Something is wrong with Uncle. His door is closed, and his door is never closed. Up on the third floor of the house, just past the second landing stairs where anyone going to their room has to pass by, his door is always open, even when he’s sleeping. Uncle likes to sit in a chair close by his door and chat. He consumes stories relentlessly.
But now his door is shut and the only sound is the squeaky steps of the stairs, the other tenants of the third floor wearily taking each by each by each to their own rooms.
Uncle is a loud man. He loves company and loves to talk. His mouth is never closed.
I run a nice clean boarding house for people to rest and eat and live when they’re not living their lives. I clean, I keep the bills, I cook. I have to pick the right kind of lodgers. When you have a gaggle of strangers sleeping under one roof, eating at one table, you need to find people who don’t antagonize other people, people who can live with each other without needing to know one another or really caring.
I’ve kept the house since my parents died and I do it alone. Well, mostly alone. The house keeps a cat around, I don’t know exactly where he came from or if he belongs to anyone. I call him Cat. As long as there’s no mice or dirty little mouse-holes in the walls, he gets a dish under the dining table when we all eat. He knows his job as well as I know mine, and if we’re not terribly affectionate, we have a healthy respect for each other. On some quiet nights, I’ll even wake to find him curled at the end of my bed, paws twitching at the tails of dream mice.
My house is a good house, but hard to take care of. Three stories, right in the middle of the old quarter. All the houses are ramshackle here, made of stone and blackened by old fires that burnt away anything less ancient. They were built close together, but small alleyways crept between the houses and now they look like tall skinny men trying to stay out of one another’s way.
Inside, the furniture’s mostly as old as the house. The windows are small and don’t open. Where the wallpaper peeled off, Mama started with whitewash and I’ve kept it up.
People sometimes ask me how a young girl like me gets along without her folks or a husband or whatever they want to say. But nobody can be very lonely when they’re as busy as I am. And Uncle is always here. He’s been here longer than I have.
Old and shabby as my house might be, people stay for the dinner table. I don’t scrimp on the meals and Uncle always leads the conversation. As I ladle out hot soup into chipped bowls, Uncle tells stories from his life, anecdotes about life in the army, faraway places, elephants and tigers and big guns.
Some of them are about him, I suppose. The rest are stories he’s devoured and digested into parts of himself, so I would reckon that he’d be hard-pressed to tell which were which. When I bring out the meat and rice and cabbage, he asks the other guests about their trades, their wares, their families, their travels. When they answer, he steals bites off their plates with quick stabs of his fork. He’s so blatant that it would be impossible to take offense, the guests just smile. When I serve the custard, he giggles, a bald corpulent mass of a man, chins wiggling and waggling. Even Cat seems to smile at that, purring into his saucer under Uncle’s chair.
Now dinner is quiet. Uncle’s door has been closed for days. I leave food at the door and when I come back for the washing up, the food is gone. The dishes too.
Can’t the other guests say anything, start any conversation without him?
I guess not.
The old woman who hates noise so much that she stamps on the floor of her room when I rattle the pots too much for her liking? She doesn’t mind Uncle’s big laugh.
The traveling salesman who wears cologne? Always scowling, always disdainful of the other lodgers. Except for Uncle.
The handful of young blue-uniform laborers who love to crowd around Uncle with bottles and laugh and get sloppy?
Even the neighborhood dogs love to see him on the street for an ear-scratch or a scrap of dinner. I’d give to them myself, but the shortages don’t make it easy for me to keep a table, let alone subsidize a pack of scrawny dogs.
He’s not my real uncle, by the way.
Day after day, the door is closed, but it’s no longer completely silent. I can hear him moving about in the room, his lumbering step spouting dust from the cracks of the ceiling. And the plates keep disappearing. I’d ask for them back, but I know he won’t answer the door and it wouldn’t be proper to open it myself. That’s not what a good housekeeper does.
But I do keep his bill and it’s adding up. Especially with all those missing plates.
The other guests start leaving. None of them are rude about it. I try to explain about the shortages, the cost of rice, what it takes to put on a table that doesn’t scrimp, but they just nod and cart their suitcases out. I even tried to smile a bit at the young laborers, which made me squirm inside, but that didn’t work. I guess I’m out of practice.
They pick up and leave, until it’s just a handful of us slurping soup around the table and Cat looking worried under it. Sometimes they don’t even give me notice and just clear out whilst I’m away, leaving their trunks and clothes and unpaid tabs. More and more that happens.
Since I have fewer lodgers, I put a few extra plates outside his door and make sure it gets added to his bill. It hasn’t been paid in a long time, but it comforts me to see the number at the end of the list get bigger by decimals.
And the food’s always gone, no matter how much I leave.
Now that my house has no lodgers. I’ve never been alone here (although I’m not really alone, I can hear Uncle in his room all the time now) and everything that should be as familiar as my own face begins to frighten me. In the night, when moonlight shoulders its way through the tiny windows and falls in thin square beams, the doors to empty rooms seem to swing by themselves. The stairs squeak under no one, and the old chairs exhale slow hisses of dust.
I wake in the night and feel the reassuring warmth of Cat on my feet.
And then one night, he’s gone and my closed door is open.
The shortages continue. There is no produce in the market, no meat, no rice, no bones for broth. There is no one there at all, not to buy or sell. But there’s always people on the street. Soldiers everywhere, giving me suspicious looks.
I hardly eat a thing myself, but a lodger is a lodger and I have to feed Uncle something. So I begin to strip the heavy old furniture of its leather and boil until there’s color and sour flavor. I break up the stained wood and shave it down to sawdust to fill out gritty loaves of bread.
Uncle’s bill grows and grows and when it gets dark and the dogs are out in the street, I do what I have to. Uncle gets fresh meat for the first time in weeks.
I add extra to the bill for that.
All day long, I do nothing but think about food. Not for me, just for him, always for him. That damn closed door and the squeaks and heavy breathing behind it.
Cooking, bringing plates I’ve cut out of the wood from cabinets and paintings that have been here for over a hundred years. Always delivering food, always hearing it get eaten by great soggy mouthfuls.
That fat bastard won’t even leave his room.
And then one day, there is nothing left. Nothing in the cabinets. No furniture. Nothing at the market. No dogs in the alleys. After Cat disappeared, I even made use of the mice. No mice now.
The world looks strange when you’re starving. It sways and drifts, your eyes are no longer steady in your head, you’re spreading out into the world, spreading thin. I walk up the flights of stairs to Uncle’s room, the bill trailing behind me the length of each floor, filling each room with a tangle of yellowing expenses, an unceasing scroll of paper covered with my careful calculations for miles and miles.
The door is closed.
I open it.
And Uncle is there, Uncle fills the room. He has split out of his clothes, a naked mass of flesh stretching the walls. There are feathers on the floor. He has eaten his mattress. There are wooden splinters. He has eaten the furniture. There are scraps of blue cloth. There is fur.
His head has become a mouth, a wide dark hole chomping at the air. He attacks the floor, pulling up the floorboards, he gnaws the walls, sucking up mortar and brick and glass.
The walls disappear into him. Daylight fills the room.
The corpulent mass of Uncle steps to the broken edge of my house and tumbles off, the bulk of him rippling with the sudden speed of gravity.
And as earth approaches, his mouth opens wide and eager and endless.
Nathan is an editor with Asymmetry Fiction.