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when you bring the house down

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Paula was into arcane rituals, incantations, superstitions. He'd known that about her from the beginning. So it wasn't any surprise that after a month in the house, she suggested that they hold the séance.

Things had been happening since they moved in, things that didn't have any sensible reason behind them – doors locking and windows sliding open and crockery flying across the room. Fool that he was, he'd thought his mind was just conjuring it up at first. He blamed it on his nerves – this brand new city, this brand new town, this brand new marriage, of course he was jittery.

But Paula knew better and she wanted answers. She had a way of making things sound absolutely reasonable, even when she was explaining that they should hold a séance in the attic. The one question he had was how did they know that the séance would even work. Paula's answer was that if it didn't work, they'd find something that did, but there was no reason not to try.

In the attic, Paula lit candles and poured red wine into the good crystal. She sat on the floor, cross-legged, and held out her hands to him, expectant, inviting.

He sat on the floor with her hands in his and she chanted in a soft voice, in words he couldn't understand. The red wine shuddered and rippled in the glass.

It happened all at once – Paula went silent and arched her back, her breath coming in short gasps, her mouth stretching open – he'd seen her like this before, in bed, and he'd deluded himself that he was the only one who could do that to her, to bring her to that state and beyond it. He gripped onto her wrists, watching her face and memorizing every detail, because at that moment, she was still his wife but there was someone else there too, behind her eyes, watching him as well.

The candles blew out. The crystal shattered musically; red wine spread across the floorboards. Paula relaxed.

"What happened?" he asked. "Did you talk to them?"

Paula smiled, satiated, bright as the sun. "I didn't have to," she said. "She's already here."

*****

Paula talked about it afterwards. She told him the ghost's name was Phoebe and she'd been in the house since long before they moved in. He tried to get her to go back to the minute when she was someone else and describe how it felt. She said, "I was with her and with myself and above myself and with myself all at once."

The tenor of the house changed; if before it had seemed that the house was in a recurring state of upheaval, now it felt warily curious. He heard footsteps circling him and Paula as they had breakfast, chairs squeaking on the floor to better regard them. He looked at the empty spaces with just as much curiosity, so he understood the impulse.

Paula was indulgent about it. "She's getting to know us," she said. "She's been alone for so long, the poor darling. Let her come to us in her own time."

He wasn't sure how to let her come to him, other than carry on as normal. He went to work and came home and made dinner and watched the television. He felt that there were two people he was sharing his life with, and one was his wife and the other was a ghost who possibly lived in the attic.

They were having tea in the kitchen when Paula looked over to the side and said, "Oh, hello, Phoebe." He followed her gaze and there she was, sitting on the kitchen counter, a young woman with ancient eyes, watching them silently.

"Hello, Phoebe," he said.

*****

Phoebe's appearances were unpredictable. Mostly they heard her rather than saw her, but she would show up in the sitting room while Paula was knitting, or into the kitchen as he was making coffee before work. Always she left him feeling as if he was allowed into some other world, some place without boundaries that didn't correspond to anything he'd known before. She would stand beside him and he could feel energy pulsing through her, electricity in her skin and her smile. Often he didn't even need the coffee anymore after spending time with her, and he'd just leave it for Paula before she left for work.

One night he was making spaghetti Bolognese and she showed up, looking interestedly at him while he stirred the sauce. His fingertips tingled.

"It needs more pepper, I think," he said to her. "But I could be wrong."

She considered. She raised her eyebrows at him, what do you think? He tested the sauce, made a face at her.

The cupboards rattled behind him. The hinges squeaked. He turned around and the pepper grinder floated into his open palm and settled there, wood warm on his skin.

"Thanks, Phoebe."

She just smiled.

*****

In the end, he wasn't sure who made the first move. He was in bed with Paula, and they were talking about what they were going to do the next day – who should make breakfast in the morning and if she should pick up artichokes on her way home from work. The door creaked open, and Phoebe was on the threshold, and he couldn't be sure if she was poised to enter or leave.

"Come on in, darling," Paula said. "We were just having a chat, weren't we?"

She was at the foot of the bed, her hands outstretched, and he knew she wanted something but he wasn't sure how to give it to her, so he looked at Paula, hoping she'd have the answers.

"Do you want to?" Paula asked him. "It's all right if you don't."

He looked back at Phoebe, saw the offer in her eyes, and reached his hand out to her.

She entered him at the same moment he took a breath, her electric skin pulsing all the way from his head to his toes. He had pictures in his head that seemed to be hers, fluttering against the back of his eyes, too quick for him to catch them.

One part of him was still there, in the bedroom, with Paula, and one part was floating on the ceiling, watching his body rising from the bed, his eyes wild and desirous, and there was one part that wasn't him, that was beyond him, that he could never hope to understand.

He wasn't sure how long he stayed suspended, but it was over too quickly. Phoebe lowered him back onto the bed gently, and then she was gone again.

"What was it like?" Paula asked him, pulling the blankets back on.

He could only answer, frustrated at his own lack of language, "I don't know. I don't know. I don't know."

*****

He came home from work one day and Paula's car was already in the drive. He went in the bedroom, where Phoebe was on one side of the bed and she was on the other, and it was a moment before either of them noticed him.

"Oh, hello, love," Paula said. "We're having girl talk. If that doesn't put you off, we'd love to have you."

He knew he had no understanding. All he had was gratitude and a kind of wonder at how they had come and brought him out of his proper, regimented life, and he wanted to hold onto both of them forever.

He said, "Of course," and stepped across the doorway, counting the seconds before he could join them.