The linen closet disappeared first. Or maybe it was just the first thing that Anjana noticed, the morning her parents moved into the nursing home.
The closet was downstairs, in the short hallway between the kitchen and the guest bedroom. It was narrow, hardly wider Anjana’s shoulders, with two high shelves in it. It had always seemed like such a superfluous closet, so far away from the bedrooms upstairs. Too far from the kitchen to be a pantry. Too far from the front door to store jackets and shoes.
Anjana was trying to find a bedspread that Auntie Priya had sent them from Dhaka, the white one with the blue and green embroidered flowers. She thought it might cheer up her parents’ suite in the nursing home. She could bring it to them that weekend, before she went back to Pittsburgh and school. The bedspread had been her mother’s favorite, before she’d fallen ill.
“Falling ill” was an odd phrase, wasn’t it? It made Anjana think of the trust-fall exercises they did when she was briefly enrolled in the Girl Scouts. Hold your arms across your chest and close your eyes. On the count of three, tip yourself backwards into the arms of fate. Anjana’s mother did not so much fall into her sickness as stumble into it, awkwardly and gracelessly, arms pinwheeling for balance.
Her father was a surgeon, and her mother had been a teacher, and they had been a family that loved clear answers and facts, truths that were clipped and groomed into manageable, sensible creatures. Her mother’s sickness was not like that: it was feral and strange. It had no name and no diagnosis, just a list of symptoms that added up to a woman Anjana no longer knew. Pale-skinned, a blank stare, her hands curling restlessly against her thighs. Her face had sunk, and her hair was kept in a loose, fraying braid–Dad’s handiwork. For a former surgeon, he could be remarkably imprecise with his hands. He hadn’t bothered to pluck her eyebrows either, or the small dark hairs on her chin and upper lip. Her mother would have hated being seen like that.
Just that morning, after they’d packed up the car, Dad had sent her into the house to fetch her mother. She’d found her in the master bedroom, one hand resting on the armoire–it was too big to take with them, and none of their friends or relatives had wanted it. Her head was cocked, as if she were listening for something.
“Mom,” Anjana had said gently. “It’s time to go.”
Her mother had rested her palm against the armoire’s carved, wooden door, and said, “She hides sometimes.”
Anjana had often hidden in there, when she was a small child. She’d burrowed all the way into the back, nestled amongst her mother’s saris and her father’s suits. She’d leave the door just slightly ajar, and breathe as quietly as she could. Come and find me! she’d call to her mother or sister, when she was in the mood to play. Other times, she just sat in there, silent and hidden away. Safe.
Anjana had cursed her father for making her do this alone, for staying in the car. “She’s not there now, Mom. Come on. We’re leaving.”
When her mother didn’t move, Anjana had wrapped her hand around her arm, tried to tug her away. Her mother shook her off and shouted, “Where is she?”
Anjana had taken a step back and said, voice shaking, “We–We’ll go find her. Please, come with me.”
Her mother had glared at her. Then she’d turned on her heel, walked out of the room, down the stairs, and out the door without stopping to put on shoes or her coat.
Anjana touched the peach-colored wall where the closet had been. She thought of the handprint her mother had left on the armoire upstairs. She’d dusted, cleaned the windows, scrubbed the floors, and stripped the bed, but she hadn’t been able to bring herself to wipe away that small mark, the last place in the house that had felt her mother’s touch. She’d come down here instead, to look for the bedspread from Auntie Priya.
Anjana briefly thought of calling her father, asking if he’d gotten rid of the closet during a remodel, then she decided against it. Dad had enough to worry about already.
The entrance to the attic disappeared next. Anjana wasn’t even looking for it, but on a trip to the bathroom, she happened to look up. The square wooden panel had been replaced by smooth ceiling. She blinked. Went to the bathroom. Urinated. Washed her hands. Came back out and looked again. The ceiling was still smooth. She went back to cleaning the windows in the living room, and told herself that she was very tired and under a lot of stress. She’d finish cleaning the living room, and then go to sleep. The attic would be there in the morning.
It was not there in the morning. And the small bay window in the kitchen, where she and Chitra had often done homework while their mother prepared dinner, was gone as well. The little nook with its cushioned bench had been walled over and fitted with a square window, small and cramped, like the window to a jail cell. There’s no way her father would have remodeled the kitchen to get rid of it. But she called him anyway, to make sure.
“How’s Mom?” she asked, the customary opening of all their conversations for the past few months. They talked about her, around her, over her: never to her. Anjana couldn’t remember the last time she’d talked to her mother. If she’d known it was the last time, she would have made an effort to remember.
A shuffle of breath, or perhaps Dad was shifting the phone in his hand. “She’s okay,” he said.
What was that supposed to mean? Anjana decided that it hardly mattered. “And how are you, Dad?”
He sounded sorry for himself, and it made Anjana grit her teeth. He wasn’t after her guilt, or her sympathy. He had made his choice to go with his wife into a nursing home, to spend whatever time they had left together. If he had regrets, he hadn’t voiced them. He just sounded miserable, and there was nothing Anjana could do.
“That’s good,” she said, and could think of nothing else to add.
“How’s the house?” he asked, still glum. “How are you getting along with it?”
She nearly laughed, hysteria elbowing her in the ribs, making her wince. “It’s okay,” she said. “I meant to ask. Did you remodel the house before Mom got sick?”
“Remodel?” he asked. “No. Why?”
Anjana had learned how to lie to her father long ago, and it was effortless now. “Just wondering,” she said. “I thought the light fixtures seemed different.”
She cleaned the kitchen that day, avoiding the wall where the little nook had been. She managed to lose herself in packing up her parents’ cookware and plates, so she could take them back to Pittsburgh with her. When she opened the door to the garage to pack the boxes in her car, she discovered that it had shrunk, from a double to a single. She could hardly open the doors to her Prius. She moved her car out into the driveway.
When she called Chitra, it was nearly midnight. Not that it mattered: Chitra was in Sacramento, three hours behind, and Anjana needed to tell someone that the basement door had disappeared.
“I think Bobby’s having an affair,” Chitra said by way of greeting.
Chitra’s husband had probably had several affairs, but Anjana knew better than to say this. Her role was to listen as Chitra laid out all the evidence of Bobby’s possible infidelity, to make sympathetic noises in the right places, and to call Bobby things like shitweasel and douchecanoe, since it would make Chitra laugh. They’d honed the routine years and several boyfriends ago. But Anjana couldn’t do it.
“I can’t find the basement,” she said. She was sitting on the floor in the living room. The room felt smaller, the walls huddling closer. She stared towards the kitchen where, throughout their childhood and past it, a phone had been mounted between the doorway and the cupboards. It was just wide enough to accommodate a phone and a small corkboard. The corkboard was gone, and so was the phone. The doorway butted against the cupboards instead.
“What can’t you find in the basement?” Chitra asked.
“No, the whole basement. I can’t find it anymore.”
There was a crackly silence. The sound of all the miles between them, between their childhood home and Chitra’s grown-up life.
“I’m sorry, what?” Chitra said.
The basement is gone. The kitchen nook is gone. The attic and the linen closet and who knows what else. The house is disappearing in small slices when I’m not looking. Anjana said none of that.
What she said was, “Never mind, it’s not important. What did Bobby do this time?”
Anjana remembered how their mother would sometimes listen to the conversations that Chitra had on the extension in her own bedroom, before they all had cell phones. Mom would hold a hand over her nose and mouth so that Chitra couldn’t hear her breathing. Anjana, who was seven years younger than Chitra, would watch from the same spot that she was sitting in now, pretending to read Animorphs books and spying on her mother, who was spying on her older sister. Was Mom listening to me talk to Katie? Chitra would demand later, and Anjana would flush and shrug and say, I don’t know, I was reading.
Anjana could have made a noise, could have told, could have done anything. But she’d let herself be invisible and complicit instead.
“Maybe I should come back home,” Chitra said. “Bobby can sit and stew on his own for a few days, and I can help you get the house together to be sold.”
“No!” Anjana cried, though she wasn’t sure why. “No, that’s okay. I mean–”
“No, you’re right, I was always useless at stuff like that. I’d probably just get in your way.”
Anjana had to bite her lip to keep from laughing hysterically, or maybe crying. Some kind of feeling was bubbling up, tight and hot and slippery, trying to pull itself out of her throat.
Anjana decided that she would continue sleeping in her bed. She brushed her teeth and washed her face believing that she’d be able to do it. She walked into her room and sat down on her old bed, looking around with relief. It, at least, was the same, still burdened with remnants of her childhood. The walls were the same pale blue that Dad painted on her thirteenth birthday. The bookshelf still had an entire shelf devoted to Animorphs and Yu-Gi-Oh!
Anjana wrapped her arms around her knees, shut her eyes, and tried to listen to the house the way that she used to, when she was a child with an already grown older sister, and two parents that existed on the other side of a great impassable wall: in their late forties when she was born, from another generation, from another country.
The house didn’t sound different. It sounded the same as when she was a child, a little girl that had liked to hide, sometimes. She’d burrowed into a quiet, tight-fitting spot, held her breath, and tried to imagine what the world would be like if she had just disappeared.
When Anjana opened her eyes, she went cold and clammy with fear. The bookshelves were gone. The closet door hung ajar, and was empty. The walls, she was convinced, had crept closer to her. It took several moments before she could force her limbs to move, to gather up her pillow and duvet and walk–calmly, slowly, as if she were trying to escape the notice of a predator–outside, to her car still parked on the driveway. She slept fitfully in the backseat, her breath fogging the windows, her legs and arms cramping.
“Put Mom on the phone,” Anjana said, the next morning when she called her father.
Dad sighed. “It’s not a good day.”
Anjana had been awake since dawn. She’d walked through the house, taking in the changes. The back patio was now a small, cement stairway to the garden. The dining room had shrunk, and the tables and chairs crowded against each other. Chitra’s old bedroom, the one that her parents converted into an office, had disappeared entirely.
“I want to talk to her.”
“Anjana, I’m not even sure she’ll hear you.”
“There’s nothing wrong with her ears, Dad!” she shouted into the phone. “I know her fucking brain is mush, but she can still hear me when I talk to her!”
Reproachful silence; a specialty of her father’s. Whereas her mother could shake the walls with her shouting, each word an earthquake, her father would retreat into a silence that vibrated in the air.
Anjana belonged as much to one as to the other. Various boyfriends had told her as much–her frosty silences were just as bad as her yelling. So she waited for her father to say something, but when he did, it was a shock.
“I talk to her every day,” he said. He sounded old, as old as death, as old as sadness itself. “And there are days when it’s like speaking to a ghost in an empty house.”
Anjana bit her knuckles. “I know that feeling,” she said. Hysteria crept up on her, and she shoved it back down.
“I’ll see if she’s sleeping,” he said eventually. “I’ll call you back.”
Anjana walked through the house again. The dining room was now hardly bigger than a walk-in closet. The big mahogany table and matching chairs were gone. It made Anjana feel dizzy, nauseous, when she looked at it. Where were the rooms going? Why didn’t they make a sound as they disappeared?
The stairs had narrowed, and Anjana’s shoulders brushed the sides. She tripped at the top, expecting there to be more steps. How many did there used to be? Was the ceiling hanging lower than it used to?
The master bedroom had shrunk, and her parents’ stripped bed pressed against the wooden armoire. The attached bathroom had vanished. The room even smelled different. It was missing the topnotes of her parents’ presence: her mother’s amber perfume, her father’s cedar aftershave, laundry soap and hospital antiseptic, the tea they both drank. The room smelled as if nobody had breathed in there for years.
The phone in Anjana’s hand buzzed, and she nearly dropped it, startled.
“Dad?” she said, and sat down on the stripped bed.
“I’m with her now,” her father said. “If you still want to talk to her.”
“Is she…” Anjana trailed off, not sure how to finish. Is she even there? She remembered her last conversation with her mother, in this same room, only three days ago.
“I’ll hold the phone to her ear, as long as she’ll let me. She might not. We’ll see what happens.”
“Okay, Dad,” Anjana said, and then added, “I’m sorry I shouted before. I love you.”
“I love you, too. Here’s your mother.” And then, quieter, he said, “Taslima? It’s Anjana. It’s your daughter. She wants to talk to you.”
For a long second, Anjana only shut her eyes and listened to her mother’s breath, a sound as familiar as the house used to be. In, out. Pause. In, out. Anjana breathed with her, and thought of the work Mom had put into the house: cleaning it and decorating it and inviting others into it, making it warm and welcoming. She’d set down the tiles in the master bathroom, sanded and varnished the dining room table, and put together the shelves in Anjana’s bedroom. All of them gone, vanished.
“Mom?” Anjana said, and then cleared her throat. “Mom, it’s me. It’s Anjana.”
Just her mother’s breath. Was that all that was left of her?
“There’s something happening in the house. To it, I mean. I can’t–” She lowered her voice, wondering if her father was listening in. She didn’t want him to hear. “I can’t find parts of it. The basement is gone. So is the linen closet and the kitchen nook and my bookshelves. It’s disappearing. Oh, Mama,” she said, and choked on the sound: the name of the first home any child ever knew.
“I don’t know what’s happening,” she cried. “I’m not crazy, but I don’t know where it’s going.”
She was in her parents’ bedroom, a room that was once as familiar as her own. She’d slept in here when she was a baby, in a crib next to her parents’ bed. She had crawled in here when she felt ill, and read books inside a cocoon of blankets on the bed. She’d peeked in her parents’ dresser, trying to find the hidden aspects of themselves. And she had burrowed deep into the armoire, touching her father’s suits to her cheek, opening shoe boxes, rubbing her mother’s saris between her fingers.
And now, even the way that sounds echoed and air moved was different. Was wrong.
“Mom, I don’t know what to do,” she said. “I can’t tell Dad or Chitra. But I don’t know how to stop it. Tell me what to do.”
Her mother said nothing. Anjana might as well have been speaking to the empty house itself.
She couldn’t stand it. She stumbled, half-blind, down the stairs and outside onto the awful cement block that had insinuated itself where the patio was, sat down on the bottom stair, and cried. It took her a few minutes to notice her father’s voice calling her name.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “Sorry, Dad. I’m all right. I just–”
“She’s trying to say something,” he said, cutting her off. “I don’t know what, but…”
“Put her on again,” Anjana demanded.
There was a low murmur of sound. Anjana shut her eyes, listening, desperate to hear whatever her mother might say, even as she told herself that it might be nothing, or it might be nonsense.
“Mom?” she said softly. “Mom, I’m here. I’m listening.”
The murmur persisted.
“Did you hear? She said your name,” Dad said. “Taslima? Do you know who you’re talking to?”
Inhale, exhale. Pause. “Anjana. Baby Jana.”
Anjana shut her eyes, and took her own shaky breath. “Hi, Mom. I miss you.”
“Where did you go?” Mom asked. “Miss you too.”
Half an hour later, Anjana finally said her goodbyes to her father, who had cautioned her–and himself–not to get their hopes up, that they shouldn’t believe she was getting better based on a single instance of clarity.
“I wish Chitra could have heard her, though,” Dad said. “I wish…”
“I know,” Anjana said. “Me too.”
When they finally hung up, Anjana dropped the phone on the cement deck beside her and buried her face in her hands. Her long dark hair hung over her eyes, shutting the rest of the world out. When she lifted her head, the sun had nearly set, and it was getting dark.
She sighed and glanced back at the house. It looked so normal from out here–it almost gave her hope that the inside would be restored and whole again, that the same magic that had momentarily brought her mother back would bring the house back as well. She got up, feeling sore and wrung out from crying, and let herself back inside.
The kitchen was bare and empty, the walls white, lit only by a bare bulb. The living room was the same, emptied of furniture, shrunken and shriveled like a fruit left to dry in the sun. Anjana swallowed down a scream, suppressed the urge to run back outside. She climbed the stairs that were narrow and steep, creaking under her weight. Upstairs, the hallway was cramped and tight, and all the doors stood ajar, peeking into small, barren cells.
Except in her parents’ room, where the armoire still stood. It was covered in dust, as if it had been abandoned there years before. A silent witness, a warning.
Where did you go, her mother had asked. Anjana shut her eyes, shut out the monstrous imposter that had replaced her home. Her fingers found the latch of the armoire and turned it. The hinges squealed. The inside of the armoire was the way it had always been, full of her parents’ clothes, smelling of varnished wood, muslin and wool, shoe polish.
Her grownup body was not too big to fit inside, or maybe the armoire was shifting and stretching to accommodate her. Perhaps she was shrinking. She burrowed to the very back, behind her father’s suits and her mother’s saris, the wood creaking under her weight as she settled in. The armoire stretched and grew around her, growing as big as the house had once been.
The door to the armoire creaked as it closed, shutting out the gray light. The latch clicked, locking in place.
“Come and find me,” Anjana whispered.
Nino Cipri is a queer and nonbinary/trans writer, currently at work on an MFA at the University of Kansas. A multidisciplinary artist, Nino has also written plays, screenplays, and radio features; performed as a dancer, actor, and puppeteer; and worked as a backstage theater tech. Their writing has been published by Tor.com, Fireside Fiction, Betwixt, The Journal of Unlikely Entomology, and others.
One time, an angry person on the internet called Nino a verbal terrorist. It was pretty cool.