It’s late, and our parents aren’t home yet. There isn’t anything in the fridge but ketchup and moldy cheese, and the three of us are hungry and bored. I suggest hide-and-seek, but Sally thinks it’s for babies.
“Let’s play House instead,” Sally says. “It’s what everyone at school plays.”
Skye and I look at each other. Skye’s eyes are wider, bluer, and much less innocent than mine were at her age, but she’s still my littlest sister. I must protect her from Sally and her dangerous ideas.
“It’s almost dark, Sally,” I say. “We can’t even reach the nearest house before sunset, and no one knows what happens after sunset, if you’re still inside one of the houses.”
“Snap! Slurg! Glugglugglug!” Sally laughs, her canines prominent. “The monster gets you!”
“Skye’s afraid! Little baby-blue Skye!”
“I’m not a baby!” Skye says. “And there’s a new one, a new house, right down the street! I’ll go all by myself!” She runs out the front door.
I sigh. Sally always teases Skye for being the youngest, and Skye always reacts. And then I have to step in, like I’m their referee, not their sister.
“You shouldn’t have teased her like that,” I say to Sally as we run after Skye. “Mom and Dad will be pissed.”
“Like they care what we do!” Sally says. “They’re never home.”
I don’t exactly have any response to that, so I change the subject.
“Where is this house, anyway?” I ask. “It must…” I trail off as we round a bend in the road. There, in a formerly empty lot, is the house. In the yard, foot-tall dandelions sway from Skye’s passing. Skye herself stands on the porch. As soon as we see her, she lifts her chin defiantly, pulls the heavy door open, and is swallowed up.
“Shit,” I say.
“Ooh a bad word, I’m telling!” Sally laughs.
She runs ahead of me and follows Skye into the house. I take a breath and force myself to follow them through the front door and into a long, dark hall.
On the left, there’s a living room filled with IKEA furniture. I recognize the bookcases; we have the same ones in our house. It makes me shiver, and I turn away. To my right, there is a dining room with a long, dark table. At the end of the hall in front of me, a graceful staircase spirals upwards.
The house eats sound. The second we step over the threshold, the scuffling of our shoes, the panting of our breath, the whispering of the faint breeze, all vanish. The only thing I can hear is my heart thudding in my ears. The house smells as empty as it sounds. I didn’t realize a place could smell empty, but it does. The odorless air is oddly heavy and flat on my tongue. Breathing is harder than it should be, like the house is at the top of a mountain.
“Smile!” Sally says, grabbing my face and pulling it against hers.
I jump. There’s a flash of light from her phone, capturing my stunned face and her glittering braces. She releases me and frowns down at her screen.
“No Wi-Fi in here?” She fiddles with her phone. “I’ll have to upload it later.”
Of course there isn’t any Wi-Fi. There never is in the Houses. That’s what all the message boards say.
“Will you shut up and help me find Skye before—”
“Before what?” She cuts me off, like she always does, like she’s the oldest, the one in charge. “We have a few minutes, right? Ooh! I bet it’s just like on TikTok! Oh my God, why am I not filming this?”
Sally raises her phone and runs off.
I should chase after her, but what’s the point? Besides, we have a better chance of finding Skye if we split up.
I wander the house alone, worrying. The house is impeccable, like a model home. Like a model home, it’s unlived in and fake. Ikea furniture everywhere. Air that feels harder and harder to breathe the later it gets.
I finally hear Skye and Sally and hurry towards their voices, but they dart ahead of me, around me, behind me, always out of reach. I am a terrible babysitter and a worse older sister.
Time seems to move too quickly. From the upstairs windows, I see the sun dipping ever lower on the horizon.
“Sally? Skye?” I yell, cringing as my voice falls flat, refusing to echo despite the high ceiling and cavernous walls. It feels like the house is watching us, like it senses our presence. We should only talk in whispers if we dare talk at all.
“Hey! Scaredy-Jane! Down here! We found the hidden door!” Sally yells.
The house leans closer around me, like something old and hungry. I run towards Sally. I need to get her and Skye out before it’s too late.
I find Sally and Skye in the pantry. Set in the back wall of the pantry is a locked, iron door. Sally bangs carelessly on the door with one hand. Her other hand holds her phone. Skye stands a few steps behind her, hands balled into rigid fists.
I go cold all over when I see it. In a lot of the stories, in the most popular posts and the videos that go viral, people talk about the hidden door. It’s never in the same place in any of the Houses. Sometimes, it’s in the basement. Sometimes, in a closet, or set into a random wall. No one knows what’s behind the doors. No one wants to know.
The sun abruptly sets, plunging the kitchen into purple shadows. At that exact moment, the doorknob turns, and the door begins to open.
I freeze. This can’t be happening. This is impossible. We can’t still be here, not after sunset. It isn’t safe. The House could vanish into thin air at any time.
Sally screams and runs, knocking Skye to the floor.
The sound jolts me to action.
“Run, Skye!” I scream, starting towards her.
Skye is frozen on the ground, staring at the soundlessly opening door. I know I should help her. That’s what big sisters do. But then I see a hand, bloated and inhumanly pale against the darkness behind the door, reach for Skye’s throat.
I can’t breathe. There is no air. I turn around, away from Skye. I can’t stand to see what follows that hand. Like a coward, I turn and run after Sally, abandoning Skye. Sally crashes through the front door, and I follow close behind into the sudden rush of living, chilly air, of crickets and birds serenading the dying sun.
The door slams shut as I bolt out. It clips my heel, and I stagger off the porch, breathing in great gulps of air like a drowning woman restored to life.
Sally collapses into a pile of dandelions. Their jagged leaves and faded, yellow blooms cling to her arms as she sobs. Then, her face freezes as she stares behind me, back at the house.
I turn around, and I see Skye’s face. She’s still trapped inside, beating her tiny fists against the little window above the front door. The window is at least ten feet off the ground. She hangs there, suspended, screaming. But we can’t hear her. The darkness in the house is so great that I can only see the dim outline of her face framed by wispy hair like dandelions gone to seed. And two fists pounding the glass without a sound.
And then, she’s gone. There isn’t a ripple of air or a sound to mark its vanishing. The House wasn’t there yesterday, and between one blink and another, it’s gone again, and Skye is gone, too.
“Skye!” I scream.
But she doesn’t answer. Beside me, Sally sobs.
No one knows what happens to anyone still inside a House when it vanishes, but we both know we’ll never see Skye again.
This story previously appeared in Not Deer Magazine, 2021.
Edited by Marie Ginga
H.V. Patterson (she/her) lives in Oklahoma and writes horror poetry and fiction. She has been published by Sliced Up Press, Not Deer Magazine, Horror Tree, Dread Stone Press, Shacklebound Books, and Etherea Magazine, and has pieces upcoming in collections from Black Spot Books and Creature Publishing. When she isn’t writing, she likes to hike, bake, and do puzzles. She promotes women in horror through Dreadfulesque (@Dreadfulesque on Twitter and Instagram), and you can follow her on Twitter @ScaryShelley.