She first started to suspect something was off when, having placed a string of Christmas lights across her family of plastic pink flamingoes and their adopted gnome son, she swore she heard a collective whisper rise up behind matching drapes and valances all the way down the street. Maybe it wasn’t so much the lights, but the fact that only one of them really worked. There was one strong, stable red and its neighbor flickered green every few seconds. All the others had deadened filaments, so she placed the two working, or semi-working, lights over the eyes of the baby flamingo. The result was that its entire body glowed and flashed. The twisted green-coated wires hung limply over the backs of the parent flamingoes. The gnome son draped a couple of bulbs over his red cap proudly.
Maybe it was a fact that her inside was becoming her outside.
The interior of the house had already become a series of inflated contours to suit her life. There were piles of pizza boxes interspersed with mounds of laundry in varying degrees of cleanliness. The wrappers and receipts of takeout and delivery laid about like an index of the past few years of Margot’s life. Boxes of discarded goods and items still in use stacked themselves to the ceiling. Knickknacks of woodland creatures and mismatching vases lived next to worn-out candles and stacked themselves in precarious arcs across tabletops and counter ledges. If anything fell, it was not with a crash but with a soft thump as it hit a hand-knit scarf or a bunching of socks. Everything was going so well.
She had her burrow. Her home wherein she was not a mess, but she was part of an ever-expanding whole. She ate a bucket of chicken and she grew larger and so did the mess. It was all hers. There was a chaos in it that stimulated more of the same. And Margot was happy to oblige the ease of chaos.
She was bundled under a series of sleeves and hoods of fleece, faux fur, cotton, velveteen and flannel on the sofa, watching a show in which the main characters were trolls and mermaids, when she heard a tentative rap at the door like a sturdy leaf slapped against it. She ignored it, but then knocks came again and closer together and turned into splintering bangs. Margot stirred and twisted out of the fabric and swung her head toward the front door.
“Who disturbs my slumber?” She mumbled to herself and chuckled under her breath.
After a few more bangs with no end to them apparent, she made her way to the door, pulling a crocheted blanket from the top of the pile to wrap around her shoulders before she opened up.
She peered out of the small half-circle window at the top of the door and saw a trim man in a bright green polo that was tucked neatly into his khakis. His hair was cropped in such a way that Margot imagined that if she set a full can of cola on top of his head it would stay level. His face was an indistinct slab of pale waxy peach.
Margot cleared her throat and took a deep breath in and out. All the while the bangs kept coming. When she finally flipped the deadbolt and opened up, the man nearly punched her in the middle of the chest as he was mid-knock, but the whoosh of air as she unsealed the house sent him back on his heels and saved her the pain.
For a moment, she just blinked at him.
His knocking fist was still raised as he began to speak.
“Good morning, ma'am. It is Mrs. Hackett, correct?” His voice was as precise and clipped as his hair.
“Uh, Ms. Hackett. Yes,” Margot croaked.
“Well, Mrs. Hackett—”
“Ms. Hackett,” she repeated.
“Uh, um, it’s Ms. Hackett. I’m not married. I never have been.” She cackled as she said the last sentence and wrapped the blanket tighter around her and closed the door until it was open just wide enough to reveal her face.
“Well Ms. Hackett,” the man emphasized and tried all the harder to look past her and into the house. He avoided her eyes and strained them to the gap above her head even though they were about the same height. “I hope I am not bothering you today.”
Margot thought that was an odd thing to say. His knocks betrayed the lie he told with his mouth. He reminded her a bit of the crafty, tricky trolls in her show, only more forgettable.
She decided to lie, too: “Oh, not at all.”
“Well, good. That’s good. I just wanted to stop by on behalf of the Home Owners’ Association of this neighborhood.”
Crinkles of his curt cordiality were met with the roundness of her blank stare.
He continued, “You see, in our last meeting we’ve had a discussion about the state of things and come to a decision.”
“Yes. A decision. Not to put too fine a point on it, but we’ve decided that I should come kindly ask you to remove the ornaments from your yard,” he said. “You know the HOA can’t tolerate this kind of thing.”
She didn’t know, but what did that matter. Her smatterings of fleece and down feathers called to her.
“I don’t belong to the HOA,” she stated. She predated the HOA. It was signed and declared and posted or whatever happens with HOAs years after she moved in to her cave, her cove, her nest.
“Well,” he said in one long sigh, “I know that. But this neighborhood has a reputation to uphold now. We’re trying to create an image for ourselves. And frankly, what you have going on in your front yard is not in line with our vision.”
“Oh, I see. I understand,” she said and shut the door before more could be made of the matter. She was growing cold and weary and hungry talking to this straight-cut man. She needed the folds and ridges of her home to soothe her back to the place she was supposed to be.
In truth, though she could have ruminated on his words, she spent the rest of the day scooping peanut butter with the loops of pretzels and watching a documentary series on the mating habits of grizzly bears after her troll show ended.
The next day, she stepped off her porch to inspect her menagerie, and found she had only two steps instead on the normal three. The last step seemed to have dipped down and a thin layer of mud now coated it. She pressed her slipper into the mud, and it sucked her down. She had to yank and pull her leg to get it out of the muck. She had things to do.
In her arms, she carried two kitschy signs she picked up from a garage sale years back and had never gotten around to placing. Today was the day. That was her decision. Beside her gnome son, Margot stuck the one that said “Gnome One Lives Here,” and closer to the edge of her yard right by the sidewalk, she placed the sandwich board sign that had apparently been painted over by the previous owner’s child, and it showed a sunflower growing next to a snowman with a caption that read, “Forbidden Love.” The garage sale attendant sold the first for fifty cents and threw in the second for free. It was a steal.
Margot placed and adjusted both signs and then stood in the front yard for the next few minutes with her blanket tied around her neck and her hands on her hips like a superhero, occasionally waving to anyone who happened to walk by or look out of their windows at her.
She returned inside and ate ramen, napped, and then ate some snickerdoodles before taking a long, long bath.
She had been vandalized. Margot woke to find her flamingo family uprooted, their gnome son smashed to bits and his sign planted in the middle of the shards of his broken body. The Christmas lights were arranged so they were choking the fallen flamingoes, and her sandwich board of her star-crossed lovers was smashed to smithereens, its pieces cast asunder.
Margot seethed as she looked at the aftermath of the attack.
She spent the next hour cleaning up the disaster. She put the flamingoes upright again, removing the garrote of lights from their necks, and she moved them closer to the house in a defensive formation. The gnome son she laid to rest under the soft mud surrounding the foundation of the house. She placed his sign directly in front of the porch steps and then went inside to mourn the loss of her peace.
Later that day, the man came back.
“I couldn’t help but notice what happened to your yard, Ms. Hackett.”
The indistinct fleshiness of his face seemed to bulge and curl with the force of the smile he was holding back.
“It must have been some kids messing around. We do have the neighborhood watch, but I guess they must have missed the whole thing.”
Margot looked and lingered on the straight line at the crown of his head.
He continued, “But you know. Maybe it’s for the best if you take all this stuff out of your yard, so your, uh,” gesturing and dropping in tone, “things don’t get damaged anymore, and so the HOA doesn’t have to keep coming around to bug you. You got me?”
Margot tensed and twisted in her blanket-cape. She was, after all, not a child, and this man was not her daddy.
They paused under the watchful eyes of the battered pink flamingoes.
“Let me be clear. You don’t get to tell me what to do on my property. I already told you I’m not a part of your cult,” Margot shuddered out her words and her clothing-mound monsters and the jaws of open pizza boxes yawned their support behind her. The flamingoes gawked. The spirit of the gnome son smirked as it floated around the body of the polo shirt man. “It’s my choice.”
He paused and choked on the words he was about to say. The soft droops of skin under his chin quivered and his teeth clicked together once in tension before he could respond.
“Well, Ms. Hackett, if that’s the way you want to do it,” and then turned to walk away, muddying his clean white sneakers on the sinking step as he did.
Her next plan of action involved a shovel. Already, she was suspecting something was happening within her home. A decision was being reached in its bowels, and she was eager to help it along.
The shovel she used to bury the gnome son was a dinky thing that had become rusty and splintery with disuse. It’s grayish wooden shaft cracked and groaned with any pressure applied and the two screws holding it in place jostled like they could pop out with a slight breeze. Still, Margot thought it would hold up against the soft ground, which felt hollow beneath her. She needed to give it a little encouragement.
All around the edge of her foundation, except where the gnome son was buried, Margot dug out a clump of dirt. When she was finished, a miniature moat surrounded the house. Her socks—for she wore no shoes—her pajamas, and her blanket cape were all crusted with mud by the time she was done, but she went inside again satisfied with the labor of the day.
In the way that a honeybee will flit around a floral fabric without ever gaining the succor of nectar, Margot’s neighbors continued to flit around her. One day they sent a letter stating that they had a lawyer on the board of the HOA, and he was exploring all avenues of legal action. The next day someone in a reversal, perhaps trying honey instead of vinegar, left a casserole on the bog of her front porch (to this last, Margot, fearing poison, threw the whole thing out). Occasionally, someone would stop by and knock, but Margot was not interested in their proposals and their pleas. They all wanted something she could not give them.
The first few days, she would prop something gloriously garish outside her front door like two trash bags filled with newspapers or a sequined gown, but these were just as soon put up as taken down by the next passing neighbor.
Margot turned the battle inward and would every night bounce her bottom on the cushions on the couch until she felt the house sink another inch.
“That’s enough for tonight,” she would say and doze off in her cozy bounty.
She wondered how long it would be before they all noticed, and then one day it all came to a head.
There was a crowd assembled, the kind of crowd that might also be called a mob. They did not have pitchforks, but they did have signs on very pointy sticks and a couple of the blob-faced middle-aged men proudly donned handguns on their hips.
“All this for little old me?” Margot asked the flamingo family, whom she had taken inside a few days before as a precaution, as they all peeked out the front window.
“They sure are organized.”
The signs offered various and perhaps conflicting messages. One read “Keep Our Neighborhood Beautiful,” while another simply had a skull and crossbones scribbled across it in permanent marker.
“They just don’t get it,” Margot said, turning to her assorted items. “They think that beauty is in the symmetry and order, but I can see the beauty in the chaos.” The audience of her house agreed. In there, every color imaginable flourished. Shapes melded together to make amazing jumbles. The perfume of citrus from the fruit in her kitchen and lavender from the hand lotion in her living room and mint from the toothpaste in her bathroom and her own sweat floated and drifted in the air. It was a beautiful menagerie, Margot affirmed. Beautiful and hers.
Shouts from the crowd swelled.
Margot stamped her foot down.
Someone yelled, “Pig!”
And a hearty “Yeah!” in response.
One big, final stomp.
And down she went.
The sinkhole finally collapsed and down went the house with Margot and everything she had inside. The crowd was left above.
A bird’s eye view of the town from the local news station’s helicopter would show a sopping crater, reamed with mud, but it could not show what happened below, for in fact, the house remained more or less intact. Nothing warped or broken, it was the same house, but now there was a peace.
Inside, Margot lounged and slept and snacked like a hibernating bear, alone and undisturbed.
Molly Ashline (she/her) is a queer writer, performer, and community member in North Carolina's Triad. Her work has appeared in several publications including Blood Tree Literature, The Wake Review, and Lunch Ticket among others. She holds an MFA from Antioch University and is currently writing a novel. She lives with her partner and critters and really hopes to be good at gardening one day. You can find more of her work at mollyashline.com.