THE HOUSE THAT MADE THE SIXTEEN LOOPS OF TIME
Tamsyn Muir is a New Zealand writer based in Auckland, where she divides her time between writing, her dogs, and teaching high school English. A graduate of the Clarion Writers’ Workshop 2010, her work has previously appeared in Fantasy Magazine, Weird Tales, and Nightmare Magazine. Her stories have also been selected for The Year’s Best Science Fiction & Fantasy 2013 and Best Horror of the Year. This story first appeared in Fantasy Magazine in 2011.
14 Arden Lane suffered from bad plumbing and magical build-up. There Dr. Rosamund Tilly had raised two children, bred sixteen chinchillas and written her thesis, and because her name was on the deed had become the medium of all the house’s whims and wishes. She liked it, most of the time, but her best friend in all the world liked it less: “Your house is a spoiled brat,” said Danny Tsai, “and I feel inane saying that.”
The house was an old, old two-storey lump, very square and not graceful, made of red brick that had to peep through thick trellises of ivy creeper and a roof that liked shedding tiles. Dr. Tilly knew it was horribly untidy and ran risk of being burnt down by vigilantes from the Neighbourhood Association – only that it was at the end of the road, and hidden by a thick yew hedge. Even then the hedge was never even at the top, and it was her neighbours’ hobby to send letters seeing if they could get her to cut it down.
But Rosamund loved 14 Arden Lane; it had been willed to her by her grandmother, who died conveniently when she was twenty and had needed a house. She had admired it for its slippery wooden floors, its wide stairs and weird chimney, the poky bathrooms and the wheezing refrigerator in the kitchen. She had carefully and thoroughly checked for ants’ nests and termites, following guides. Satisfied, she recklessly painted the walls in unlikely colours like lipstick red, and moved all her coats into the closets that would shelter her coats and later the coats of her daughters. When the house turned out to be magical Rosamund Tilly just accepted this as fact.
Magic built up like a breath waiting to be exhaled. On a bad day, she could touch a coffee mug and have it erupt in delicate little spikes of ceramic, a fretwork of stalactites extending outward as she pulled her hand back. Tap water might avoid her fingers when she turned on the tap. And that was just the house when it was in a good mood, because when it was upset or in a fit of bad behaviour it could make her life a misery. A spoiled brat, like Daniel said.
Once Dr. Tilly had grown welts under her arms that burst and released dozens of tiny, transparent crabs, which made Danny nauseated and her daughters shriek. She had finally swept the crabs into a dustpan and let them go outside, where they crept into the bushes. Rosamund had been more disturbed than afraid, and good at choking down things that made her disturbed: her daughters Snowdrop and Sparrow were disturbed, afraid and disquieted, but in rebellion from being named Snowdrop and Sparrow they were creatures of logic who’d always despaired of the house and dreamt of air-conditioned flats. At that point she hadn’t really blamed them.
Daniel, though, had bore up well. He’d only once really lost his temper, when her kitchen parsley bit his fingers: “Why can’t you have a normal house instead of— this stupid, temperamental Disney shack,” he’d snapped. “And the water pressure is terrible.” For five weeks neither of his cellphones got reception there and Danny banged all the doors.
But with Daniel, any annoyance he demonstrated was usually awkwardness, and under the staid curtness of his day-to-day chartered stockbroker face he liked chinchillas as well as laptops. They were two people who understood each other completely: she understood his irritability, his privacy, his inability to be serious with her when he was serious all day with everyone else. He understood just about everything with her, including a lot of things she wished he didn’t. They were as devoted to each other as two people could be, and every lunchtime when he was at his office desk and she was marking university papers they would ring up to ask what the other was eating. Accepting her magical house was a small issue.
Anyway, anything 14 Arden Lane did never lasted; when the house felt it had made its point, it stopped. Usually. One of the chinchillas had been purple forever.
Now that she was forty-two Rosamund Tilly could tell when the build-ups were reaching explosion point. The ivy trellises around the house would be taut and trembling, the pretty crazy-paved path curling inward trying to claw the long grass verge. Even the dust would smell like firework smoke as she dragged a cloth haphazardly over her collections of glass cats. Years ago a build-up had made her accidentally wipe off her youngest daughter’s eyebrows, and Snowdrop had gone around with her fringe brushed down and full of bitter complaints. Her tweenage feelings had been further hurt by her mother finding it hilarious, but the point was underscored: Rosamund Tilly really couldn’t control what happened or when.
Thursday week the house made her hiccup a butterfly, and at that point she knew there was going to be a problem. 14 Arden Lane was of late empty and lonely now that it had lost the children and most of the chinchillas, and the house would sullenly take it out on her in sometimes vicious ways. Just a month ago great snakelike twists of wormy mud slithered out of the kitchen sink, coiling over her dishes and bending her forks, and that had made Dr. Tilly remember the crabs.
That night Danny came over from the office after a long day of chartered stockbrokering and surfed pictures of cats on his laptop as she fidgeted. “A watched pot never boils,” he said.
“Don’t give the house ideas with ‘boil’, you animal.”
“Remember how aggressive it got when you put down new carpet, with the chimney and the goats?” He was clicking through pictures of disapproving rabbits, sitting next to her on the sofa. “I’m waiting for the day when you form a new plane of existence and your evil self replaces you, and I’ll be able to tell her by the moustache.”
“You are so flip,” said Rosamund. “Why do you have to be so flip.”
“I’m just here to look after you, Rose,” he said, and that was pretty adorable so she put her feet into his lap and prodded his computer with her socks. Daniel Tsai had longsufferingly helped her raise two children, sixteen chinchillas and read her thesis, but he’d been obliged to: in primary school they had exchanged teal and fuschia friendship bracelets, a lifelong commitment if ever there was one. “Well? Go on and tell the house to hurry up, as the suspense is killing me.”
Rosamund Tilly folded herself into a lotus pose instead, which always gently bemused him and disgusted her two daughters. Being able to fold oneself into a lotus was a payoff from having done yoga when it wasn’t popular and being a hippie when it wasn’t fun any more, when she’d prided herself on having the widest bellbottoms in all Hartford and fifty-six recipes involving carob. When she had moved into 14 Arden Lane she’d had carrot-coloured hair so long she could sit on it and towered three inches over Danny, who wasn’t short, so she supposed the house had liked her out of pure shock.
Her ears popped, like they did on a descending airplane. “I think something’s coming,” she said.
Danny was looking at cats again. “So’s Christmas.”
Not a lot happened, at first. There was a little tingly smell like ozone, and a sense that she’d just breathed in a lungful of water and had to spit it out. Needle-sharp shivers started at her ankles and worked their way up. She closed her eyes very tightly, and when she opened them again there was Danny, waiting, eyes crinkling a little quizzically.
“Well?” he said. “Did worlds collide?”
“Not for me,” she said, and the sensation flared briefly again: more like the shadow of a feeling than the first sharp injection of it. Her vision blurred a little, but she wasn’t sure as they hadn’t turned on all the lights in the sitting-room. The house liked it when they thought conscientiously about the environment. Dr. Tilly worried that something dreadful was about to happen.
“Well?” Danny said. “Did worlds collide?”
“You already said that, you broken record,” she said. A third little stab. The room shifted again, and her fingers fretted at her eyes.
“Well?” he said. “Did worlds collide?”
The little flurries of sensation were making her palms prickle with sweat. Danny wasn’t reacting. He had barely moved an inch – hadn’t even moved – same expression, the same tonal quality, the same lift to the I in collide and slight Yorkshire slur to the s. When looked at, the room wasn’t doing anything particularly interesting: the wallpaper wasn’t turning into sugar and the armchairs weren’t growing feet.
“I’m admitting defeat,” she said.
“Well?” Danny said. “Did worlds collide?”
For long moments Rosamund just breathed. She pinched the bridge of her nose to make that nearly-a-headache sensation go away, suddenly horribly certain that she had turned her best friend into a space mannequin and that at forty-two she would never be able to get another half as good, but the man opposite reached out and took her hand to keep her steady. Rosamund was stupidly relieved at that. “Ease up,” he said. “What’s happened?”
Now they were both looking around. She was having no apparent effect. The rug was not bleeding, the air tasted of nothing but air, and they both had their fingerprints. Once when she was younger and pregnant she’d made soap bubbles every time she blinked, which had distracted her from being younger and pregnant and thinking listlessly about marrying the father. Danny got worried and jogged her elbow: “Earth to Rosamund Tilly. How many fingers am I holding up?”
“You’re not holding up any fingers, you egg.”
The room blurred again. Right before her Danny-on-the-sofa unzipped and re-zipped back to where he’d been sitting, so fast that it was like he hadn’t moved at all. Lamplight caught all the worn patches on his suit. His expression was vague and somehow familiar—
“Well?” Danny said. “Did worlds collide?”
Even then she didn’t get frightened, she told herself. Three cheers for Dr. Tilly.
* * *
Time for a test. She was a doctor, after all, and though she was a doctor of Medieval Literature she still retained a duty to Science. She launched herself off the sofa like a shell firing and went to the clock, took down the time, wrote it on the back of a grocery bill – 8:14 – and put it on the coffee table. Dr. Tilly stood beside it like a guard, scrunching up her hands in her daffodil-coloured skirt and feeling ridiculous as the clock marched on to 8:15. Nothing happened.
Danny was leaning over to read. “8:14?”
Oh, well, what the hell. Dr. Tilly tensed up before she said, “Testing?”
* * *
Another big blur, another jerk of dislocation as she found herself back on the sofa, totally discombobulated. Once more Danny wore that pensive, waiting expression and she couldn’t even look at it as his mouth started to round out the words, as her grocery list sat next to the clock pristine and un-written-on. The clock read: 8:14.
“Well?” said Danny. “Did worlds collide?”
Time travel! The house had never mixed up time before. Dr. Tilly thought that she must have done something really rotten to have it drop something like this in her lap. She would have been excited if she hadn’t been so horrified: the house was probably destroying the space-time continuum right now and forming a thousand glittering paradoxes all because she hadn’t really cleaned the kitchen. Once she’d forgotten to weed the window boxes and the house had dissolved her feet right up to the ankle.
She knew three scientific things: 1. she was caught in a time loop, set off by 2. speaking, and 3. all of this was incredibly unscientific. So Dr. Tilly got her grocery bill again and scribbled on the back, worried that perhaps this too would send her careening back to the start:
CAUSED TIME LOOP, D
—but nothing happened. Whew.
Danny Number Six looked at her, then looked at the grocery list, then looked at her, and had the reaction that she’d guessed he had; he was completely delighted. He took his ballpoint pen out of his pocket and clicked it on and off, a sure sign of ecstasy in a stockbroker. “Are you sure?” She nodded again. “Good God. Why no verbal?”
Her writing was getting increasingly cramped. SPEAKING = SWITCH. SOUND???
“All right. Don’t worry, I’m a licensed professional,” he said, leaning forward and putting the laptop away. “A time loop means you’ve already gone back. How many iterations of the loop so far, Rose?” She raised her fingers. “Six? This is insane.”
Dr. Tilly wrote again: got to break it though, this is ridiculous!!
“This is beyond ridiculous. Did you forget to defrost the fridge again?”
Will experiment. You forget what happens each time I reset the loop. Judiciously she added a sad face, :(
“Let’s not go into the physics and assume you’re creating endless worlds in 14 Arden Lane with each new loop, it will give the chinchillas and I a logistics headache,” he said, leaning back and drumming his fingers on his knee. “Go ahead. What’s the worst that can happen? Goodbye from the future, you know – I as Future Daniel Tsai will cease to be.”
that is horrible do not put it that way!!
“I’m sorry,” he said. “Do what you have to do, Rosamund.”
“I will, I promise,” she said, and—
* * *
“Well?” said Danny Seven. “Did worlds collide?”
* * *
Dr. Tilly went around and touched all the walls and the photographs, hoping the house would respond. New try. “Did worlds collide?” asked Danny Eight. On the next loop she went and made sure all of the chinchillas were coping in their hutch as Danny Nine craned his head, nonplussed, and that didn’t do anything either. Next. Danny Ten followed her as she left the house but going out into the street did nothing more than make her eyes squint in the chill lemon-rind glare of the lamps, and at 8:18 in that iteration her eldest daughter Sparrow sent her a text message she didn’t read. The neighbours peered at her through their curtains. “Did worlds collide?” asked Danny Eleven. In the throes of despair and rattling around the house like an old car, Dr. Tilly dusted her glass cats. Nothing happened, though at one point her cellphone tweeted in her pocket.
Sitting there on the sofa with what felt like an ice-cream headache, Dr. Tilly permitted herself an expletive: “Jesus H. Christ,” she said.
“Well?” said Danny Twelve. “Did worlds collide?”
She said a ruder word.
* * *
Dr. Tilly put her head in her hands, which caught Danny Thirteen’s attention immediately as he reached over to touch her shoulder. “What happened?” he said, and for a moment she was tempted to explain everything again; to rely on his thoughtfulness and candor, but instead she sighed and went to get her notebook. Perhaps waiting was another experiment too, and she didn’t have to worry him in the process.
I’m mute. The house is not happy with me.
“Is that all?” The relief in her best friend’s voice was palpable. “Well, that’s nothing. We could play Charades.”
“We could enjoy the quiet.” Rosamund made a very rude motion like a gunshot salute, and seeing her so uncharacteristically hangdog he relented: “Well, come here and we’ll watch TV until the house forgives you, but we just missed the news.”
They both pretended to watch the Food Network on mute. 14 Arden Lane was silent except for the low burble of the dishwasher and the muffled sound of chinchillas in the next room. She put her head on the shoulder of his dusty coat and allowed herself five seconds of frustrated self-pity, and enjoyed those five seconds immensely. When she and Daniel were alone she pretended that he never flinched slightly or was given pause by anything, and she just smelled the old familiar smell of his shampoo and overheated laptop. At 8:18 her cellphone buzzed in her pocket, which she ignored.
She and Danny had once both sworn that they would be presidents, astronauts and rock stars, and now in their forties they shared mid-life crises in the same way they’d used to share chocolates. She knew she could be careless and cavalier and hard to deal with, and had won the lottery with Daniel. As best friends went he was reliably fantastic. She liked the way his dark hair was cut short, with sprigs of early grey at the temples, liked his hair in general: it was a pretty shallow thing to like about a person, but she liked so much about Danny that she was amazed by every new thing she found charming. There were lines at his eyes and mouth that made his rare smile a little lopsided and piratical, no asset for a chartered stockbroker. When she touched his hair he hesitated.
“It’s bizarre not to have you talking,” he said. “I have to admit, I don’t actually like it.”
Rosamund wrote afresh in her notebook:
Sometimes I think you’re angry at me.
“Don’t even try to have a conversation like this,” he said, avoiding the issue like a champ, “it annoys me watching you painstakingly write that out.”
There was a terrible loneliness in her as she touched his neck, folded down a piece of his collar. It wasn’t 14 Arden Lane that was lonely, she suddenly thought, it was her; she was an armoured creature, self-sufficient, but for the terrible fact of needing her best friend all the time excepting when she wanted to finish a book. Her fingers curled at his neck and she was aware of everything, aware of the outside night-time and how her clothes felt on her skin, of how his face was a mask and how he wouldn’t look at her. Her fingers brushed his cheek and his jaw and the side of his mouth, sifted through his hair. Rosamund Tilly was an empty glass.
“Don’t,” said Danny.
At university they’d draped all over each other and never cared. They’d both had their gay periods then, reverting straight the next semester when Rosamund admitted she couldn’t do all the clogged-up sinks and he admitted he couldn’t deal with the late nights, and life proceeded from there. Daniel had one and a half divorces and Dr. Tilly had littered Hartford with a committed lack of commitment. She’d also littered Hartford with Snowdrop and Sparrow Tilly, who were the delights of her life, or at least would be when one or the other stopped texting her, and now that they were grown up being without Daniel was a terrible chore. Rosamund had never been lonely for anyone except Daniel Tsai, and when she pressed closer she could feel the beat of his heart slithering arrhythmically against her arm.
“Don’t,” he said again. Her mouth was very close to his mouth. Danny’s dark eyes were fathomless and closed. “We can’t handle change, Rosamund. I love you too much and know you too well. Think about this.”
The room closed down claustrophobically on her. She wanted to say: do you know how long I’ve thought about this? Or: I want you more than anyone I ever thought I wanted. And: I’m so sorry. Instead she accidentally said, “I—”
* * *
“Well?” Danny Fourteen said. “Did worlds collide?”
* * *
Dr. Tilly quit wasting time. She shot to her feet, made a beeline for her notebook, laptop jabbing into her thigh and irritated at the faint smell of chinchillas as she wrote. He said, “What,” as she flipped over pages, pretty patient as she gestured him away from trying to look – all he did was eventually get up and get himself a glass of water, as though this were a perfectly normal evening.
“Just nod your head for all’s well and shake it for things not well,” said Daniel, “maybe flailing a little for something in the middle, God knows, I didn’t learn how to deal with this in school.”
Now used to gestures, she jabbed a finger at him until he sat back down on the squashy sofa and looked up at her expectantly. Dr. Tilly did not expect to feel so shaky. She tasted nervousness in her saliva as she flipped up the notebook—
Don’t stop me, Daniel.
“Oh, yes, that calms me down,” said Danny. “That makes me feel perfectly at ease.”
Flip. We need to talk.
“Okay. Any reason you’re using flashcards?”
Flip. & what I’m saying here is all true and nothing to do with any house magic.
Danny still looked pretty buttoned-up and patient, but his voice had that overly reasonable cast people took on if they thought you were a bit loopy. “Okay. Go on.”
what did you have for lunch today??
“Rose, you already asked, and it was a peanut butter protein bar.”
Mr. Daniel Tsai, are you in love with me?
He didn’t even take it in. He read it, looked at her face, saw the question there as well, and smiled as gently as a chartered stockbroker could when faced with a woman for whom the date was over – self-effacing, running one hand through that grey-sprigged hair as though trying to consider how best to put things. “So that’s what you’re worried about,” he said carefully. “Rosamund, you know I care about you, don’t you? You and the girls are the most important people in my life who don’t share my genetic code.”
This was not going well. She had made some mistake. When Danny decided the best defense was a good offense, he went in with irritated guns blazing. “I know we joke around a lot,” he was saying. “Is it the flirting? We can stop if it makes you uncomfortable. To be honest, I do love you. But I haven’t been in love with you since I was eighteen.”
It was incredible. She hadn’t thought you could physically feel your heart breaking, a sort of sucking sensation near the aorta as it imploded into itself. Dr. Tilly hadn’t thought her heart would break at all. “Don’t worry,” he added, “nothing’s going to change, Rose. Nothing.”
“Let me try this again,” she said.
* * *
“Well?” Danny Fifteen said. “Did worlds collide?”
* * *
It was a little funny, even, how his reactions didn’t change, how she noticed the quirk of his eyebrows once he got to halfway through her litany. Her handwriting had perhaps been a little messier this time. There was only one change now, a question of semantics—
“Rose, you already asked,” said Danny, “and it was a peanut butter protein bar.”
Mr. Daniel Tsai: I am in love with you.
Dr. Tilly held that one for the longest time, gripped between her knees. Once she’d gotten to forty she thought she’d been an emotional bulwark, but now she felt as though all her insides were scooped out and replaced with packing peanuts. She felt thick and heavy. Danny re-read the sign six times, eyes darting to her face before going back and reading it again, and she thought she imagined him swallowing.
“Well,” he said, with admirable calmness, “what do I do with that information, Dr. Rosamund Tilly?”
She scribbled inanely: I’m not sure? Romantic embraces??
“So you immediately assume I’m in love with you, in a fit of o’erweening hubris,” snapped her best friend, but even as she gaped and horrible dread filled her he made the queerest half-smile expression. The smell of sofa and dusty chinchillas no longer irritated Dr. Tilly. “Don’t mind me,” he said, and Danny leaned over to kiss her. He kissed her kindly until she didn’t want to be kissed kindly any more, at which point he smeared her chapstick from her top lip to her bottom lip. “Please just talk,” he said, and she was too busy trying to memorize the way that his mouth felt and how the cradle of his hips were against her own. “I love you. Say it again.”
“I’ve never loved anyone else,” said Dr. Tilly.
* * *
“Well?” Danny Sixteen said. “Did worlds collide?”
* * *
This time all she did was unfold herself: got up wearily off the sofa and could not look him in the eye, had that quizzical expression of his burned repulsively into her brain forevermore. Dr. Tilly stood up and paced around the room, hating every hair on her head and every brick in 14 Arden Lane’s walls, and at one point kicked the chimney grate until it hurt her big toe. Danny just watched.
The cellphone buzzed for the umpteenth time in the pocket of her skirt, and now she yanked it out savagely to read:
Sent from: Sparrow
Dont forget to fix the fridge mum!
Dr. Tilly imagined that the house was a little sorry as she got the hairdryer and proceeded to defrost everything up to and including the freezer, cartons of milk and meat sitting on the countertop as Danny watched and provided towels. If there had been a Queen’s Award for feeling exhausted, she would have won it. Feeling tired made one feel sadder and when one was sad one felt tireder, and she got down on her knees and scrubbed out the remnants of old carrots as she half-daydreamed about being kissed.
“There,” she said, “are you happy now, you wretched house?” Nothing happened. Her brain burst into tears.
Danny looked at her expression and said, “All right. Plan B,” and did what he did every time she had a pressure headache, which was to turn off the lights so that only a thin filter from the kitchen made its way into the sitting-room. He spread the sofa blanket out on their laps and put his arm around her, and they listened to the far-off roar of cars in the street and the tiny squeaks of chinchillas dust-bathing. Dr. Tilly thought she understood why he was angry: there they were, two people who knew each other so well that just by an expression he could tell what she needed, and all they did was stand and stare at opposite sides of the crevasse.
“A time loop?” he said, when she finally told him. “You’ve got to be kidding me. A time loop? You met my doppelgangers?” The expression on her face must have been like a coffee stain that couldn’t be wiped clean, so he relented: “Well, I suppose worlds really did collide.”
The house tried to get back into her good books by making tiny mandarin-coloured lights appear like fireflies, and she nearly forgave it when Danny reached out and let one alight on his finger. When he passed it to her it was sweet and warm like tumbledryer lint. So was his hand.
“Yes,” said Dr. Tilly, “they did, now that I think about it.”
* * *
When everyone else in the faculty asked about her tired face the next day, she said “House troubles,” and everyone nodded as though that made any sort of sense. The neighbours had stuffed two notes about the hedge in 14 Arden Lane’s letterbox and the house had retaliated by covering them in snails; the water pressure in her morning shower had been shocking; the house had made jasmine bloom from the ivy trellises, but Rosamund Tilly informed it that this was a poor show and botanically incorrect. It was Danny who had to call her at lunchtime as she sat down to mark some coursework, and she hadn’t any lunch.
“Tuna salad and three crackers,” said Daniel. “You?”
She looked in her desk drawer. “Five Peppermint Tic-Tacs.”
“Rose, that’s disgusting,” he said, and she could hear him drumming a pen on his desk. Danny didn’t mince words: “Look, you can’t go on like this, and I don’t mean your lunch. God only knows what your house will do the next time.”
“It’s lonely,” she said, though her heart wasn’t really into defending it. “The girls are too far away. I was thinking of getting another chinchilla.”
“I was thinking more along the lines of a roommate,” he said a bit crisply, “and before you say anything else – I was thinking of me. For one, I’m at your house so often I think I’m legally your common-law friendship-bracelet wife. What do you say?”
Her eyelids undrooped. Her headache cleared. Dr. Tilly’s Tic-Tacs melted on her tongue, sharp and clean and sweet. “I think that might do the trick,” she said.
It did. The plumbing was still terrible, but in Rosamund’s opinion 14 Arden Lane was good as gold.