Ellen Maxwell 2014

The House

1.

The layout of the colourfully plastic house was familiar. It had a front door that opened and closed, and curtains in the windows, made of real, thin, floral fabric. The whole back half was cut out so that you could always see all the rooms of the house simultaneously. There was a perfectly blue-and-white themed kitchen, a lounge with a pink sofa and a TV constantly caught on a station with a cartoon clown on it, a master bedroom with fake family pictures on the wall, of ambiguously white smiling figures in various stages of life, though none elderly. There was the child’s room, with the toys and the colourful bed and the desk for homework. And there was a baby’s room, complete with butterfly decals on the baby-pink walls, and a crib with an actually spinning mobile attached.

There were four dolls that fit inside the house. The father had brown hair, a moustache, a button up shirt and sneakers. The mother had a blonde bob, wore an apron and was always smiling. The son was also blonde, and he wore shorts and a sports shirt, while the baby daughter had one brown curl, pink cheeks and a purple jumpsuit.

Every day, the agent arrived home and compulsively looked inside the dollhouse, which was set up in the study, along with all the other unused toys. His wife could always be found in the lounge, reading a magazine while the dinner cooked in the oven, or in the bedroom cleaning out her closet, or in the garden tending the vegetables.

When the agent entered their brand new, pristine display home each day, still wearing his signature maroon realty blazer, each day he looked in the open dollhouse and saw all the rooms set out. The baby was in the crib, the parents were in the kitchen, the son in the lounge.

2.

The afternoon that things were different was after a hard day at the office. The agent hadn’t sold any houses that day, and when he walked into the display home, looking into the dollhouse, he was shocked to see that the baby was sitting on the floor of the lounge room, watching cartoons with her older brother.

Did you move this? He called out to his wife.

She came and stood in the doorway, frowning.

I wouldn’t touch that, darling. Of course I didn’t move it, she replied.

The agent frowned, putting the baby back into its crib.

It was probably the pressure at work. His colleagues had been asking him for months if the next gathering could be at his house. Each fortnight, someone from the agency hosted the employees for a dinner party. As the owner of the newest brand of display home, the agent knew he had an obligation to show himself off.

The house was well-furnished, and large. It had a huge master bedroom with adjoining bathroom, three additional bedrooms, two bathrooms, two lounges, a pool, a kitchen, a room-sized pantry, a well-adorned dining room, and a large, open entertainment room that looked out on the street outside, which contained the twenty or so other identical homes from their street.

Even so, the agent had a foreboding feeling of the house growing larger than the furniture it contained, but perhaps it was just the open-plan.

3.

The dollhouse had belonged to their daughter. She hadn’t ever been old enough to play with it, but the first thing he had done upon finding out that they were expecting a daughter was purchase the dollhouse. Homes were important to a realtor like him, and he had wanted a miniature one for his daughter to play with when she was older.

She didn’t live to even a year old. The syndrome he didn’t know the name or the acronym for had killed her in her sleep when she was just five months old. The agent and his wife didn’t mention her now, and the only things that remained of her were the things in the study, including the dollhouse.

4.

The next day, he arrived to see the baby girl back on the lounge room floor of the dollhouse, and the mother sitting on the couch watching TV with her son. Another alteration.

Are you sure no one has touched this? He asked the house.

I’m certain. I’m the only person here, darling, she replied from the kitchen.

5.

Although she was certain, the agent was not. Every day he arrived and saw a change. By the end of the week, the father was sitting on the bed, the mother was standing at a window, the son was sitting at the dining room table, the baby was perched in the child’s room, and the TV was missing.

To make matters worse, the colleagues had been speaking of an upcoming promotion. The agent desperately wanted it, needed it, but he felt strongly that he may not be considered unless he held the gathering at his house soon. He hadn’t been selling enough homes lately.

The house was also feeling huger than ever. The agent swore that just yesterday he had sat in a chair at the table that felt slightly smaller than normal, but his wife reassured him that no, darling, everything was fine.

6.

When the beds and the dining set disappeared from the dollhouse the agent knew something was happening.

Someone’s been breaking into our house and stealing from the dollhouse, I swear it, he announced over the roast lamb that night.

Darling, don’t be daft. You’re just exhausted from all this promotion nonsense, but here’s an idea, his wife said.

Why don’t you have a gathering this weekend? I’ve got a new recipe I can cook for your work friends, and they’d surely love to see the house, she suggested.

The agent smiled, forgetting the dollhouse, and displayed sudden, unexpected affection to his wife. After the brief embrace, she blinked up at him and looked close to tears, but he smiled at her and walked away.

The rest of the week was filled with plans for the dinner. The colleagues and the head agent were ecstatic that they would finally see the house, and the head agent had even said this would surely help the agent reach the next level of his career.

So preoccupied was he with the plans for the dinner and the dessert and the background music and the flowers to be set on the table, the agent didn’t realise when the dollhouse was emptied of its entire interior except the dolls.

7.

The day of the dinner, the agent rose and ate his oatmeal in a chair that was clearly too small, read the newspaper in an armchair half its usual size, and brushed his teeth at a mirror showing only half his face, but he didn’t notice. He kissed his wife before going to work, surprising her, and left feeling excited for that evening.

8.

When he brought the colleagues in after they’d visited the bar after their long day of work, the agent expected to hear the soft classical music drifting through the open front window, thought he would see the expensive orchids sitting in the middle of the table, but entered an empty house.

The colleagues cleared their throats and shuffled their feet, uncomfortable. The agent walked swiftly into the kitchen, calling out. The house was empty. He checked every room of the house, looked outside. His wife and the furniture were nowhere to be seen. The colleagues had made a cluster in the lounge room and were murmuring things the agent would be glad not to hear, but the head agent was the one to pull him aside, point to the closed door of the study.

The agent, gasping for breath after his quickened search, squeaked the door open, slowly. The dollhouse was intact. But as he peered into it, he saw none of the regular figures.

The blonde mother with the apron now resembled a thinner, brunette woman who wore plain clothes and sat alone in a lounge room. She sat on an identical couch to the one the agent had once sat on to watch the nightly news. The sporty son and the moustachioed husband were nowhere to be seen, but there was a baby. This one wore a yellow jumpsuit and had her eyes closed, and she lay in a crib that the agent had seen before. The pink bedding and the blue bear reminded him of his daughter, and the agent looked deeply into the dollhouse.

It contained all the furniture that was missing from his perfect display home. The kitchen appliances, the dining table and chairs, the television, even the armchair where he read his newspaper were all inside, as they had been, albeit shrunken into a playable size. The agent blinked his eyes firmly. When he opened them, he looked down and saw the signature sneakers of the dollhouse father on his own feet. He raised a hand to his face, and caught a glimpse of what could only be described as shiny, hard plastic. When the agent looked around, he saw that he was seated at the dollhouse dining table, his equally plastic wife across from him. And peering into their home was the frowning face of a man, checking that everything was just as he had left it.