My mother called the doctor the very day the house fell ill.
“It’s running a temperature,” she told him. “No matter how we adjust the thermostat. At night it shivers despite the heat, and I swear I’ve heard it moaning.”
I was listening at the parlor door, one hand patting the dark polished wood of the frame. The same thing had happened to my best friend Veronica Delaney’s house last month, right after the family had moved out. That house stood empty now, porch sagging, window casings drooping. Dead as a doornail, my mother had said. Nobody wanted to live there anymore.
“Maybe a fresh coat of paint?” My father always thought that sort of thing would help: a new bracelet for me when I had chicken pox; a silk scarf for my mother when she broke her wrist. “Or I’ve been meaning to plant roses out front.”
My mother hushed him. “You can’t cure the flu with paint and flowers, George.”
The doctor asked some pointed questions—had we had any visitors lately, was there any trouble with carpenter ants, had we ever noticed signs of allergies—and then took to examining the house itself.
“Sometimes,” he said, listening at the wall with his stethoscope, “a house just comes down with something. I’ll do what I can, but you might just have to let it run its course. Try mopping the floors with disinfectant. And change the air filters, that will certainly do no harm. But,” and his voice gentled, “I want you to be prepared.”
My mother put her hand to her mouth; my father mumbled something conciliatory, and made a warding gesture with one hand.
All evening the house groaned and shook as if caught in a windstorm, but the great fir outside my bedroom window stood still and moths continued to bump against the screen door, attracted by the kitchen lights. I was enlisted to help scrub floors. The heavy lemon-bleach smell of disinfectant made my eyes water and my nose wrinkle but I polished the linoleum, the hardwoods, the tiled bathroom with all my heart. I loved our house; I didn’t want it to die.
The next day the house stood silent. We sat around the kitchen table, my mother, my father, and I, and watched a square of sunlight creep across the sparkling floor. I was sent to check the thermostat a half dozen times; I think my mother was afraid to look. There was no change.
“Maybe that’s a good sign?” I said hopefully. “At least it’s not going up?”
My mother just shook her head. My father sighed heavily and went to the garden center to look at rosebushes.
“He hates that he can’t do anything useful,” my mother explained. I knew how he felt.
Across the street, the carcass of Veronica’s house seemed to sink further into the waist-high weeds.
That night we left the doors and windows open, let the sultry August air fill the house with the scent of jasmine and fresh-cut grass. My father had mowed the lawn, hoping to cheer the house up.
Maybe my father had been right; maybe a little love and attention was what the house needed. Or maybe it had been the disinfectant, or the doctor’s treatments. Or maybe the illness had spent itself. Whatever it was, somewhere around midnight the house gave a great shudder, and the air conditioning kicked on. My parents ran from room to room closing doors and windows, opening louvers, checking thermostats.
When the doctor returned for a final check-up, I asked him if Veronica’s house had died from the same thing. He glanced out the window.
“No.” He folded up his stethoscope, stuffed it into his lab coat pocket. “I can’t be sure, but I think that house just gave up when Mrs. Delaney took that job in Des Moines. Houses know when they’re being left behind, and depression can be hard to dig out from, especially when undiagnosed. I wish they’d called me in sooner. I might’ve saved that one, introduced it to another family.”
“I’m never going to leave this house,” I told the doctor. “Never. I’m going to live here forever.”
He smiled and patted me on the head, which always irritated me but my mother said I should be polite to the house doctor, and he did help so I smiled back.
“We’re going to plant roses,” I said. “Right out front. I think it’ll look pretty, don’t you?”