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Empty House, Strange Beast

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The house doesn’t echo.

 

Not in the way that most houses do.

 

When most houses echo, it means that sounds bounce off the walls. It reflects and resonates and rings until it’s almost impossible to tell where the original sound came from unless you’re in the same room where the sound started, or you’ve gotten used to the echo itself.

 

Houses like that have a tendency to misdirect. How many people there are, where they are in the house, what they’re doing. Sometimes this can be intriguing; you can wend your way through the halls and room until you find what you’re looking for. The house may seem more alive than it actually is.

 

Of course, that does make it seem all the more empty when you’re alone and the only sound bouncing off these walls is your own.

 

But not this house. This house doesn’t echo.

 

Even the sounds of shoes, sharp as a tack and just as dangerous, even the clicks fade into nothingness as soon as the hallway understands the sound. AS soon as the house can identify the noise, it’s muffled, snuffed out between the corners of the walls.

 

There is a strange sense of intimacy cultivated in an echoless house. It becomes a matter of knowing exactly where something is, someone is, chasing not the echoes of their sounds as they rush from wall to wall, but your own memory of where they should be. It becomes as much you knowing the person, the place, as it does understanding how each room is connected to the next. AS such, there is a strange closeness that comes when you have to rely so little on the information from your senses.

 

This can be comforting, in its own peculiar way. To know someone else’s habits so deeply to be able to follow their soundless trail and find them. Or to be working or relaxing in one room and be taken pleasantly by surprise when someone calls out to you, their wordless I know you in the casual ‘I thought you’d be in here.’ Or even the simple bubble erected by sharing a room with those you care for, and having the space be yours, held away from you just a little by an echoless house, adding a layer of privacy from the rest of the world.

 

Yes, sometimes an echoless house can bring its own kind of comforts, ones that take a moment to learn, to understand, to appreciate. They are not for everyone, but very few comforts often are, and those that enjoy them would hardly wish them upon someone that wouldn’t.

 

Other times, though…

 

Gaon bolts upright, scrabbling uselessly at the sheets, the blanket, even the shirt covering his own chest. His breaths are in huge gasps, quickly absorbed into the nothingness by the walls. He doesn’t stop panting, blunt fingertips raking over everything he can touch until they can find a place to dig in and hold tight.

 

In…and out…

 

In…and out…

 

Remembering how to breathe after you’ve had a fright has never been an easy task.

 

Gaon tips his head back, staring at the ceiling. He breathes in, letting it out slowly through his mouth until his lungs no longer feel like they’re on fire and his hands can loosen the death grip they’ve got on the sheets twisted around his legs. He takes on more breath and lets his head fall forward.

 

Ugh.

 

His chin hits his chest, dislodging a groan from his throat and he bites back a curse. Beginning the long and arduous task of untangling the sheets from himself, he eventually hauls himself up out of the bed and worries at how much his hands are still shaking.

 

Some nightmares are the worst nightmares.

 

He doesn’t bother turning on the light when he gets to the bathroom, instead turning on the cold water and splashing it on his face. His hands move on autopilot, not bid to behave in a certain way. The cold is a welcome shock to his system. He flinches a little when some of the water splashes onto his chest, quickly soaking through the thin shirt, but pays it no mind. It’s just water.

 

When he feels a little less clammy, he shuts off the water and gropes for a towel, patting clumsily at his face until he’s dry. He hangs it back up and walks back to the bedroom.

 

He stares at the bed. The blankets are twisted and matted and every inch of his nightmare is written in the folds and wrinkles. Unbidden, a shudder wracks his body and he turns swiftly away, instead finding the couch just under the window and curling up on it.

 

He shivers. It’s cold here, next to the window. It touches the sweaty skin on his arms and chest and he sighs as if it could carry away the memory of waking up in a blind panic.

 

It can’t, of course, but he can hope.

 

Gaon leans down a little, resting his cheek on the edge of one of the couch’s arms and rubbing his arms. The chill stays, clinging to him like a second skin. He glances over his shoulder at the bed.

 

No. The fear is still too fresh in his mind. But if he stays here, perhaps that will only make it worse.

 

Gaon heaves himself up and walks back toward the bed. He reaches out and tugs on the corner of the top blanket. It’s stuck twisted around and around the sheet so he pulls harder, not caring that it falls completely off the bed. He was going to have to move it anyway. He lets it drop limply from his hand and moves on to the top and bottom sheets, returning them onto the mattress and tossing the pillows back up by the headboard.

 

It’s as he’s tucking the blanket back into place that he hears it.

 

Making your bed is like a reset point, Gaon-ah, his mother says, helping to smooth out the last folds in the top of the blanket, it can help you breathe and think of things as another beginning.

 

Gaon’s hands stutter on the pillow. He clenches his jaw and puts the blanket back in its place and all but flees back to the couch.

 

He grabs the throw pillow and clutches it to his chest, hooking his chin over the fabric and beads and staring out of the window with unseeing eyes. The chill seeps through his clothes again, rusting into the crooks of his arms, his neck, settling around him like a shield.

 

His breath shudders out against the pillow.

 

It’s an odd experience, the first time crying in an echoless house. Your tears are only concrete when you can feel them on your face, your neck, your hands. Tears are wet and warm, after all, and you don’t need to hear them to know they’re there.

 

Your sobs, on the other hand…

 

Crying makes your head all stuffed up, your eyes get swollen and it’s like trying to perceive the world through a cotton ball. Your ears submerge and if you can’t hear anything, all you have is the slight pain in your chest and stomach from the hitching breaths and the telltale drips of your nose and it reddens.

 

But if you cry alone in a room, with no one else around to hear, not even yourself, are you really crying at all?

 

It aches in a new way. Crying is the body’s way of dealing with a surplus of any emotion, not just sadness. It’s a cleansing thing, a way of letting the old wash away in favor of the new. But in order for it to work, you must feel it leave.

 

And if you can’t be sure you’re crying, well…that makes things difficult.

 

Gaon curls up there, small enough to hide his face in the pillow like a lost child, just to give himself the illusion of an echo. Maybe if he cries hard enough, despite the echoless house, someone will hear him.

 

He doesn’t hear the creak of the door as it’s pushed open, but he does hear the voice.

 

“Most people sleep in the beds provided for them.”

 

Gaon tenses. His eyes go wide and his sobs choke off, thankfully still muffled in the pillow.

 

He strains to hear the footsteps behind him and manages not to flinch when the other end of the couch dips and a blob of black appears next to him.

 

“See anything interesting out there?’

 

He doesn’t move, limbs frozen around the pillow. A pause, then a soft chuckle as there comes the sound of moving fabric.

 

“The baby deer face is getting worse,” he continues, “is the moon your headlights?”

 

Gaon’s knuckles are still white on the pillow and the bottom half of his face is still pressed against it. Some hysterical part of him worries that Yohan will be mad about that, that he’ll ruin the pillow or something like that. But Yohan just reaches out and tugs lightly on the edge of Gaon’s sleeve.

 

“I don’t like being ignored, Kim Gaon,” comes the light warning, and Gaon’s stomach drops as if the car really ran off the road.

 

But what is he supposed to say?

 

In the end, he mumbles out an apology that is muffled by the pillow. But it seems to be enough for Yohan because he hums, glancing out the window.

 

“Are you looking at something,” he asks, “or can you not look away?”

 

Gaon swallows. “The second one.”

 

“You know, it’s hard to have a conversation with someone when they seem more intent on talking to a pillow than to you.”

 

“Sorry.”

 

Yohan’s silence is…curious, to say the least. He doesn’t tug the pillow from Gaon’s hands. He doesn’t leave. After a moment, he shifts.

 

“Can you move, Gaon?”

 

“…no.”

 

There’s a pause, then two hands are reaching for the pillow. A pitiful noise escapes from his throat but the hands are careful, gentle, even, as they push and pull the pillow so it’s tucked beneath his chin instead of over it. It’s a little easier to breathe that way and the first few breaths he takes are louder. His hands still grip the pillow tightly.

 

“There,” Yohan says quietly, “better?”

 

Gaon nods.

 

“Good.” Another pause as Yohan glances out the window and then at the bed. “Have you been here all night?”

 

“No.”

 

“Trouble sleeping?”

 

“Something like that.”

 

Remember how if you cry, you can often feel your tears before anything else? That doesn’t work if your face is chilled to the touch and the tears grow cold as soon as they roll down your cheeks, or if your mind is so numb elsewhere that you can’t be aware of them.

 

But they are quite easy to see in the moonlight.

 

“What happened?”

 

Gaon swallows around the lump in his throat. “Nightmare.”

 

“Mm.” Yohan shifts. “And you’re afraid to go back to sleep.”

 

Gaon nods against the pillow.

 

“You’re cold.”

 

“Huh?”

 

“You're cold,” Yohan says again, running two fingers down the outside of Gaon’s arms, “you’ll freeze if you stay here like this.”

 

He’s right. Gaon knows he’s right. But every effort to uncurl himself from the ball he’s made feels as though it’s been absorbed by the walls of the house too. He’s surprised, too, then, when a blanket is suddenly draped over his shoulders. Hands smooth it down around his arms, rubbing away some of the chills as the couch dips again.

 

“Thank you, sir.”

 

Yohan hums. “Can’t have you freezing to death on my couch.”

 

Make sure you wrap up warm, Gaon-ah, you’ll freeze to death if you don’t.

 

The voice reaches into the pit of Gaon’s chest and twists. His arms clench tightly. His throat closes up. He gasps, the pillow jolting like an oxygen tank as his eyes widen.

 

Panic claws at his throat, It digs its claws in tight and refuses to dislodge, no matter how hard he tries to expel it. His chest aches too, his stomach throbbing with the force of the hitching.

 

It hurts.

 

“Kim Gaon!”

 

There’s a hand on his face. It’s warm. Something is damp too. Is the hand wet? What’s happening?

 

“Look at me,” a voice is instructing sharply, “focus on me, Gaon.”

 

He blinks.

 

Yohan’s face appears in front of him. It’s his hand on Gaon’s face, the other wrapped around his shoulders, holding him steady. His eyes are wide with concern, his gaze checking over Gaon’s face before holding it.

 

“Eyes here,” he orders, “stay here. With me. Are you here?”

 

“Yes, I’m—I’m here.”

 

“Good.” The hand on his face gentles. “Now I need you to breathe.”

 

Why? Breathing is hard. Breathing hurts. Why is Yohan asking him to do something that hurts? He doesn’t want to be twisted and examined right now. He doesn’t want to do something that hurts. He’s had enough of reacting to pain.

 

“You’re hyperventilating,” Yohan says, refocusing Gaon’s attention, “that’s why it’s hurting. Slow down, take deeper breaths. Listen to me, breathe when I do, okay?”

 

He starts to take exaggerated breaths, in through his nose and out through his mouth. Gaon isn’t able to follow the first few, lungs still aching, but little by little, it grows easier.

 

“Good,” Yohan says quietly when Goan is able to follow several breaths, “keep doing that.”

 

Gaon’s chest rumbles as he tries to comply. A few of the breaths still turn into hitching sobs but he’s able to wrest them back under his control without too much trouble. Yohan keeps watch, his arm still around his shoulders, his hand still on his face.

 

“That was a lot,” he says softly after a while, “what happened?”

 

Some part of Gaon wonders if he can hear a type of guilt to Yohan’s words. But it isn’t his fault.

 

“After effects of the nightmare?”

 

He nods. “I keep…I keep hearing them.”

 

“Hearing who?”

 

“My—my—“

 

“Easy,” Yohan says, the hand on his shoulders rubbing gentle circles, “take your time.”

 

He swallows roughly. “My parents are dead. I keep seeing them die.”

 

Yohan is quiet.

 

“And then—then I hear him laughing.

 

Yohan doesn’t need to ask who. The memory of the fire and the smoke, of the burning pile of money, and the crazed laugh of a man who cared so little still lingers, like smoke in a windless room.

 

“I…I still think I can hear them,” Gaon mumbles, wanting to hide his face but unable to pull away, “this..this house…”

 

He swallows.

 

“…it doesn’t like noise, does it?”

 

Yohan huffs. “That’s one way to put it, yes.”

 

There’s a pause. Then he strokes his thumb across Gaon’s cheek, catching a tear and wiping it away.

 

“I understand what you mean,” he says under his breath, “this place traps you in silence, like a pit that opens up and sucks in all the noise it can.”

 

“It feels like it’s holding its breath, doesn’t it?” Gaon looks up at him. “Or—or like it wants you to be quiet?”

 

Yohan nods, tilting his head. “You don’t like the quiet, do you?”

 

Gaon shakes his head miserably. He’s still drowning in it.

 

“I don’t either.”

 

Gaon blinks in surprise. Yohan’s jaw clenches, a strange expression coming over his face. He looks away from Gaon for a moment, throat working to swallow.

 

“…it doesn’t go away, does it?” He looks back. “The memory of it. Not here. When the walls don’t make a sound. It’s like it never goes away. You can still hear it, still, see it?”

 

Oh, dear. That is the secret of living in an echoless house, isn’t it? Learning how to sort through the afterimages left by memory crafted between soundless walls.

 

The human brain is remarkably tied to locations. For that reason, mind palaces are often built around a sequence of rooms or places. Memory and information recall are inexplicably bound to the ability to recall places.

 

When your memories have all been turned into the same place, it is difficult to sort through them. So you leave them. Like sorting through a sponge of water in a futile search for a single drop.

 

Gaon’s grip on the pillow slowly loosens, letting it fall to the space beside the couch.

 

Yohan stays still as he slowly reaches for him, slow enough for it to be a question.

 

Is this okay? Do you want this too?

 

Slowly, Gaon’s head is tucked against Yohan’s neck. Yohan’s arm winds around his shoulders, his hand cupping the back of his neck. One arm is clutching the robe, pulling it as an anchor between them. Their eyes fall shut and they breathe in the feeling of having someone else there to lean on.

 

Eventually, Yohan pats Gaon’s back. “You shouldn’t fall asleep here, it will hurt in the morning.”

 

Gaon reluctantly lets himself be guided away, even if he won’t let go of Yohan’s sleeve. “Stay, please,” he mumbles, “I…”

 

“…are you still scared?”

 

He nods, too emotionally exhausted to be embarrassed. “I don’t want to hear them again.”

 

Yohan sighs. Gaon looks up at him. There is still tension in his jaw and shoulders.

 

“You don’t want to be alone either,” he says suddenly, startling Yohan, “that’s why you came here tonight, isn’t it? Did you have a nightmare too?”

 

Yohan stiffens, mouth open as if a denial is already on the tip of his tongue. Gaon waits, bracing for it, but it never comes.

 

No sound.

 

Instead, after a pause, Yohan sighs.

 

“I’m not sleeping on the couch.”

 

They stand, Gaon’s legs wobbling a little after being curled up so tight for so long. Yohan chuckles at how much he does look like a little fawn struggling to learn how to walk for the first time. Gaon swats halfheartedly at his shoulder as they make it to the bed. Gaon scoots under the covers, a rush of breath escaping at how warm it is beneath everything.

 

“I told you you were cold,” Yohan says as he climbs into the other side, “is that better?”

 

“Mhm.”

 

“Good. Now go to sleep.”

 

But he stays still, eyes still pleading up at the ceiling. The house is a void again, sucking in every last bit of noise. He can’t tell if he’s alive anymore, or if he’s not, or if he’s about to hear a voice that will make him panic again. The fear rushes through his veins and keeps him wide awake.

 

Slowly, he wriggles closer to Yohan and reaches out, fingers curling in the edge of his sleeve. Yohan turns to look at him in surprise but Gaon’s eyes are already closing again. Yohan looks at the hand wrapped around his sleeve for a moment. It’s as if Gaon is trying to respect some invisible boundary between them, something Yohan placed there and expected him to know. But he asked Yohan to stay and he needs him close. This is his compromise.

 

Never mind that Yohan held him as he cried earlier, running his fingers through his hair and letting his breath warm the top of his head.

 

Never mind that he wiped his tears and helped him breathe to pull him out of a panic attack that had made his chest ache just as badly.

 

Never mind that he had jolted awake with a scream trapped in his throat and the only thing he could do was stumble out of his room into the echoless hallways to search for Gaon, to keep himself sure that he was safe.

 

Whatever boundaries they had held between them about things like this had already been broken tonight.

 

Yohan doesn’t mind as much as he expected to.

 

Slowly, he frees his sleeve from Gaon’s grasp and moves, wrapping his hand around his instead.

 

“Go to sleep,” he repeats, softer this time, “I won’t leave.”

 

Something in Gaon’s face releases then and for a moment, in the moonlight, he looks younger. He did wonder why Gaon looked more at ease when he slept.

 

Worry lines didn’t suit him.

 

The two of them lie there, under the covers, as the room closes in around them. Their breaths are kept here, behind the door, behind the window, something that will only reach the ears of the other.

 

We’ll keep your secret.

 

An echoless house is an interesting thing. It sometimes appears to have a mind of its own. A consciousness, if you can allow yourself to believe that much. It takes effort to suppress a sound, more so to contain it in a way to create a pocket of safety for those within it.

 

Echoless houses are difficult beasts. They require time to learn, patience to understand, and compassion to survive. Many won’t get far, many more will leave before it’s over. It takes work to care for an echoless house, even more so to love it.

 

But then again, isn’t that the same thing for humans?