I can’t recall the day we moved into the three story house. It was the first house I lived in which had a basement and an attic, not to mention more stories than one. I do remember the basement being quite friendly. The previous owners built it up into almost another floor, with real walls and carpeting, and even a tiny bathroom. My brothers and I used it as a general playroom and often hid down there from our parents.
The rest of the house was standard enough. We settled into the three bedrooms upstairs, my brothers sharing a room to themselves, and I, being the oldest and only girl, taking a room to myself. On the middle floor above the family room, mom set up a warm and welcoming kitchen area, and at first, I would sit at the table, talking to her while she made our meals. My brother, Billy, seemed to have an almost permanent claim on the desk in the dining room, where he played computer games with his new expensive surround sound speakers. Carl, my other brother, was far more quiet and serious. I remember that sometimes I would find him reading on the couch, a distant look in his eyes.
At first, nothing was odd or out of the ordinary except for the story of the people who lived there before us. Apparently none of the neighbors ever saw them out and about, and then one day, the place was abandoned. The woman next door walked home one night to find the doors wide open, the family car feebly idling in the front yard, and a lone child sized flipflop forlornly lying on the cement, apparently not important enough to come back to retrieve. Concerned, the neighbor cautiously peered inside, turning on a light.
“It was the strangest thing,” she explained to us on the day before we moved in. “The place looked as if it were in the middle of being lived in. A book on the coffee table, all furniture in the usual places, an untouched casserole sat on the counter, a day past its prime. The TV chattered away in the living room with no one to watch it. The only thing missing from that house were the people who lived there. They just… disappeared… and took nothing with them but the clothes on their backs.”
After the house remained abandoned for several months with no sign or communication from the family, the landlord went in there to clean it up: sold what he could, took quite a bit else to the dump. Then he went up into the attic, shocked to discover what appeared to be an entire family’s belongings, the kind of items someone would have owned 70 or 80 years ago. Much of it was rotten and molding, to the point that it would be dangerous to breathe the air up there. So he sealed it up with plaster, and that was that. We didn’t mind. This house was bigger than any we had lived in before, and we didn’t need the extra storage room.
For two weeks after we moved in, dad went to his new job, mom ran errands and cooked meals, and we went to school. But each morning when we’d wake to start the day, it became harder and harder to leave. The closer we got to the door, the thicker the air around us became, until it was hard to think, or move. For a while we pushed doggedly ahead, ignoring the lethargy and our increasing lack of motivation and focus.
Thus began the great forgetting. At first we forgot our lunches, our backpacks, our keys. Then, gradually, my parents for got to go to work. They forgot to get the mail, buy groceries, pay the bills. After that, my brothers nd I could barely recall our school. Its recollection seemed to dissolve at the first touch of thought, like a footprint in sand washed by a wave.
Life became disjointed, unintelligible, without rhyme or reason. Occasionally I would come to with a start, with the feeling that something was very, very wrong, and we needed to leave. I would try to rally everyone else, but it was like attempting to teach sleep walkers to surf, and I gave up shortly after any feeble attempt, due to a pervasive exhaustion which would inevitably come over me.
One day I woke to find my brother Billy on the computer game, and Carl reading his book… the same book he’d been reading for … with a start, I realized I could not remember how long we lived here. I could not remember where we lived before this. Perhaps we lived here all our lives, and never lived anywhere else? I tried, but could not picture anything that could possibly exist beyond our four walls. The idea that there was a thing called somewhere else felt absurd. This was all there was. There was no outside. As I felt my feet turn from the path to the door back into the hallway, I shook my head in bewilderment at my ridiculous musings.
Slowly, as the memories of the outside world slipped away, so did the memories of who we were. At first, we forgot our ages, but soon afterward, we forgot what we liked and didn’t like to do. We forgot our goals and dreams, we forgot our extended family and our friends, even our earliest childhood friends. Recalling past experiences became more and more arduous, exhausting, and futile. And then, at some point, we could not remember our names.
And then we ran out of food. Our hunger seemed to jolt us back into some semblance of linear time, as if suddenly waking from a dream.
Mom ran into the living room. “How many days have you been playing that computer game!!” she shouted. I looked up, interested. Days? I hadn’t heard that word in so long, I had to rack my brain for what the word meant. I turned to look at my brother. He was thin and had black circles under his eyes. He was filthy. His hair tangled and matted on his head, and his clothes looked like they hadn’t been washed in … days, indeed. Maybe weeks had passed while he endlessly played his game.
“What’s so interesting about it?” I asked, eager to break more of the silence which I now noticed had been slowly crowding out conversation from our house. I could not remember the last time we spoke to one another.
“It’s about a family who moved into a three story house. I’ve almost reached the last level of the game. The family is slowly dying, but can’t remember how to leave.”
“That’s a strange game,” I admitted uneasily. “Why can’t they leave?”
“I’m not sure. But the reason has to do with the attic.”
The thought began nagging at me that this was not your typical sort of game. “What does the house look like?” I asked, not sure I wanted the answer.
My brother furrowed his brow. “Strange enough, a lot like ours. But that’s purely a coincidence. It’s not about our family. I mean the characters in the game have … names … like Billy and Carl.”
“Oh,” I replied, suddenly yawning and feeling rather listless and bored. What’s the game called?” .
“The collective,” he replied absently. Then a moment later his mood brightened. “I’ve reached the level where I can win the game,” he announced excitedly.
“Well then, how do you win the game?”
“You have to go down to the basement and make a lot of noise,” he said, as he expertly scrolled the mouse around the screen.
With growing trepidation, I listened to the surround sound speakers as they broadcast the tap of his character’s footsteps down the basement stairs, the hurried feet of the other children running down behind him, and the stomp, stomp, stomp of their feet on the basement floor.
“You need to get up and do something else!” scolded mom, who was standing a few feet from me.
Somehow, my brother obeyed. I heard the sound of the computer shutting down the game and the speakers. But the stomping continued, several floors below.