Introduction by Isle McElroy
There are innumerable ways to be weird on the page. You can blow up the form or make all the characters bats or write in a language of your own creation. All good options. But I, for one, love the way Kate Folk makes things weird in her writing. I’ve been a fan of Folk’s work for a little while, and I admire how she builds worlds that hover chillingly between ours and unfettered imagination. Her writing is uncanny and unsentimental and comic, a funhouse mirror showing us how strange we truly are.
“Moist House” begins like any old story: Karl, a man newly divorced and unemployed after an inappropriate affair with a subordinate, is looking for somewhere cheap to live. He finds a great deal on a house in a small rural town. The rent is free. And here things start to get weird. Karl must keep the walls moist using the house’s preferred brand of lotion—and cover the cost of supplies.
From Edgar Allan Poe to Shirley Jackson to James Han Mattson, houses have a long history serving as captivating sites of terror. The eponymous Moist House is sure to join their ranks. Apparitions appear at the door to test Karl’s fidelity. The house speaks to him in his sleep, hums at his touch. And what really makes the story stand out—what has stuck with me since my first reading—are the images Folk conjures. Unlotioned, the walls resemble “burned skin, a seeping red pocked with blisters.” Touching the walls releases “a shower of white flakes that were sharp to the touch.”
For all the surreal qualities, though, the terror of “Moist House” exists firmly in its human elements. This is a tale of obsession, stubbornness, love, and regret: the hard feelings that make up our lives. That, perhaps, is the scariest part of the story. The Moist House is a metaphor for all the bad situations we have ever endured, the places we never intended to stay but stayed a little too long, only recognizing how bad everything was once we couldn’t get out.
My advice? Read “Moist House.” And never trust a landlord’s excellent deal.
– Isle McElroy
Author of The Atmospherians
Lotion the Walls Or Else
“Moist House” by Kate Folk
The house needed moisture. So Karl was told.
He sat in a landlord’s office in a strip mall off the interstate. The landlord, Franco, was known to rent out houses that were undesirable as a result of their peculiar needs and could be had for cheap. Franco was in his forties, a thickset man with plump fingers and wide, colorless lips. He wore aviator-style glasses with gold rims, and sat behind a gray metal desk, a hulking piece of institutional furniture whose severity seeded in Karl a strange docility, a readiness to take what came.
Franco leaned back in his swivel chair, appraising Karl. “It’s a very special house,” he continued. “Other men have attempted to care for it, with limited and temporary success. The house is very dry, and only the most diligent tenant can provide it all the moisture it needs.”
Karl wanted to laugh. “Have you tried a humidifier?”
“It’s not that kind of dryness, I’m afraid.”
“I can keep the house moist.”
“You say that now.”
Karl shifted in his seat, noting that the office was cold. The room was empty, walls unadorned, scarred desktop bereft of computer or phone, and Karl wondered how long Franco had worked out of this space. He’d been referred here by his mother, who now lived in Argentina with her younger boyfriend, a retired soccer star who modeled in billboard ads for vitamin supplements and sweat-wicking sportswear. Karl’s mother had known Franco’s father in the seventies, in Berkeley, her radical days. When she and Karl last spoke on the phone, she referenced this man in the misty, oblique way she employed when recalling a former lover.
Franco had brought out a thin manila folder and was examining a document inside it. “I won’t charge you rent,” he said.
Karl was taken aback. “Thank you so much.”
Franco snapped the folder closed. “Your gratitude is misplaced. I am hiring you to care for the house that needs moisture.”
“I’m afraid you don’t,” Franco said. “I doubt you’ve encountered a house such as this one.”
“Well, I’m eager to learn. My options are limited at the moment. I don’t know what my mother told you about my . . . situation.”
Franco waved his hand dismissively. “The house doesn’t care about your past life. It cares only about the moisture you can provide it.”
He led Karl to a supply closet. “The house is accustomed to this type of lotion,” he said, hauling out a five-gallon bucket by its wire handle and placing it at Karl’s feet. “It will stave off the worst of the dryness, but you must apply it many times daily.” He ran his palm up his forehead, slicking back the thin hair. “In fact, you must apply the lotion almost constantly. And in the meantime you might devise new ways to keep the house moist.”
Karl smiled. Now that the initial shock of Franco’s temperament had dulled, he found the man’s devotion to the house endearing. He reasoned that landlords were often eccentric. “How moist does the house need to be, in ideal conditions?” he asked.
“There is truly no limit.” Franco told Karl he could have this first bucket of lotion for free, but would need to procure his own going forward. It would be a considerable expense, but an acceptable one, as he’d be paying no rent. Karl agreed, thinking there was no way he’d stay in the house long enough to exhaust the first bucket of lotion. He doubted he’d bother with the lotion at all. He only needed a few weeks of shelter, in order to regain his bearings and find a new job.
Karl signed the lease and shook Franco’s hand. He conveyed the bucket of lotion to the passenger seat of his Subaru, securing it with the seatbelt. He was in high spirits, feeling like he’d pulled off an incredible scam. He examined the bucket more closely. Advanced Therapy Massage Lotion, the label read. The word “massage” roused in Karl’s mind the image of youthful female bodies splayed on his bed, their backsides gleaming with the freshly applied lotion; girls like Tatiana, though of course not Tatiana herself, after what she had put him through.
The turns on Karl’s GPS brought him through redwood forest, then to narrow roads etched into cliffs overlooking the sea. In a small town ten miles south of his destination, he stopped at a market for provisions. As he surveyed the prices on the dusty shelves, Karl cursed himself for not having gone to the Safeway by Franco’s office. He had to be frugal with the nine hundred dollars remaining in his secret Wells Fargo account. In his shopping basket, Karl placed a two-pound sack of rice, six cans of black beans, two cans of chickpeas, and a lemon to fortify his immune system. He felt rugged and resourceful as he made these selections. The cashier, an old woman in a bulky wool sweater, offered Karl no bag. Her indifference wounded him. She was perhaps the same age as his mother. Unlike the cashier, however, his mother had refused to relinquish her beauty as she aged; in the pictures she sent over email, selfies with the soccer player while they hiked or drank juice with their beach volleyball club, she appeared toned and tan, her hair dyed the same auburn Karl had always known.
“Thank you very much,” Karl told the cashier, ostentatiously. He slowly gathered the groceries in his arms, making it out to be more difficult than it was in order to spite the woman for her rudeness. Back in the Subaru, he plunged into more redwoods, careening around blind twists until the road climbed again and broke onto an open plain of grass made tawny by recent drought. One last turn, onto the narrowest road yet, a single lane of mud sprinkled with gravel. In the distance, on a plateau halfway up a knob of mountain, sat the white cottage, a cube of sugar spotlit by the sun. The road terminated in a bulb-shaped patch of dirt to the right of the house, which was where Karl parked.
Karl stepped into the brisk sea air. He walked around the house, inspecting it from all angles. It was indeed a perfect cube. Its exterior was whitewashed, like the cottages he’d seen on a trip to the Irish countryside as a teenager; he’d gone with his mother, who was studying IRA tactics with her boyfriend at the time. Its slate roof sloped gently, so that any precipitation would roll over the edge overhanging the front door. The door was painted red, like a mouth with lipstick. Karl was charmed by the house’s simplicity. It was like a drawing he might have made as a child, after learning to render three-dimensional shapes.
Karl paused at the front of the house. He turned to face the ocean, and was overcome by vertigo, feeling he might tip forward and tumble over the cliff. He was struck by the desolation of the region, this house the only dwelling for miles on all sides, and he imagined he was the last person left in the world. If his enemies wished to find him here, they would have to work hard to accomplish it.
The door opened with a shucking sound, like the lid peeling from a vacuum-sealed container. The interior air of the house was thick and yeasty, forming a second skin on his face. He was glad, however, to find the room clean and sufficiently appointed. A single bed was pushed into the far corner, covered by a white quilt. A table and chair were placed beneath the south-facing window, alongside a shelving unit that housed a microwave and a mini-fridge. Karl had assumed he’d have a full kitchen, and saw he’d have no way of cooking the overpriced rice he’d bought from the hateful old hag at the market. Through a doorway in the east wall, Karl found a small bathroom with a stall shower, toilet, and sink. He stood at this wall and ran his palm down its surface, which appeared to have been freshly painted. The wall seemed fine to him, not at all dry, and again Karl felt like he’d gotten away with a crime. He almost felt guilty for taking advantage of Franco, who he’d begun to suspect was mentally ill.
Karl brought in the groceries, along with a duffel bag containing a few changes of clothes. He sat in the chair and looked at his phone, but found he had no service. No sign of Wi-Fi in the house, either. This was a relief; even if he felt tempted, he couldn’t go online and see what new lies had been spread about him. It was after 6:00 p.m. and the sun was at a forty-five-degree angle, golden light pouring through the windows, so that Karl felt enveloped by a harmless fire. He watched one patch of the north wall, upon which a trapezoid of sunlight was projected. Drops of water began to sprout and gather within the golden shape, the area surrounding it taking on a sheen of condensation. The sight unnerved Karl. Wary of mildew, he brought the single beige towel from the bathroom and wiped down the wall. Franco had gotten it wrong. If anything, the house appeared overly moist.
When the sun was gone Karl turned on the lamp beside the bed. He poured a can of beans into a ceramic bowl and microwaved it. He ate the beans with a spoon, then washed the bowl and spoon in the bathroom sink with liquid hand soap. He lay on the bed, watched a few clips of pornography he’d saved on his phone, and fell asleep holding his cock.
Karl dreamed the house was speaking to him. “Dry,” it said, again and again, until it screamed the word, and he woke. It was morning. The room appeared transformed. Its formerly smooth walls were now rough and flaking. In some places, the dryness looked painfully deep, tinged red, like scraped skin. The patch above the bed, the same area he’d wiped with a towel the night before, appeared driest of all. Karl ran his palm down the cool surface, loosing a shower of white flakes that were sharp to the touch. He was alarmed by the condition of the walls, and wondered if the house was afflicted with a novel form of mold.
There was no harm, Karl reasoned, in applying lotion to the walls as Franco had advised. He brought the bucket in from the car and got to work, beginning with the spot above the bed. Karl gathered a handful of lotion and transferred it to the wall, then rubbed in the lotion using the pads of his fingers. The lotion slicked the flakes down to the wall’s surface, and Karl realized he’d need to “exfoliate,” a verb Caroline was fond of. He wiped the first coat off with the towel, bringing the flakes with it. He then slathered an additional coat of lotion onto the exfoliated wall, after which it appeared healthy and glowing. He recalled the serums Caroline would apply to her face before bed, and was surprised by a rush of longing for his wife, while at the time he’d found her habits tedious.
Karl stood back from the patch he had moistened, which appeared fresh and gleaming, in contrast with the dull area surrounding it. The walls’ dryness now seemed obvious. Karl didn’t know how he hadn’t perceived it before.
He moved all the furniture to the center of the room, then brought the chair to the corner where the bed had stood, and climbed up with cupped palms full of lotion. He worked his way across the east wall, applying lotion, then rubbing with the sodden towel before applying still more lotion.
By the time Karl finished moistening the walls, it was past noon. He’d planned to drive to a café in town so he could use the Wi-Fi to search for jobs. But he saw the moistening of the house was a far greater commitment than he’d anticipated. Already, the top corner of the east wall had gone dry again. Karl shivered, troubled by the thought that Franco was not insane after all. The house needed moisture, all right.
Karl ate a late breakfast of beans, then went for a walk. The wind whipped his cheeks, and he perceived for the first time his own skin’s lack of moisture, the lines around his eyes and mouth cracking as he winced into the sun. Karl was thirty-eight, and within the last year had begun to feel—not old, exactly, but no longer young. This impression had been amplified by his relationship with Tatiana, a twenty-two-year-old receptionist at the consulting firm where Karl had worked for nearly a decade. As he ascended the hill that rose behind the house, Karl’s blood teemed with a familiar indignation. He had not asked for such intimacy with Tatiana. It was she who’d begun messaging him on Instagram, she who had poured out the indignities of her personal life, with particular focus on the callow young men she attempted to date. Tatiana had been the aggressor all along, Karl insisting they remain friends, for the sake of his marriage, until finally he’d given in, because he’d been raised to please women, to placate them. And it was Tatiana, in the end, who’d betrayed him to Gayle in HR, and wrecked his life.
Karl stood at the top of the hill, surveying the sea. He resolved not to think of Tatiana. It made him too angry. He would find a new job, and eventually, if he wanted one, a new wife. As he made his way back down the hill, the sight of the house somehow bolstered this ambition. There it was, resplendent in its nest of brown grass. Karl propped open the door and began rubbing the walls with a fresh coat of lotion.
That afternoon, Karl perfected his technique. He learned, through trial and error, to work the lotion into the wall slowly, rubbing in small circles until it was fully absorbed before moving on to the next patch. He found the process meditative. As he rubbed, he felt the wall warm to his touch. The house seemed to purr around him. He stood at the center of the room and closed his eyes, listening to the low vibration. When he opened his eyes the walls appeared lustrous, as though lit from within.
Soon dusk had fallen, and all he could do was settle in for another meal of beans. The same sequence repeated the next day. When he woke, Karl told himself he needed to get to town quickly, perhaps after a cursory moistening, and start looking for jobs. But as soon as he began smoothing lotion onto the walls, his desire to leave the house receded. The need for employment, for money and status, felt like an abstraction, a pointless flailing of his ego. The house’s needs, meanwhile, were tangible and immediate. Karl kept telling himself, just one more wall, but he could hardly moisten one wall without moistening the wall that adjoined it. By the time he’d applied lotion to all four walls and arrived at the original one, that wall had gone dry again. So the process continued, until another day had been lost to the house.
Karl’s food supplies diminished at the same rate as the lotion. On the fourth day, the bucket, which had been only halfway full to begin with, was nearly depleted. Karl roused himself to action. He lunched on the last can of beans spritzed with juice from the lemon he’d gouged open with a spoon, then drove to the café in town, purchased a small black coffee, and settled in to use the internet on his phone. On Amazon, he found the lotion Franco had given him, and was shocked to find that a single bucket cost $233. At the rate he was using it, he’d need a new bucket every week. The house’s moisture needs far outstripped what he could afford.
Karl stepped onto the broad pine porch of the café, and called Franco.
“I told you the house was very dry,” Franco said mildly.
“I can’t afford this much lotion.”
“That is not my concern.”
Karl considered. He had no one to turn to. Caroline refused to speak to him. His mother was in Argentina, having sex. He knew if he called her, she’d coo and say something like “Poor Karl,” but it would be obvious she was merely performing what she thought to be the minimum requirements of motherhood so that she could get off the phone and back to her glamorous life. There was no other housing in the area he could afford. “Perhaps I will devise alternative means,” he said.
Franco laughed. “You are welcome to try.”
With some distance from the house, Karl was appalled that he’d let four days pass without any progress in his search for employment. How had he been seduced into endless moistening, as though he were an automaton? Perhaps his trance state was the result of an odorless fume produced by the lotion. Whatever the cause, he’d behaved foolishly, and for a moment he despised the house and its interminable need for moisture. “What about the other houses you have for rent?” Karl ventured. “Maybe one of those would be a better fit.”
“What’s the matter?” Franco said. “It’s like I said, isn’t it? Four days in, and already you can’t keep the house moist.”
“I’m keeping the house very moist.” Karl now regretted having called Franco. “I was simply curious,” he said, “what other houses you have.”
“You don’t belong in any of the other houses. You’re committed to this house.”
“What happens if I don’t keep the house moist?”
There was a pause on the line. “It would be better to abandon the house entirely,” Franco said, “than to accept its shelter while refusing to provide the moisture it needs.”
Franco’s tone made Karl shiver, and he hastened to end the call. Back in the café, he ordered a bucket of the lotion from Amazon, seeing no other option. He set the delivery to a local post office; for some reason, the prospect of a stranger coming to the house unnerved him. He then checked his email, hoping for a reply from Caroline, or perhaps an apology from Tatiana, or Gayle in HR. Karl felt despondent as he reviewed his uncluttered inbox, the only new message an order confirmation for the lotion.
From the café, he returned to the market. The old woman was there again, on a stool behind the counter. “Hello!” he shouted; she flinched, glancing up from her Sudoku, and nodded.
Karl cruised the aisles, propelled by a manic desire to pamper himself, as if spending $233 on lotion had exposed his life as fundamentally stupid, and thus worthy of extravagance. Into his basket he placed organic mac and cheese, rice pilaf, instant oatmeal, English tea, and a glass bottle of whole milk from a local dairy. In the produce aisle, he selected four hard bananas, an organic pink apple, and a head of broccoli he planned to eat raw, for fiber.
As the cashier rang up his purchases, Karl’s mouth twitched in anticipation of an opening. He didn’t know why she should despise him. “Can I get a bag?” he said.
She didn’t look up, simply added the bag charge to his bill using a button on the register, and began placing items into a paper bag.
“How’s it going?” he said. “I just moved into a house ten miles north.”
“Lots of rentals around here,” she said. “Those Airbnbs.”
“Maybe you’ve heard about it. It needs moisture.”
The woman met his gaze. “I think I know that one.”
Karl’s chest fluttered with excitement. “You do?”
“Seems like every six months there’s a new tenant. They never last long.”
She shrugged and placed the last of his groceries in the bag, the fragile thread of her interest snapping under the pressure of his question. Still, Karl felt he’d made headway. “The thing is, the lotion is pretty expensive,” he said.
“What about oil?”
“Oil,” Karl repeated, in a tone of revelation. “What kind?”
The cashier led Karl to the middle aisle, where she selected bottles of coconut and olive oil. These were far more expensive, ounce for ounce, than the lotion, but they were surely more potent, and could perhaps be stretched to greater lengths. Karl brought the oils to the register, but the cashier waved away his debit card. “It’s on me, honey,” she said, with a wink.
Karl flinched at her kindness. He realized now who she reminded him of—a woman named Tara who’d attended his mother’s feminist reading group when they lived in Berkeley. He’d spent his childhood under the group’s benign gaze. As a boy he had sought their approval, growing his hair long and joining them in marches against war and patriarchal oppression. He had done everything they wanted, and they loved him until he grew into a man, at which point he learned to hate them for how they shuddered to silence when he came home from football practice during their Wednesday night meetings. Suddenly he was an intruder, their enemy. His mother continued to dote on him; she tried to draw him over to the couch, to discuss whatever text they’d been reading, which Karl would have done with enthusiasm only a year prior. But now, he saw he wasn’t wanted. He began performing his masculinity for them, a grotesque parody that made him hate himself. He cut his hair short. He paused at the fridge to guzzle milk from the jug, belching into the taut silence of their disgust.
Karl shuddered at these memories. He muttered a thank-you and rushed out of the market. He drove to a hardware store he’d seen on the way into town, and in the aisles approached the first employee he saw—a plump teenage boy in a burgundy smock—and peppered him with aggressive questions about interior house painting.
By the time Karl left the hardware store, now armed with sponges, paint pans, and brushes, he’d regained his composure, and was eager to get back to the house. Upon entering, he found the walls retained little of the moisture he’d left them with. The morning calm had fractured into a sharp wind that made the house groan, heightening his sense that it was suffering, and that he was the only one who could soothe it. Around the windowpanes, he saw fissures forming, and he knew he’d have to work quickly.
He first poured some of the olive oil into a pan and applied it with a foam brush, starting at the top left corner of the east wall, as usual. The olive oil left a yellow hue, and on the west wall he switched to coconut, which was slower going, as he first had to warm cloudy chunks of the oil in his palms until they melted to a consistency that could be spread across the house. He worked steadily, hoping to rouse the house to its intoxicating hum. But this time, the house remained mute, its walls cold. By the time the sun had set, he was finished. The room smelled pleasant, vaguely tropical. He’d used only half of each jar, and again Karl was grateful to the cashier; at this rate he’d be able to moisten the house far more cheaply than if he were using the lotion. Perhaps he could even buy cooking spray and cut his moistening time significantly, simply spritzing the house’s walls with Pam every few hours.
Karl washed the head of broccoli in the bathroom sink, then sat in the chair and tore florets from stem with his teeth. He finished half the head in this manner, then made a carton of mac and cheese in the microwave, which he ate while surveying the walls. They appeared greasy with the oil, which Karl found unsettling. The oil seemed not to have penetrated through to the root of dryness, as the lotion had done. He hoped the oil would continue to be absorbed through the night.
Karl slept, and when he woke his ears were filled with a high-pitched ringing, as in the moments following a great explosion. He opened his eyes to find the east and south walls, to which he’d applied olive oil, had fissured into a spider-webbing of cracks. The west and north walls, which had received coconut oil, were in worse shape, resembling burned skin, a seeping red pocked with blisters. Karl was so shocked by the sight, he was slow to register sensation on his own body. His skin felt tight and hot, like a bad sunburn. He lifted his shirt to find the skin on his chest had fissured. His lips were crusted with dryness, and when he darted his tongue out to wet them, his bottom lip cracked, filling his mouth with the taste of blood.
Karl hobbled to the bathroom, where he filled a fresh tray with warm water and soap. In the mirror above the sink he saw that every line in his face had deepened, so that he looked suddenly twenty years older. Karl felt an itchy sensation in his crotch; he pulled down his boxers and was horrified to find blisters wreathing the base of his penis. The ringing in his ears had grown louder, making it difficult for Karl to think straight. Somehow, the condition of the walls corresponded to his skin. Karl cursed himself for using the cooking oils, to which the house seemed to be having an allergic reaction. How could he have been so stupid? The house wasn’t a chicken cutlet. He suspected that only by first relieving the house of its agony would his own agony be lifted.
He began by wetting the bath towel in warm water and gently swabbing the walls until all trace of the oils was vanquished. Eventually the towel was soiled beyond utility, so Karl removed his T-shirt, wetted it, and began pressing it to the blisters. As he worked, he spoke to the wall. “There, does that feel better?” he whispered as he soaked up the wall’s fluids with the shirt. He recalled his honeymoon in Puerto Vallarta, the night Caroline had gotten food poisoning from a shrimp. How he’d carried her to bed and wiped her face with a warm washcloth. He had been tender with her, then. Over the years he’d hardened to Caroline, and now, as he cleansed the walls of the oils he had harmed them with, he could not understand why his feelings had changed.
The blisters responded to his touch, healing over even as he watched. By the time he was ready to apply the lotion, the sores had diminished to pink patches. Karl peered into his boxers, relieved to see that his own blisters had similarly healed. The ringing in his ears had dwindled to a faint whine, the house nearly restored to its neutral state. He brought the half-empty oil jars outside and pitched them, one by one, toward the sea.
In the afternoon he drove to the post office, but the new bucket of lotion had not yet arrived. He checked the tracking number on his phone, and found it would not come until the next day at the soonest. In the meantime, Karl would have to find a suitable substitute. He drove ten miles inland to a Walgreens, where he spent an hour reviewing ingredient lists on bottles of lotion, cross-referencing them with the list on the bucket, which he’d taken a photo of. After a long deliberation, he purchased several bottles of expensive unscented lotion designed for sensitive skin. When he returned to the house, he found the usual faults had formed around the windowpanes. He warmed some lotion in his hands and rubbed it into the wall.
“I know this isn’t the usual kind,” he said softly, “but I’m getting a shipment of the kind you like soon.”
The house seemed to listen. The wall gently throbbed, pressing into his palm. Its purring intensified until it rattled Karl’s teeth. He sighed, sensing he’d finally sated the house’s needs. It was a difficult feat, but the difficulty only made its accomplishment more gratifying. That night he lay on the floor against the east wall, stroking the house’s inner face as he drifted to sleep.
Weeks passed, and Karl became further rooted in his moistening regimen. The new bucket of lotion arrived, and he ordered several more, putting the expense on a high-interest Discover card he found in his wallet. One afternoon, in his fourth week of tenancy, Karl’s arm rubbed against a patch of wall he’d just moistened, prompting him to realize he could use his entire body as a brush. He stripped off his T-shirt and boxers, both of which were addled with lotion anyway. Karl rubbed the front of his naked body across the wall. Its surface warmed more quickly than usual, and Karl felt himself harden against it.
Karl no longer fantasized about naked women in his bed, bodies gleaming with moisture. He could not spare the lotion even in his imagining. The house needed all of it, every drop. One morning, three months after he’d arrived at the house, Karl was naked as usual, rubbing lotion across the north wall with his torso, when a knock came at the door. He crouched at the baseboard, turning to see his wife’s face in the front window. The sight of her was a shock. For months she’d ignored his texts and emails. On his last night in their house in Paso Robles, he’d confessed to his affair with Tatiana, aware he had no other choice. He’d been fired, disgraced on social media by Tatiana and her friends, who claimed Karl abused his power in pursuing Tatiana, when in fact it was she who’d pursued him. He’d tried to explain this to Caroline, who remained stoic throughout. She went into their bedroom and closed the door, and in the morning, calmly told him he would have to move out.
Now, Caroline had arrived at his doorstep, and he wondered if, by some miracle, she’d decided to forgive him after all. Karl didn’t know how she’d found him; in the last email he sent, he’d been vague regarding his location, assuming she wouldn’t care where he’d wound up. Her eyes scanned the interior of the house. Karl followed her gaze, perceiving the room through Caroline’s eyes. The space was littered with empty lotion buckets, paintbrushes, and trays, like an artist’s studio. He was suddenly aware of the room’s smell, thick with his body odors, his semen and sweat and oily scalp, along with the faintly gluey odor of the otherwise unscented lotion.
“Karl?” she called through the cracked window. “Are you all right?”
Karl grabbed a T-shirt from the floor. He held the wadded cloth over his genitals as he stood to face his wife. “How did you find me?”
“I spoke to your mother. She put me in touch with the landlord. An odd man.” Caroline moved her face closer to the gap between window and frame, squinting at Karl as though something about him remained obscure. “Can you open the door, honey? I want to talk.”
The house’s humming had ceased, by which Karl knew it was displeased. He approached the window, observing Caroline more closely. Her blond hair was cut into a bob with wispy bangs, as it had been when they’d first met in college. She wore a silver windbreaker and black yoga pants with a pink band at the waistline. Her small mouth was set in determination.
“Why did you come here?” Karl said. “I thought you hated me.”
“I miss you, Karl. Whatever happened with that girl—it’s okay. I forgive you. I want to move on.”
“I’ve missed you, too,” Karl said, and the walls of the house lurched. Karl turned to find a fissure of dryness opening on the wall behind him.
“It’s time to come back to Paso Robles,” Caroline continued.
“I can’t leave the house,” Karl said. “I have to keep its walls moist.”
Caroline laughed. “The house will be fine.”
“It won’t be fine,” he said. “And neither will I, if I don’t apply the lotion soon.”
“So put some lotion on it,” Caroline said, without missing a beat. “I’ll help you. Then we can go.”
“I can’t do it while you’re here.” He knew the house was already upset by the presence of his wife, and to allow her to enter would be disastrous. “Please, Caroline. You have to leave.”
“I’m not leaving you here. Karl, you’re scaring me.”
The doorknob rattled. Caroline was trying to force her way in. Luckily, he’d locked the door. He felt the skin on his chest tighten. A corresponding dry patch on the north wall was spreading. If the house suffered, so would he. “Go home, and I’ll join you there soon,” Karl said.
“Forget the house! Just leave it.”
Karl shook his head. “I can’t do that.” He remembered all the lies he’d told women in college, to maintain their hope in his affection after he’d begun to lose interest, just in case he changed his mind, and because he didn’t want them to hate him. “Actually, I won’t join you soon,” he admitted. “The house needs me.” He turned away from Caroline and resumed rubbing lotion into the north wall.
“Karl!” he heard from behind him. “Karl, I love you. Please come home. Let me in. We can talk.” The doorknob rattled more violently. Karl surrendered to the wall, which hummed at his touch. It provided a scrim of noise, muffling Caroline’s pleas, until, after several hours, Karl stood back from the wall and realized she’d stopped speaking entirely. He turned, and she was gone, the window’s ocean view restored. Karl exhaled, feeling a great pressure lifted. He looked out at his Subaru parked in the patch of dirt. It occurred to him that he could not recall seeing Caroline’s car.
The mood of the house seemed disturbed by Caroline’s visit. For several days after, its walls accepted the lotion less readily. Karl was eager to get back to their routine. He purchased five buckets of lotion, along with the market’s entire stock of beans, which would enable him to remain in the house for several weeks without interruption. He’d maxed out the Discover card and begun drawing money from his 401k, which he was pleased to find would buy plenty of lotion. He kept the furniture clustered in the middle of the room, preferring to sleep on the floor, his body tucked against one wall or another.
One foggy morning, he heard his mother’s voice calling to him. “Karl,” she said. “What are you doing in there, honey? Poor Karl.”
He turned from his work upon the south wall, and found his mother’s face in the window. This sight was more shocking than Caroline’s had been, and Karl doubled over, his stomach clenching. He had not seen his mother in six years. She looked more beautiful than he remembered, her skin stretched smooth over her long, regal face. She wore a pink zip-up hoodie, likely a garment made by the company her boyfriend did ads for. Her breasts appeared rather large, and Karl wondered if she’d gotten implants.
Karl approached the window transfixed, without bothering to cover himself.
“Caroline called,” his mother said, seeming unfazed by his nakedness. “I came as soon as I could.”
“He had to stay in Buenos Aires to shoot a commercial.” Karl imagined stroking his mother’s face. Her intelligent eyes scanned his body. “Poor Karl,” she said again. “Let me in, honey. Let me take care of you.”
Tears formed in Karl’s eyes. He wanted it to be true, that she’d come to find him. But over his mother’s shoulder, he saw only his own car. “How did you get here?”
“I walked from the town.” As she said this her eyes flattened and took on a dull malevolence. “Come on, Karl. Open the door.”
Karl went back to rubbing lotion into the south wall. “My little starfish,” the apparition said—it was a name his mother had once called him, that he’d forgotten long ago. “My beautiful boy.”
The house fiercely hummed, drowning out the specter of his mother. Her voice faded, and after a few hours Karl allowed himself to check the window and confirm she was gone.
Fall edged toward winter. The fog thickened to rain. As the outer world grew wetter, the house’s interior dryness persisted. In November the ceiling began to flake. Karl invested in a ladder, which he placed in the center of the room. The ceiling became part of his moistening regimen. Next, Karl realized the floor, too, needed moisture. Of course it did.
Two months passed without another visitor. Karl hoped there would be no others, that he and the house would be allowed to live together in peace. But then, one rainy afternoon, Tatiana appeared in the window.
He had turned for more lotion and caught a glimpse of darkness, which was Tatiana’s form blotting out the watery daylight. She was wet, her white T-shirt soaked through to expose a black bra. Mascara streaked her round cheeks, and she wore a placid expression that seemed full of patient malice. Karl was shaken by the sight of her, though he attempted to conceal this reaction.
“Go ahead and ignore me,” Tatiana jeered through the window. “You’re good at that.”
Karl did not respond. He kept rubbing lotion into the wall, his heart pounding.
“Do you remember the morning we woke up at your house?” Tatiana said. “You told me you loved me. Then on Monday you ignored me again.”
Karl did remember that Sunday morning, but he couldn’t recall saying those words. He thought he’d been more careful than that, though obviously not careful enough. Caroline had been at a realtor’s convention in Stockton that weekend. Saturday night, he and Tatiana had cooked dinner together: salmon filets, a Greek salad, two bottles of white wine. They had taken a bath. He spent several hours, Sunday afternoon, working to ensure he’d washed all trace of her from the house before his wife’s return.
“You made me think I was crazy,” Tatiana said. “Like I imagined all of it.”
“What was I supposed to do?” Karl said mechanically, without turning from the wall. “I told you from the start that it could never become more than what it was.”
“I let you off easy,” Tatiana said.
At this, Karl’s rage boiled over. He walked to the door and placed his hand on the knob before realizing what he was doing. He glanced at the window to find Tatiana watching him, sly as a cat. “You let me off easy, all right,” he said. “You ruined my life.”
“Let me in, Karl,” she said, her lips curling into a smile. “I’ll make it up to you.”
“You’re trying to trick me.”
“I thought we were friends, Karl.”
“I was your friend. You were the one who betrayed me.”
“I was angry,” she said. “I was hurt.”
Mention of hurt feelings stalled Karl’s anger. For a moment, he pitied her. He remembered the shock of her allegation, which his boss had awkwardly paraphrased over the phone. Karl had been stunned to hear himself described as a predator. In those first terrible days, he had attempted to contact Tatiana, hoping she’d admit it was all a lie, that she’d slandered him because she felt rejected when he cut her off, citing the need to preserve his marriage. But she’d blocked him everywhere.
Now was his chance. “You wanted it, didn’t you?” Karl asked.
“Of course I did,” Tatiana said. “I love you, Karl.”
At these words, Karl’s body flooded with a warm relief, until he realized the house had stopped humming. He backed away from the window, appalled by his weakness. This was not the real Tatiana. The house was testing his devotion. He’d dispatched his wife and mother easily, but this time, he’d nearly capitulated.
“Go away,” he said.
“Let me in, Karl.” Her voice was plaintive now. “I’m cold. I’m all alone out here. The sun’s going down.”
She began to weep, which would once have made Karl nauseous with guilt. In the past, he’d say anything to stop a woman from crying, especially if he was the cause of her distress. But now, he had the house. On behalf of their bond, he renounced all sympathies that tied him to the world. He ignored Tatiana, continuing his work upon the south wall.
Tatiana proved more stubborn than the others. She remained in the window through the night, begging Karl to let her in. “Please, Karl,” she mewled. “I’m so cold and hungry. Don’t leave me out here all alone.” Karl caressed the house back to a hum, and he hummed along with it. Together, they drowned out the sound of Tatiana’s pleas. Near dawn—delirious, throat ragged—Karl emerged from his moistening trance to find that her voice had ceased. He opened the door and stepped into the gray, filling his lungs with fog. He had reckoned with the specter of Tatiana, and now she was gone, and he was free.
Months passed and there were no more visitors. Karl knew he had proven himself. He was alone with the house that needed moisture. No—the house that was always moist, now that he was its partner.
On an April day, five years after he’d come to the house, Karl lost his footing on the ladder. He had been moistening for ten hours. He’d long subsisted on a single can of beans per day, and his bones were brittle. The top step of the ladder was slick with gobs of lotion he had dropped in his moistening zeal. His hands were slippery with lotion, too, and could not break his fall.
He landed hard. Some part of his spine was broken. He was still alive, and might have recovered had he received medical treatment. But he could not reach his phone, which he’d powered down long ago and left in the Subaru, a relic of his past life. Karl watched a gash of dryness spread down the center of his abdomen, corresponding to the wound opening across the east wall of the house. The pain was annihilating, yet Karl’s only regret was that in the end, he had not been able to provide the house with the moisture it needed.
Months passed before Franco registered dryness on his own skin, and ventured out to the house. He had taken Karl’s silence, over the years, as a positive sign. He’d been happy for Karl and the house, which had been so particular in choosing its mate. Franco knew what he would find when he opened the door, yet he recoiled from the sight. Karl’s desiccated corpse lay curled in the center of the room, next to the ladder from which he had fallen. The sun’s golden light played across the many lotion buckets and dirty brushes and scraps of rotten food. A salted breeze pushed at Franco’s back as he inspected the walls of the house, which appeared fresh as the day they’d been painted. They were unblemished, perfectly moist.