‘Home Stay’ by student Nikia Allen was developed in Building a Strong Narrative in 2020. Note, this is an excerpt from a longer work.
Daisuke could hear his boss’s laugh in his head, echoing off the riverbank and mountains. So much for accommodation. Ōguchi probably owed a favour to the child of whichever old person had lived here. The security bars over the front door were starting to rust. Beneath, the wood was turning grey. The key he’d been given wobbled in the loose barrel, turning the simple process of opening a door into a delicate tug-of-war between the key and its fittings. The lock gave in, but the door remained shut. Daisuke took a deep breath, filling his sweating shirt, testing the seams of his jacket. I am calm, he thought. I will remain calm. It’s just the heat. I’ll go inside and have a glass of water. Then I’ll be fine.
He pressed his index finger against the door. The wood groaned in a way he imagined the house’s last resident had. No doubt this door had remained shut for at least a summer or two. Another deep breath, three fingers splayed between the bars on the wood. An experimental push. Groan, squeak, creak. A warp in the middle of the doorframe showed him four millimetres of darkness. He had to be delicate. Knowing his luck, the door would come off its hinges if he pushed too hard. Ōguchi would never let him hear the end of it, and the cost would almost certainly come out of his pay cheque. Daisuke closed his eyes. Old lady, he thought, old man. Perhaps both. I’m sorry your children haven’t come to take care of your house. Please let me open the door.
He nudged the door. The wood shuffled backwards with a squeak. Daisuke wiped his forehead. The back of his hand came away warm and damp. Down the house’s corridor, dust particles swirled with the breeze he’d created. The dark wood walls ate the light. He could smell the blanket of dust and the unmistakeable odour of aged bodies. He paused before the threshold. It occurred to him that the water and electricity were probably switched off. No point stumbling around in the dark, he thought. He took off his bag and used it to prop the door open.
The water main was easy enough to find. It was back near the front gate, within lines of sun-bleached wood that he supposed had once been a garden bed. There were no flowers or shrubs left. A few dried stalks stuck up from among the patches of yellowing grass. Looking for the fusebox gave him the opportunity to walk the circumference of the house. Everything on the lot was turning grey: the concrete fence, the wood of the beams, the roof tiles. Even the dust seemed to be losing its colour. He found the fusebox next to an air-conditioning unit. The box’s metal casing had left a metal rust mark running down the rendered wall. Daisuke flipped the switches upward. Residue from the disintegrating plastic stuck to his fingers. He resisted the urge to wipe it off on his shirt. What were you hoping for? he asked himself as he headed back to the front of the house. A corporate holiday? A hotel with an onsen? As if Ōguchi would ever give you an assignment like that. He knelt before the front door. He wiped his fingers on the decaying doormat, carefully undid his shoelaces and took his shoes off. How long it had been since someone had said ‘I’m home’ to this house? He picked up his bag and crossed the threshold.
The dark walls and yellow bulb dangling from the ceiling made the space seem even smaller. Stuffed plastic bags took up the corridor like a poorly planned obstacle course. Daisuke held his breath, anticipating the smell of rotten rubbish, but there were only the scents of dust, wood and the lingering old person smell. He took hold of one of the sliding doors. It rocked see-saw on its rail as he pushed it open. Bright summer sunlight poked through the kitchen’s green blinds. He had seen pictures of Chernobyl and Fukushima after their reactor failures. The kitchen gave him a similar unsettling feeling. The whisper of his socks on the tatami mats felt intrusive, unwelcome. The room looked like someone had merely left for a day trip and the house was waiting for them to come back. Dishes sat by the sink, long since dry. Condiments formed a line next to the gas burner. Soy sauce, mirin, sesame oil, their plastic yellowing, labels becoming unstuck. A musty kotatsu sat in front of the bulky television, close enough to hurt someone’s eyes. It seemed the house had last been occupied in winter. Some part of Daisuke couldn’t help but wonder if the last resident had died sitting under that kotatsu. No, he told himself, kotatsu have heaters underneath. If someone passed away under a kotatsu with the heater on, then surely the room would smell a bit more –
He shook his head in an attempt to shake the thought out. You’re an adult. A professional. It does you no good to think ill of this…oh-so-generous accommodation or anyone who might have lived here.
He took his phone from his jacket. No signal, the screen read. There was something he could try do about that. He stared through the kitchen blinds, double-checking for a nosy neighbour’s head over the fence. He hadn’t come all the way out here to break protocol in his first fifteen minutes. ‘Engage,’ he muttered. Firework tingles shot from his heart to the ends of his body. A teal line glowed through his sleeve cuffs, pulsed with his breathing until it reached the ends of his fingers. It wrapped around the phone then held steady. His phone made the noise it made when he plugged it into its charger, screen lighting up with No signal. Well, it had been worth a shot.
‘Disengage.’ The green light retreated back into him. His feet tingled as though he’d sat on them too long.
He crept over to the windows and tugged at the blind cord. The blind creaked and grumbled all the way up. He opened the window catches, letting in stagnant summer air. Anything had to be better than all the dust and ghosts. I can’t stay here, Daisuke thought, staring out at the patchy lawn, not like this. He went back into the corridor and dropped his bag away from the garbage. He couldn’t help but feel like a burglar. He thought of a birthday party he’d been invited to at a classmate’s house. He’d hardly known the boy, and he’d spent the whole two hours tiptoeing around his house for fear of knocking a picture frame off a shelf or annoying the boy’s parents. There’s too many ghosts in this house, he thought. I need fresh air.
He remembered seeing a place that looked like a general store near the train station. Even if it wasn’t, he’d hopefully be able to get directions to one, or his phone would find a signal. Daisuke straightened himself out and locked the door. Ōshimura seemed peaceful enough, but with the luck he was having, odds were the house would be burgled of everything remotely valuable as soon as he was out of sight. As he made his way along the uneven road, he wondered how many other houses in Ōshimura were empty. How many would be empty in two years, or five? The whole town seemed to be wilting in the heat.