The Red House

The red house shuddered as Tony poured gasoline over the dining room’s bare warped floorboards. He felt its shiver and wondered if it was afraid.

The voices whispered, a tiny insect buzz that the drugs kept brushing away. Tony tried to ignore it, to remind himself that houses did not talk. The doctors had told him so–over and over again–for the last eight years.

He carried the red plastic gas can in to the kitchen. Light warm rain fell through a hole in the collapsed ceiling. Tony raised his face to the soft overcast sky, gray and as smooth as slate.

A rainbow sheen surfed the rain-glazed floor as he sloshed gas across the peeling linoleum. The red house groaned, a guttural vibration. Tony told himself was just the settling of the house’s rotten frame.

An old oven mitt sat upon the silt-covered stove. White fuzz stuffing peeked out through the torn floral cloth. Tony remembered when had picked the oven mitt out for his mom. Mother’s day, 2002. He went to Wal-Mart with his father that Saturday for motor oil and a fresh filter. He had begged to get his mother something.

“She’s got everything she needs.” His father grumbled, barely moving his dark, chapped lips. “We’re not wasting good money on crap.”

“Please–I’ll pay for it out of my allowance.”

“You don’t have a goddamn allowance. You aren’t getting one, either.”

“Please. We have to get something for mom. Everyone else in my class got something for their moms.”

“Get them to buy it for you.”


“Shut up before I undo this belt and whoop you with it.”


His father relented near the housewares section. Tony saw a rack of oven mitts and grabbed the first one that caught his eye, a pretty floral pattern. His mother loved her flower garden. She loved baking him cookies. It was the most perfect gift he had ever seen.

Tony’s father Bill had been born cold and hard. The Flannery men had it in their DNA. If you looked up “distance” in the dictionary, the emotional expanse between a Flannery and other humans was probably definition number three.

Tony tapped in to that hereditary coldness and tossed the crumbling oven mitt on to the floor. The floral cloth darkened as it absorbed gasoline and rain water. He wiped wetness away from his cheeks–rain, he told himself–and carried the gas can in to the living room where his father’s old brown recliner waited. The cloth arm rests had worn to the texture of burlap. The sharp corners of the wooden frame poked through at the seams. Tony dumped the remainder of the first can of gasoline over the recliner. There wouldn’t be a goddamn thing left of it.

There were two things on Earth that Bill loved: the Green Bay Packers and that fucking recliner. If Mother’s Day was for his mom, then Super Bowl Sunday was his father’s. The last time that Tony had sat in his father’s chair was a Super Bowl Sunday. He watched cartoons on the old color television. The model predated than the satellite dish, requiring a ridiculous array of adapters, strung together like a Radio Shack-sponsored chain. Horizontal lines ran through the picture as Batman defeated Jokey once again.

Bill woke up after only a few hours of sleep. He’d worked a double shift cleaning the sandpaper factory bathrooms so that he would have Super Bowl Sunday off, a sacrifice that he only made once a year.

Bill stumbled half-asleep to the refrigerator and retrieved a can of Budweiser.

“It’s not cold, yet,” his mother said. “I just put it in there.”

“Goddamn it, Carol. I work my ass off. The least I could have is a cold beer.”

His mother pulled her lips in to a thin line at the use of the Lord’s name in vain. “I work, too. I had to go to the store this morning. I didn’t think you would be drinking at nine in the morning.”

“You didn’t think, period.” Bill glared at his wife as he choked down warm beer. He turned on his heel, a wide pirouetting move that Tony thought may drill him straight down into the floor.

The Red House had whispered to Tony, “Run, hide.” Tony saw his father coming, frozen by fear. He pulled his blanket up around his chin.

“Why are you in my chair? Git!”

Carol started in from the kitchen, but stopped at the threshold. “Bill, he isn’t hurting anything.”

“I’m gonna be hurting something if he doesn’t get the Hell out of my chair. I’m not picking any goddamn Captain Crunch out of my recliner.”

“Get out,” the red house screamed, an echo of his father’s rage. Only Tony heard it.

Bill grabbed Tony by the arm, sinking his large, rough fingers in to the soft meat beneath his arm pit. “Get out of my chair, you little shit!”

Tony yelped as he was dragged from the chair, clutching his blanket close to his chest, as if it could anchor him somehow.

Carol started forward again. As if he sensed her movement, Bill turned and sloshed warm beer at her. “You don’t come out of that goddamn kitchen. Make me some food and mind your business.”

Tony remembered the horrible smell of the lukewarm beer as Bill poured the rest of it over Tony’s head. A strong, bitter smell. The red house growled. Even now, at twenty-one years old, Tony couldn’t stomach the smell of beer. Fuck that chair.

Tony discarded the empty gasoline can on top of the collapsed entertainment center. Someone had stolen the old television for scrap a long time ago. He retrieved the second can from the door and poured a trail as he climbed the creaking wood stairs to the second floor. He watched the floorboards carefully, a misplaced step on one of the rotted boards might mean a fall back down in to the living room.

He continued his line of gasoline in to his bedroom. The room felt warmer than the rest of the house. The electricity and gas had been off for years, but that room was as cozy as he remembered. Tony poured gasoline over the mold-spotted mattress, stopping short at his toys.

He squatted down next to the toy box, an old treasure chest that his grandfather hand-made and presented to his parents on the day of Tony’s birth. The last present he’d ever received from the man, a single moment of warmth that hinted at possibilities, never to be repeated.

Bunny Bunny lay on top of the pile, the stuffed rabbit that had comforted Tony for the first ten years of his life, long after his friends had surrendered their blankets and bedtime animals, Tony had kept Bunny Bunny.

Tony picked the toy up, examining its matted fur. Bunny Bunny’s frayed left ear hung by a single gray thread. One eye was missing, the other rattled dumbly within its fogged plastic casing. The rabbit’s damp body smelled like shit. Tony wrinkled his nose and tossed the animal back on to the pile. He poured gasoline over the whole thing. The temperature in the room immediately dropped fifteen degrees.

The ever-present whispers were coming faster now, like a thousand houseflies on a hot summer day buzzing around a melted Popsicle on the scorching sidewalk. The drugs struggled to keep the voices batted away.

The red house used to wake Tony up at night. It would interrupt his dreams and demand his attention like a needy pet. It bounced playfully around his head, telling him to go steal Bill’s pocketknife. It told him that Bill kept the key to the gun cabinet inside his Sunday dress shoes, and that the shotgun shells were in the shaving kit on the top shelf of the closet. The red house never said nice things. The shrinks said that the red house was all of Tony’s terrible thoughts. His brain had compartmentalized them as belonging to the house so that his young mind could escape guilt.

But it wasn’t the red house that woke Tony up on the bad night. It was the yelling. Early in the morning, just a few days before Tony’s thirteenth birthday, he woke to his parents arguing loudly in their room.

The yelling didn’t shock him. It happened often. Tony left his room, because they were talking about him.

“That money was for his present, Bill.” Carol’s voice shook, a tremble that seemed to reverberate through the red house.

“What is it with this family and money? You are both always on my ass wanting one thing or another. It’s my goddamn money.”

Tony’s mother had been brushing her hair in front of the mirror. She slammed the brush down on the dresser in front of her.

“It’s not your money. It’s our money. I work, too.”

“I’m your husband.”

“And I’m not your mother. I don’t stay home all day.”

“You sure the Hell aren’t.” Bill chuckled bitterly.

Carol turned towards him. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Look at this house. I built the goddamn thing with my own two hands. The least you can do is keep it clean.”

“Maybe if you helped out a little bit–”

“I clean up other people’s shit all day, Carol. I’m not doing it at home.”

Carol turned and saw Tony stranding in the doorway. “It’s okay, honey.”

“Don’t let her bullshit you, kid,” Bill stripped off his jeans revealing pail hairy legs and yellowing tighty whiteys. “This is life. Soul-sucking, normal life. Get used to it, because it’s going to be fucking you for the next sixty years.”

Carol glared back over her shoulder, then looked back to Tony. “Just go back to bed. Ignore us. It will be okay.”

That to be the greatest lie adults ever told. His entire life, adults had been telling him that it would be okay. Police officers, judges, shrinks, social workers, teachers, priests, foster parents–they always said it would be okay. Tony couldn’t name one fucking time that they had ever been right. Ironically, his dad had been the one telling the truth. He just over-estimated the duration.

The red house buzzed louder. Tony screamed along with it, violently sloshing gasoline over his parents room–the bed, the curtains, the carpet, and even a few pieces of clothing rotting in a closet that smelled like animal shit. He stormed down the stairs. A board snapped beneath his feat. The splintered wood tore in to his ankle. The red house raged, and Tony tumbled down the stairs to the bottom landing, stinking of the gasoline that had splashed on his clothes.

He picked himself up and stumbled out the front door. The sidewalk, cracked and heaving, tried to grab his feet as he strung his trail of gasoline out in to the street. He shook the nearly empty can and then tossed it on to the collapsed front porch.

He couldn’t remember the rest of his parents’ argument. He could only remember the red house demanding that he get up and go to their room. He couldn’t hear anything else but his father’s grunting. He stopped at the threshold and looked in, careful not to be seen. Bill loomed over Carol’s supine body, pressing a pillow, floral print like the oven mitt, over her face. Carol’s long, red fingernails gouged at Bills arms, digging trenches that bled. Tony now knew that her fingernails hadn’t been painted. Bill growled as Carol tore at his left eye.

“Go to the kitchen,” the red house had said. “Stop him. The kitchen.”

Tony sneaked down to the kitchen, holding Bunny Bunny close to his chest.

“Get the knife,” the red house said. “The sharp one.”

Tony shook his head. He didn’t trust the big knife. He had cut himself on it trying to make peanut butter and celery last summer. It hurt, but not as much as Bill’s belt.

“Get the knife, you little shit!” The red house raged.

Tony winced and drew the knife from the block on the counter. He hurried up the stairs to his parents’ bedroom. Bill stood panting at the end of the bed, his back to Tony. The pillow still laid on top of his Carol’s face. Bill stared at her limp form through his right eye. Blood trickled from the swollen shut lids of his left.

“Kill,” the red house ordered.

Tony screamed as he rushed forward. Bill turned just in time for the razor sharp blade to slide in to the soft tissue of his stomach.

Bill cried out and wrapped his hands around Tony’s throat. “You little son of a bitch!”

They tripped and fell in a heap. Tony couldn’t breathe. He felt as if his throat had been tied off like a garbage bag. He sawed blindly back and forth with the knife, feeling warm blood gush over his little body. Bill rolled off of Tony, whimpering and struggling to hold his intestines in place. A putrid smell filled the air.

Bill lifted himself to his feet, his hands pressed to his stomach. He stared at his gore-covered son. He breathed shallow. His skin seemed as pale as snow. He stumbled out of the room, blood streaming in a trail behind him.

Tony dropped the knife. He shook his mother, but her eyes were empty and her arms limp. He sat in the corner and began to cry. The red house reassured him, telling him that it would be okay. Always that same lie.

Tony had found Bill sitting in his recliner with his eyes closed, blood pooling around his carved torso. Tony dialed 911, just the way he had been taught. Bill died long before they got there.

Tony looked up at the house his father had built. The paint, as red as his father’s rage, flaked from the warped siding. The windows were slightly askew, not from age, but from his father’s lack of skill. The porch wasn’t level. Bill had been drunk when he installed it. The railing like a crooked smile sitting at the bottom of an angry red face.

Some things were born ugly. There was nothing you could do to fix them. After the bad night, Tony jumped from place to place, home to home. He’d nearly killed two kids in juvie with his bare hands. He couldn’t even tell anyone why. The red house could have, but they had told him that the red house didn’t really talk. They told him he was better, now. He was an adult. It would be okay.

Tony went back to the living room and sank down in his father’s recliner. The gas fumes seemed to singe his nostrils. Some things just need to be burned to the ground, erased from the Earth. Tony pulled a Zippo lighter and a pack of Marlboro reds from the inside pocket of his leather jacket. He lit a cigarette. He felt a bit of disappointment when the air didn’t bust in to flame around him. No matter. Flannery’s were as stubborn as they were distant. He struck the Zippo again and dropped in on to the gasoline soaked carpet.

He gritted his teeth, clutched the recliner’s ruined armrests, and waited for the red house to stop screaming.

Jack Campbell, Jr. is a dark fiction writer in Lawrence, KS. His writing has appeared in various venues including Twenty 3 Magazine, Danse Macabre, and Insomnia Press. He writes about reading, writing, and life on his blog at

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