water I need to turn the powder to sludge to mix into the hamburger. I don’t have to look at the directions. I haven’t had to look at the directions since second grade.
The clock on the wall ticks. The water boils. The noodles slide out of the box like a plastic waterfall. I shred the box for the compost bin and watch the clock tick.
With each click of second-hand my breathing becomes more and more labored. The air on the outside of me is thick, but I’ve let too much of It in. What should be oxygen in my lungs is pressing against my chest walls and I’m suffocating from the inside out.
I used to panic when this happened.
I breathe in through my nose, and out through my mouth, as I turn the burner to low so the pasta can simmer in the sludge.
The clock ticks.
I pull all the pots out from under the center island stacking them carefully on top. Once the space is clear I take out the shelf and set it on the floor. I stir the hamburger-pasta-sludge one more time to make sure nothing is sticking and then crawl into the island. I pull my legs in after me and use my foot to hook the lower edge of the door so it flips shut behind me. Here in the dark I breathe in through my nose, out through my mouth, and I wait, for It to leave.