Miranda bought the house for its privacy. The driveway was long, the trees and underbrush in the surrounding woods thick with foliage, and neighbors far, far away. Nothing to be seen but green from any window. Exactly like she wanted.
Urban life choked her with its density and smothered her with the pressure of the lives around her. Every second. Every day. The city treated her as a marble in a pinball machine, and ricocheted her between construction sites and shared apartment walls and conversations overheard on the subway to work. Doors flew open onto the lives of strangers in an endless, smothering maze. She could not grow a thicker skin so she found an escape route—this house, with its absolute isolation, and its pungent odor of earth before she walked inside the front door.
Imagine her surprise, then, when one morning she looked out the bay windows by the breakfast nook and saw, deep in the brush, distant and almost obfuscated when the breeze blew the leaves about, but still distinct in its geometry—the window of another house.
She assumed at first that she had just missed it before. It was easily covered by leaves, after all. Still far away. But it bothered her enough that Miranda immediately stepped back from the window as if to hide from it. The feeling of eyes crawled over her skin. That window out in the trees wrenched her solitude from her as if it had come right up to the glass and peered inside. She avoided that side of the house as much as she could, but the kitchen was right in view of the bay window. For the first time since she moved in, she closed the curtains.
The next day, she peeked out. There it was. It seemed to be even more visible than before, though she was sure it was a trick of the eye. She closed the curtain again and tried to reassure herself that she’d get used to it. It was just unexpected, that’s all. A tree or a bush fell, and revealed a neighbor’s house where she thought there was none. If all she could see of it was just one tiny window, then that was nothing. A tiny price to pay for mostly exclusive privacy.
She couldn’t shake an uneasy feeling, though, when she peered out at night and saw only darkness where the window lay. In the few months she’d lived there, she’d never seen any lights out in the woods. Just the occasional headlights of a car passing down on the road at the end of her driveway. Surely, that window would be visible when lit from the inside.
Her eyes immediately landed on the window when she took a look again in the morning. She could see it somehow even more clearly. The day after, she began to suspect she was crazy, but she couldn’t deny that the window appeared bigger than before. By the day after that, she was sure of it. Slats of gray siding appeared around it, and the hint of the triangle of the roof floated overhead. Even more alarming, though, were the other windows on its sides. None were as clear as the first one with its telescopic black rectangle aimed right at her, but hints of them flashed through the leaves, in and out of sight like blinking eyes.
Miranda drove to the country clerk’s office and looked at the plat map. It took a few minutes to read it and to calculate which direction her bay window faced, but once she figured it out, she was more confused than before. The site was empty. There should be nothing there except undeveloped land.
It took a couple days for a land surveyor to come out to the property. When they were out on the porch and Miranda pointed out into the trees, he shaded his eyes and squinted. “Yep, that looks like a house,” he said. On one level, Miranda felt relief that she wasn’t seeing things. On another—she wasn’t seeing things. There was a house out there that shouldn’t exist.
She put on her boots and followed the surveyor out through the thicket. Leaves crunched under their feet while he made small talk, cheerfully unaware of the way her heart hammered. They had to cross about half an acre before the house came fully into view. It was a ranch-style that looked a little worse for wear. There was no road leading to it that either of them could see. It was as if it dropped in place right out of the sky. Trees pressed in on its sides. Moss covered the roof. Mildew trickled down the gray sides in rainy streaks. Despite its condition, it didn’t look like an old house. It had a modernity to its architecture that would’ve fit in a suburban neighborhood.
The surveyor looked at the copy of the plat map Miranda had given him and shook his head. “Not sure what to tell you, ma’am,” he said. “Either someone over at the county clerk made a mistake when making the map, or someone built this house here illegally. It’s coming up on your property line but ain’t actually past it. Whoever owns this side of the line is just letting it rot. Ain’t no one living here, that’s for sure. I’d be surprised if even squatters could find it.”
She asked him to point out where the property line was, and he helped her move a few large stones in place to mark it. They stood in a row about fifty yards from the house, a squat little brigade facing down this uneasy threat.
Over the next couple days, she watched the house and its windows from her breakfast nook. She tried to square away in her mind that while the house was real, its apparent movement towards her was not. It was an optical illusion at play. It had to be.
The sky threatened to rain when Miranda put on her coat and boots and stomped out though the woods towards the house. She barreled forward and ignored the way the wind tugged at her hair and the swaying branches of the trees grasped at the hem of her jacket as if to keep her back—until the house came into full sight. Then the cold feeling of being watched sank deep into her bowels. Her knees trembled and every hair on her body stood on end with each slow, crunching step she forced herself to take forward.
The trees around the house didn’t look right. They were different than she remembered. As if they had moved. She looked around on the ground for the stones that she and the land surveyor had placed. They were nowhere to be found. She jumped at every sound and her back crawled with the feeling that something was behind her. Still she searched for the stones, weaving through the brush closer and closer to the house.
She found only one. Next to the house. Touching it. The others had disappeared under its foundation.
The window of the house was always in view. With one eye pinned to the tiny crack in the curtains, Miranda watched it. She was vigilant in her attempt to witness it move. To see it come through the trees. But it never did. Not while she was watching. The house crept in the night, low and slow like a stalking wolf, the window’s maw gaping wider each morning.
She thought about burning it. There was a canister of gasoline in her basement. The only thing was, the entrance was from the outside. Every organ in her body revolted at the idea of exposing herself, but she also couldn’t stand the thought of waiting for that house to reach her. Her hands shook as she opened the front door and stepped out of the cave-like darkness of her home and into the sunlight.
She’d focused so much on the crack in the curtains of her bay window. Precise, like a laser beam, she’d set her eye on the house out in the woods and never bothered to look elsewhere. In her absolute concentration, she’d missed them. The other houses. From her porch, she saw at least a dozen half-hidden in the trees. Their windows all faced her.
Dread moved her slowly and soundlessly back into the house, the gas canister forgotten.
Once out of sight, she looked through the curtains in every room. There was a house in view from every window. They stared back at her.
They only moved when she slept. So Miranda stopped sleeping. She turned on every outside light and left the interior dark. Round and round she paced to check each window. Through the day. Through the night. Her porch lights only reached so far into the trees, but she stared through the angles of their trunks and into the darkness between. Nothing moved. Not while she watched.
One afternoon, she nodded off at the small table in her breakfast nook. Her head slumped forward, then she found herself waking up with a loud gasp as she wrenched her head back upright. Light still shone around the dark curtains. With relief, she stood back up. She must’ve only drifted off a few moments. She wouldn’t make that mistake again.
She pressed her eye to the window to see, and stared straight into the lit interior of an empty room.
Miranda threw the curtains open. The window of the house in the woods now pushed right up against hers. It was dark out. The light she’d seen around her curtains came from a single bulb that shone from the ceiling of the other room. Its searing fluorescent light pierced through her and into her home. The walls of the room were plain white, and the carpet an ugly neutral gray-brown. There was only a closed door. Nothing else.
She ran through the house and ripped aside all her curtains. They’d surrounded her. All her windows looked straight into another room of another house. Each one looked the same. White, and empty. Lit by a single overhead bulb. A closed door in every one, leading to who-knows-where.
Her hands shook too much to tie her boot laces. She could barely get her coat on. Her keys dropped from her numb fingers several times as she stumbled to her front door. She wrenched it open, and stared directly at another front door. The porch of one of the houses pressed right up against hers, their railings parallel, its singular porch light blasting her eyes.
Other houses squashed against its sides. They squeezed each other as much as they squeezed her house. Every window in every house was lit, and white, and empty. In what little space there was between houses, Miranda glimpsed other lit windows. Other rooftops. Other hard, straight angles and artificialities. Their light polluted the darkness and made her blind to the woods. If there were any woods left at all. As far as she could see, there were only the houses now. There was no road. No space to leave. Miranda stood pinned in place as the very air smothered her.
The sound of a lock clicking open broke the silence. Across from her, only a few steps away, the front door of the other house slowly swung open.
Colleen East grew up in the valleys of the Appalachian mountains. After many twists and turns through hither and yon, she found herself settling in Oregon with her husband and two parrots. She has had poetry previously published in her alma mater’s literary magazine. This is her first published prose short story. She also makes art. If you are curious to see what else goes on in her mind, you can find her on Threads and Instagram @dreamspelunker