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Third House Impregnable

           The third house was isolated and old; the kind of third house Leland thought one could own without drawing accusations of excess. Like, sure, I’ve got three houses, but the third one is isolated and old.

It needed a lot of work, but Leland wasn’t in a hurry. He still hadn’t decided what he wanted to do with it. Even though the third house was way out in the country and without any nearby neighbors, its surroundings weren’t idyllic enough for it to make a good vacation cabin. Its immediate environment was more empty than picturesque. The trees on its lot were plentiful but spread out, the county road connected to its garage by a long, straight driveway was used mostly by accident, might as well have stayed gravel. Maybe Leland could rent the third house to a hermit or near-hermit.

Or he could just keep it for the pleasure of possessing a third house. Not to brag about it, not to position himself as better than anyone. Just as a fact to privately contemplate and appreciate.

Tonight was the first Leland had spent in the third house. His wife and sons had not wanted to join him, but he hadn’t tried very hard to convince them. He liked the idea of having some alone time in the third house, some time to meander from room to room with his hands clasped behind his back without being interrupted or snickeringly imitated.

The third house was furnished; that’s how it had been sold, how Leland received it. The furniture was old, but less old than the house itself. The bed where Leland intended to sleep reminded him of his childhood bed but bigger, of course, with sheets and a quilt that smelled the good kind of musty. The couch and both easy chairs in the living room sagged to accommodate someone else when Leland sat on them. Many of the third house’s floorboards creaked in surprise as Leland trod upon them: who’s this now? They also expected someone else, probably, or no one ever again. But this was all fine, it could all be overcome in very little time, and would be.

But the third house had one characteristic that had at first seemed trivial, but was beginning to nag at Leland now that he owned the house, now that he’d spent a few hours living in it. That characteristic was a shape repeated all through the house, the same trapezoid in different sizes. It was everywhere. It was in the crown molding in the entryway, it was in the wallpaper borders in all three bathrooms, it was in the tile on the kitchen floor, it was in the study’s ornate doorframe, even the strange wall cutout between the living room and the den was in the shape of that same trapezoid. Every time Leland noticed another appearance of the trapezoid, he felt a pang. It denoted, he thought, a touch of disquiet in a previous owner’s spirit. Leland did not admire obsession, not even mild cases.

As the sun sagged into the vague horizon, Leland began to note the trapezoid’s presence in places it could not have been intentionally placed. Arrangements of dust on shelves, a piece of cement broken out of the floor in the unfinished basement, the unnatural form a bug’s body had adopted in a lonely death on the top shelf of a kitchen cabinet. The bedroom door, left ajar, presented a partial view of the doorway across the hall, and the resulting intersecting lines presented a perfect representation of the trapezoid. Half into his pajamas, Leland crossed the room to close the door completely. As the bottom edge of the door dragged across the carpet, it left the trapezoid shape in the deep nap; not perfect, but close enough. Leland scuffed it away with his slippered foot, then fled the room, although he did not think of it as fleeing.

Downstairs, as he filled his empty Newsworthy Burger cup with cool tap water from the kitchen sink, Leland noted mid-sip that the backyard light coming through the window cast a familiar trapezoid shape in dirty yellow on the ceiling; he choked. He was no geometry man, but he understood that one could presumably find trapezoids everywhere if one looked for them. But these trapezoids all had the same angles; they were one trapezoid like framed photos hanging all through a house can all be of one person. Not that he was breaking out a protractor and checking, but he could just tell, and that knowledge was under his skin, now, burrowing around inside his flesh, making him that uncomfortable. Was the trapezoid a message? Was someone trying to communicate with him?

Beset by so many representations of the trapezoid, Leland was jumpy enough to cry out when the doorbell chimed. It was only 9 p.m., but he hadn’t expected any visitors. Had his family missed him enough to pile in the car and drive out here to join him? No chance. He felt around in his hoodie’s large central pocket for his cell phone to see if someone had texted him about their imminent arrival, but he’d left his phone upstairs on the bed with his keys and wallet.

The doorbell rang again. Leland walked to the front hall to stare at the door. He wished it had a peep hole, but it did not. He walked around the corner into the living room and crossed to the picture window, pulling the curtains an inch apart to look outside. He didn’t have the angle to see the porch, so he couldn’t see who was ringing the doorbell, but he had left the porch light on and it illuminated enough for Leland to see a white limousine parked in his driveway with its headlights off but its engine running; a column of exhaust rose from its rear like a tail lifted to signal alertness. The limousine calmed Leland’s nerves. He supposed it could belong to someone sinister – a figure in organized crime, for example – but he didn’t think that was likely. And it seemed even less likely that a criminal bent on burglary or random violence would arrive via limo. With put-on confidence befitting the owner of a third house feeling at home within that third house, Leland returned to the front hall and answered the door.

A young woman in a dark gray limo driver’s uniform paused her gloved finger half-way to a third press of the doorbell when she saw Leland. “Hello!” she said. She had a disarming smile. She wore a nametag that read “Evelynn” and a yellow bowtie. Her sunglasses were folded and tucked into her jacket’s breast pocket.

“How can I help you?” asked Leland, a little embarrassed to be seen in his pajama pants. They were printed all over with multicolored tennis balls.

“You’re Leland?” asked Evelynn. “You paid money for this house?”

“Yes,” said Leland, although he thought it was a strange way to phrase the question.

“Great,” said Evelynn. “Could you step out here on the porch, please?”

“What for?” asked Leland, but he was already stepping out onto the porch as he asked. “Did someone send a limo for me? Are you taking me somewhere? Can I change first?”

Evelynn laughed. “No, no, I’m just stopping by to take care of this while taking a little detour from my main job. That’s why I’m in the limo. And dressed like this. I’m only here as a part of my side gig.”

“So you’re stopping by to take care of what?” asked Leland.

Evelynn pulled a large key from a pocket sewn into her jacket’s lining. “Just this,” she said. She motioned for Leland to step aside, which he did. Then she pulled the front door of his third house closed and poised the key an inch from the keyhole in the knob.

“That’s the wrong key,” said Leland. “It’s too big, it won’t fit.” But he didn’t intervene.

“It’ll fit,” said Evelynn, and she slid the key into the keyhole with no problem. It was like the keyhole grew to accommodate the key. Then she twisted the key to the right, a chunk sound seemed to emanate from the entire house – not just the doorknob – and the key dissolved into gray dust, which blew away on a breeze Leland could not feel. “Ouch,” said Evelynn, and she wiped her hand on her thigh leaving a streak the color of the key dust.

“What was that?” asked Leland. “What did you just do?”

“This is your third house, yes?” asked Evelynn.

“Yeah,” said Leland. “So?”

“You have to verify your claim to it by getting inside,” said Evelynn. “If you can get inside again, it’s yours. Otherwise, it’s not.”

Leland stared at Evelynn hoping she would become uncomfortable enough to better explain what she meant, but she did not. He stepped up to the door and tried the knob. It was locked. He rattled the door a few times, then turned back to Evelynn. “You locked me out and my keys are inside. They’re upstairs. How am I supposed to get in without my keys?”

“That’s what you have to figure out,” said Evelynn. “In order to verify your claim to your third house.”

               “But I’ll have to break a window or something,” said Leland. “I just bought this house, I don’t want to be breaking it already. You have no right to lock me out of my own house. Let me back inside.” He paused, then said “now” in a gruffer voice.

               But Evelynn was unmoved. “If I let you back in, then that wouldn’t verify your claim to the house. Don’t you want to verify your claim to the house? Don’t you want to be certain that it’s yours?”

               Leland wished Evelynn were a man so he could more comfortably threaten physical violence. But Leland also wasn’t much of a fighter – he wasn’t sure he could take Evelynn in a fight even as things stood right now – so it was also a relief that his moral standards prevented that option. “I’ll call the police,” said Leland.

               “Go ahead,” said Evelynn.

               “Can I borrow your phone?” asked Leland, trying not to sound like the most pathetic living person.

               “I don’t have one,” said Evelynn.

               “Is there one in the limo?” asked Leland.

               “No,” said Evelynn. “You aren’t allowed to go in the limo anyway. But none of this matters because this process is entirely legal, I promise. This is all by the book.”

               “I’ve never heard of anything like this,” said Leland.

               Evelynn shrugged. “You probably don’t hang out with a lot of other third-house owners.”

               Leland had to admit she was right, but he admitted it only within the privacy of his own thoughts. He was angry, yes, but maybe this was all just a minor inconvenience, a trick performed by a strange woman. Maybe she was a stage magician, maybe she was secretly filming all of this for an online prank show. He descended the porch steps without stomping. The slippers weren’t good for stomping anyway. As he headed for the front corner of the house, he looked over his shoulder to see Evelynn taking a seat on the steps, propping her elbows on her knees and cradling her chin in her hands. She was not watching him.

               The long grass dampened Leland’s slippers, bare ankles, and the bottom hems of his pajama pants as he strode around the side of the house, which did not look different in the moonlight. Which, in fact, looked normal. He assumed the first-story windows he passed were all locked – he hadn’t unlocked any windows – but he would try them if neither the back door nor the door on the side of the garage were unlocked. He suspected those doors wouldn’t be unlocked either, but he was saving the majority of his anger for after he had exhausted all of the most obvious options.

               He arrived at the back door first. It was locked. Would it be easier to kick in than the front door? He moved on to the side garage door, which was also locked. It looked to be the easiest door to kick in of all three, but the problem was that the door leading from the garage to the house was probably also locked, so that would be a second door he would need to kick in. On his way back to the front of the house, he tried every window he encountered, but they were all locked.

               When Evelynn saw Leland returning, she said, “Still out here, huh?” She didn’t sound like she was gloating. She sounded a little disappointed, if anything.

               “Does getting into the garage count as getting inside the house?” asked Leland.

               “Yes,” said Evelynn. “Why? Do you think you can get into the garage?”

               “I don’t know,” said Leland. Now was theoretically the time for him to unleash his anger, but he found that it had all dissipated. He had waited too long. Now he just felt tired. “I guess it would be better to just break a window,” he said. “That’s probably easier to fix than a kicked-in door.”

               “I honestly don’t know,” said Evelynn.

               “I wasn’t asking if you did,” said Leland. Testy: that was all he could manage. He just wanted this to be over. He looked around on the ground for a rock, a brick. The best he could come up with was a loose paving stone in the bumpy front walk. He worked it out of the ground and hefted it onto his shoulder, rich dirt embedded beneath all of his fingernails.

               “Which window are you going to try first?” asked Evelynn.

               Leland didn’t understand the question. Why would he need to “try” more than one window? The paving stone was very heavy, he couldn’t imagine it failing to shatter any standard window as long as he didn’t miss his throw. He had considered going for one of the smaller windows on the side of the house – maybe the office window or the guest room window – because they would cost less money to replace than the living room picture window, but they were also higher off of the ground and would be more difficult to crawl through. So the living room picture window was the choice. He could afford to replace the living room window; he’d been intending to replace all of the windows with more energy-efficient updates anyway. But he didn’t bother to discuss any of this with Evelynn. He didn’t owe her responses to her questions. Instead, he stepped into the barren flower bed in front of the living room picture window, paused to gather himself, and then heaved the paving stone at the window.

               The paving stone struck the glass with an impotent thunk, bounced off as if it were made of wadded paper, and would have crushed Leland’s left foot had he not leapt backward, falling and sprawling in the grass. Clambering to his feet, Leland whirled on Evelynn and shouted, “What’s going on? This is not fair!”

               Evelynn stood. From the height of the second porch step, she looked down on Leland and said, “I guess you’ll have to get creative.”

               “Get creative how?” asked Leland. He was still shouting. He’d discovered a small reserve of anger. “It’s all stacked against me! Isn’t it? That paving stone should have gone through that window with no problem. There shouldn’t be anything left of that window!” He was using up the anger reserve at a rapid rate. It was already nearly depleted.

               “Under normal circumstances, yes, the paving stone would have broken the window,” said Evelynn. “But this is different. You’re trying to verify your claim to a third house. It’s supposed to be hard.”

               “But I don’t see why I should have to verify my claim,” said Leland. “I paid for it. I bought it.”

               “There’s another claim on it,” said Evelynn.

               “There is?” asked Leland. His voice had shriveled back down to normal volume.

               “There has to be,” said Evelynn. “Otherwise I wouldn’t be here. You wouldn’t need to verify your claim if there weren’t any other claims on it.” She now chewed green gum. It made occasional appearances as she spoke.

               “Who is it?” asked Leland. “Who else thinks they have a claim on my house?”

               “Your third house,” said Evelynn. “And I don’t know anything about the other claim. I only know it must exist. And it must be a pretty good claim, because if it wasn’t I think that paving stone would have gotten through that window, or at least cracked it.”

               “I’ve had enough for the night,” said Leland. “I’ll deal with this tomorrow.”

               “You’re going to sleep out here?” asked Evelynn.

               “No,” said Leland. “I’m going home.”

               “You’re saying you aren’t home here?” asked Evelynn, arching her left eyebrow.

               “No, I am home here, but I’m going to my other home,” said Leland.

               “Which?” asked Evelynn. “Your first home or second home?”

               “First,” said Leland.

               “All right,” said Evelynn. “But wouldn’t you rather resolve this now? I don’t want to have to come all the way back here in the morning. Tomorrow’s my day off from the limo driving job, so it’d be nice to have some time to myself.”

               “Oh, wow,” said Leland. “I’d hate to inconvenience you.”

               “So how are you going to get to your other other home?” asked Evelynn. “Isn’t your car in the garage? Your phone’s inside, too, so how will you call for a ride? Are you going to walk home? Hitchhike? Run off to your nearest neighbor, showing up unexpectedly at night on their doorstep to ask for a lift or use of their phone? I don’t know for sure, but I’d worry people who want to live this far from other people might be pretty trigger-happy.”

               “What if I tell you that I renounce my claim to this house?” asked Leland. “Then will you let me inside?”

               “No,” said Evelynn. “Once you’ve renounced your claim, then you can never re-enter the house. Whoever holds the remaining claim would have to bring your stuff out to you. Do you really want to renounce your claim already?”

               “No, I don’t,” said Leland. “This house is mine. This has something to do with that trapezoid, I can feel it. I was already uneasy about it before.” He watched Evelynn’s face as he spoke, watched for a twitch, a flinch, a twinkle, an abnormal blink.

               But no, he spotted no sign of a suppressed reaction, her response seemed genuine. “What are you talking about?”

               “Whoever thinks they have a claim on my house,” said Leland. “They filled the house up with a trapezoid. The same trapezoid repeated over and over all through the house. Like their own little shape to mark their territory, that’s how all this connects. And now the house is infected with the trapezoid, it shows up in other ways, too.”

               “I don’t know about that,” said Evelynn. “I haven’t heard of anything like that before.”

               “Well, I’d show you,” said Leland. “But we’re stuck out here.”

               “Unless you do something about that,” said Evelynn.

               “I can’t think with you watching me,” said Leland. “I’m going around back to think.”

               “All right, then,” said Evelynn. “Maybe that’s a good idea. Not that I want to add pressure, but maybe that’s a good idea. I wouldn’t say I’m rooting for you, exactly, but it’s always more interesting when someone gets in. I can’t help but enjoy those times more than when people just fail and fail until they renounce their claims.”

               Leland snorted, turned, and tramped back around the side of the house. He was not cold, rather, his simmering annoyance maintained a prickly warmth on the surface of his skin, which kept him coated in a layer of sweat. He could smell himself befouling his immediate airspace. Maybe that was why Evelynn had encouraged him to ponder his tactics somewhere the night breeze couldn’t carry his stink to her.

               But Evelynn didn’t know what Leland was really up to. She didn’t know he had already abandoned the game she thought they were playing. He was now playing a new game, one in which his aims were his own, not sprung upon him by outside forces with no time to prepare, no time to strategize, no time to resist. Once he was in the back yard, Leland looked over his shoulder to make sure he had not been sneakily pursued, and then he just kept going back, back, back to the far edge of the property, into deeper dark where he would not be invisible, but where one would have to be looking for him to see him, one would have to know to look for him. Then, in the posture of creeping, Leland made his way along the perimeter of his land – yes, he still thought of it as his land and would continue to do so until he heard otherwise from a source he considered reliable – and his slinking route took him around the other side of the house now, but he stayed far away, he stayed well out of the porch light’s modest reach. He saw Evelynn sitting on the porch, now she was on the top step, she was again trying to brush the residue of that strange key off of her thigh. She was not looking for him, she did not know to look for him, so she did not see him. Leland kept moving toward the road, darting from tree to tree, but his eyes were not on the road, his eyes were on the driveway and the limousine parked there, its engine still gently grumbling, that column of exhaust from its tailpipe continuously rebuilding itself in the air.

               The trickiest part would be getting into the driver’s seat without Evelynn noticing. But maybe that didn’t matter as long as she couldn’t get to him fast enough to stop him. Even if he did make it to the limo unseen, Evelynn would certainly notice a few moments later when the limo backed down the driveway and roared off toward town leaving her stranded with Leland’s unyielding third home. Unless she was lying about not having a phone, which seemed possible. She’d call for someone to give her a ride. She’d call the police, report the limousine stolen. But Leland welcomed the police; he did not believe Evelynn’s claims about the legality of what she had done to him. But she also might be hesitant to call the police if she could get in trouble for bringing the limousine to Leland’s house, for trying to double dip by working both of her jobs at the same time.

               From behind an oak with a trunk of exactly his thickness, Leland watched Evelynn pull her sunglasses out of her breast pocket and examine her image in their reflective lenses. She held the glasses at arm’s length to get a broader look at herself. She fiddled with her bowtie, straightening it, straightening it, straightening it. She was distracted, but not as distracted as Leland preferred. How much time did he really need? He knew the keys were already in the ignition because the engine was running. And what if she caught him, stopped him? Could she really make things worse for him? Well, maybe. There was still a chance this was all a prank or a misunderstanding that she could undo if she chose to, which she might not choose to do if he tried to steal the limousine.

               Right as Leland’s concerns were beginning to lead him away from his plan, Evelynn stood, descended the porch steps, and walked to the front corner of the house, pausing to peer into the darkness where she’d last seen Leland go. She called his name – “Leland?” – not very loud. Then she walked on around the side of the house and out of view.

               Leland emerged from hiding and trotted to the limousine, opened the driver’s side door, and ducked inside, closing the door behind him as quietly as he could manage. Once inside, the heavy tint on the windows – windshield included – gave Leland the confidence to pause and take stock. Evelynn had not yet returned from whatever had drawn her to the back of the house; so much for leaving him alone to think. It had only been ten minutes since he’d excused himself from her presence. Probably not even ten minutes!

               The interior of the limousine’s cab was not luxurious, but Leland supposed it made sense to reserve the luxury for the passengers in back. Yellow padding poked through numerous cracks and splits in the seats’ worn leather upholstery. Recalling Evelynn’s green gum, Leland noted an immense quantity of candy wrappers piled on the floor in front of the passenger’s seat. Resting on the passenger’s seat itself was a zipped duffle bag.

               Evelynn still wasn’t back. Leland wondered if she was searching for him. He liked the idea of a clean escape, just driving away and imagining Evelynn’s reaction when she returned to the front yard and realized the limousine was gone, the dawning comprehension of how thoroughly she had been outmaneuvered. But he also liked the idea of waiting for Evelynn to reappear just in time to see him drive off so she could chase after him on foot, shouting and waving her arms as the gap between her and the limo grew wider and wider, cursing him, tearing off her bowtie, spiking it onto the gravel driveway, stamping on it, tearing her hair in frustration as a cloud of dust settled around her. But no, satisfying as such a display might be, the clean escape was better. Less chance of something unexpected going wrong.

               But just as Leland shifted the limousine into reverse, a tap at the opaque glass partition behind his head startled him. A muffled woman’s voice said, “Driver? Is that you? What’s going on?”

               Leland shifted the limo back into park and gripped the steering wheel with both hands to steady himself. After the initial shock, it took him a few moments to gather his wits enough to understand that the tap on the partition and the voice from the other side belonged to a passenger in the back of the limo. From the nature of the passenger’s questions, it was clear that she could not see Leland and had not yet realized he was not Evelynn, so he had not yet technically been caught, but driving away with an unwitting passenger complicated his plan and significantly increased the likelihood of serious consequences, especially since the passenger’s allegiance would more likely be aligned with Evelynn than with a stranger hijacking her ride. Leland figured he could still get out of the limousine with little to no harm done, but then he’d be right back in the same pitiful situation as before.

               “Hello?” came the voice again. “Answer me, please! Are we leaving soon?”

               “I’m not the driver,” Leland called back. “Get out of the limo. You’re staying here.”

               A considered silence followed. Then the voice said, “I’m not getting out. I’m staying right here. Who are you? Lower the partition.”

               “Just get out,” said Leland. “I’m taking the limousine but I’m not the driver so you have to stay here, I can’t be responsible for you. If you’re upset, take it up with your driver, she locked me out of my house and I’m stranded out here. That’s why I have to take the limo. But you can’t come.”

               “Lower the partition,” said the passenger. “Let’s discuss this. I have some important advice for you.”

               “I don’t know how to lower the partition,” said Leland. “Please, I don’t have a problem with you. Just get out so I can drive to a phone and get someone to pick me up. That’s all I want to do.”

               “It’s the switch on the dashboard,” said the passenger. “Right above the radio.”

               Leland again scanned the front of his third house through the windshield, the yard, the porch, the shadowed corners. Still no sign of Evelynn, but if he couldn’t talk the passenger out of the limo soon then his half-baked plan would fall all the way apart. Maybe he could be more persuasive with the partition down. He decided it didn’t matter if the passenger saw his face; Evelynn already knew exactly who he was.

Leland flipped the switch on the dashboard and the partition lowered with a labored whir, its little motor whimpering at the effort required for its only job. The passenger’s face came into view bit by bit. She was about 60, her dyed brown hair showed two inches of gray at the roots, and the lenses of her glasses were smudged. She wore no makeup but her gold necklace and pearl earrings looked expensive. Beyond her, the rear section of the limousine did not, as far as Leland could see, look more luxurious than the cab.

               “All right,” said Leland. “The partition is down liked you asked. Now please tell me what you want to tell me and then please get out. It isn’t cold, you can just wait on the porch until I get back. Evelynn is around here somewhere.”

               “My name is Harriet,” said the passenger. “Do you know how many houses I used to have? Six! I had six different houses! So listen to me when I tell you that you must not leave, Mr. whatever-your-name-is, you must get back into that house! Or you might end up living in the back of a limo driven by one of the very agents of your fall. Like me!”

               “You mean this happened to you too?” asked Leland. “Something like this? She locked you out?”

               “Yes,” said Harriet. “Six times, each with those awful dissolving keys! I didn’t even try to get back inside the first time. That was a mistake, a big mistake. If you don’t succeed in verifying your claim, then your claims on all your other houses become that much weaker, and they get much weaker if you don’t put in a good effort. Pretty soon there were claims stronger than mine on every house I owned! I spent two weeks trying to break into my first house, but to no avail. I can’t even rent an apartment now without a handful of stronger claims immediately appearing for it. So here I am: paying exorbitant rent to ride around in this crummy limousine all day and night.”

               Leland absorbed this information in silence. It was not encouraging, but was that the point? Was Harriet in league with Evelynn? Was anything she said true, or was this an elaborate lie meant to put him back on the track Evelynn had set out for him? Was Evelynn taking so long to return from the back yard to give him plenty of time to have this encounter? Had she known from the beginning that he would find the running limousine irresistible? It seemed absurd, but so did the entire situation, and maybe he would have been able to avoid it if he had been more willing to anticipate the absurd from the beginning. But he was also frightened at the prospect that Harriet might be correct, that he could be in danger of losing not only his third house, but his second house as well, and even his first house. He could not go from a man with three houses to a man with none, the idea was horrifying. And the worst part would be how unsurprised his family would be at this outcome, how they would act as if they had all along expected no more from him.

               And another thought occurred to Leland. “Was the trapezoid in your house? Any of your houses?”

               Harriet gave him a distrustful look. “Trapezoid? What trapezoid?”

               “In the decoration,” said Leland. “And the architecture. And just random places. Everywhere, really.”

               “No,” said Harriet. “Trapezoids are not my style.”

               “Well, they aren’t mine either,” said Leland. He didn’t appreciate being spoken to as if he was saying anything crazier than Harriet had said. “I didn’t put them there and I never wanted them there.”

               “You have bigger problems than trapezoids,” said Harriet. “You have to get back into that house.”

               “Do you have any suggestions?” asked Leland.

               “Not really,” said Harriet. “I never got in. I don’t know how it’s supposed to be accomplished. But I gather that my sixth house would have been the easiest, so maybe you can figure it out. All I know is that you shouldn’t use any of those keys.”

               “Which keys?” asked Leland.

               “Those keys,” said Harriet. She stuck her hand through the opening into the cab and pointed at the duffle bag on the passenger’s seat.

               Leland pulled the bag onto his lap. It was heavy, it clinked. He unzipped it. “These are just like the key she used to lock me out! There are dozens of them!”

               “Yes, but don’t get excited,” said Harriet.

               “They won’t work?” asked Leland. “You know for sure they won’t work?”

               “Well, no, I don’t know,” said Harriet. “I mean, they might get you in, but no, you shouldn’t use them, that would be cheating. And I can’t imagine cheating would lead to a good outcome. I’m sure you’d regret it somehow. I’m just sure there would be consequences.”

               Leland had surrendered to the temptation before he even recognized it as such. With a handful of keys, he climbed out of the limousine, ignoring Harriet’s scolding, slamming the door behind him and striding toward his third house with purpose, driven by his certainty of impending triumph. He dropped a few keys as he marched up the driveway, but he did not stop to retrieve them. He only needed one; the handful was merely symbolic of the vehemence with which he had rejected Harriet’s warning, and also of his enthusiasm for “cheating,” if such a thing were even possible when everything had been crooked from the outset.

               Even in slippers, Leland’s footfalls resonated as he stomped up the porch steps. He stood before his third house’s front door, let all but one of the keys in his hand clatter to the floor, and he poised the remaining key before the keyhole, which still looked too small, but he knew this would work. As Leland extended the key toward the keyhole perhaps the key shrank, because by the time they came together, the fit was perfect. Leland turned the key to the left, eliciting a satisfying un-chunk from the house. A bolt of pain raced up Leland’s arm. “Ouch!” he said, and the key dissolved to dust and blew away.

               Unwilling to endure anymore suspense, Leland did not hesitate to try the doorknob. It turned with no resistance and the door to Leland’s third house swung open. He stepped inside, leaving the door standing open behind him. He was about to turn on the light in the front hall when he heard footsteps outside on the porch.

               “What did you do? You used a key to open this house?”

               Leland turned to see Evelynn kneeling to gather the discarded keys from where they lay just beyond the threshold of the front door. “What’s wrong?” he asked. “Don’t like how I play your game? Mad that I didn’t follow your rules?”

               “You don’t know what you’ve done,” said Evelynn. “You don’t understand how open this house is now, how porous. Anything can get out! Not just through the doors and windows, but through the very walls!”

               “Get off my porch,” said Leland. “It’s my porch because it’s attached to my house – my third house. And there will be more! A fourth house, a fifth house, and so on!”

               Evelynn didn’t argue. In fact, it was a little disconcerting how she hurried to the limo, stooping to scoop dropped keys on the way. In a matter of seconds, she was backing the limousine down the driveway and speeding off into the night just as Leland had planned to do before the new plan fell in his lap.

               As Leland returned to the front door to close it, he saw that Evelynn had left muddy footprints on his porch. And he also saw that there was something absent from her prints leading up the porch steps and toward his front door that was present in her prints leading away from his front door and down the porch steps: an impression of the trapezoid.

               Alarmed, Leland slammed the front door, locked it, bolted it. He ran upstairs, gathered his wallet, keys, and phone, then ran back downstairs, through the kitchen, and into the garage. As he raced his car down the driveway and skidded onto the deserted county road that connected his third house to other roads that connected to other roads that connected to other houses, including his second house, including his first house, he saw that the trapezoid was already ahead of him: in a splatter of bird droppings on the hood, etched on a stop sign, in the silhouette of a barn roof against a night sky somewhat brightened by the distant lights of civilization.