An extract from Colleen Hubbard’s debut novel, Housebreaking, published by Corsair in the UK in August 2022.
She was twenty minutes late for meeting Greg. She had taken a streetcar from a café where she had put in a job application, but a broken train at the next stop had held it up. On the opposite track, a silver streetcar rattled past. The reflected sunlight flickered intermittently like a filmstrip.
Greg was sitting in a corner booth by himself. The diner was empty except for a college-aged waitress with half a cigarette tucked behind her ear. The place had a truck-stop theme, but it was in an upscale neighborhood, the sort of restaurant that families went to for lunch after church on Sunday.
“I’m sorry I’m late,” she said to him.
She was wearing a pair of black capri pants that had been washed too many times, black Doc Martens with low socks, and a white blouse printed with bluebirds. She thought she should have worn something nicer. Maybe he would have thought she was successful and reported it back to the family. Greg had already ordered a cup of coffee. He was wearing a green fleece vest, and his sandy hair flopped over his eyes. His knuckles were thick and brown around the white ceramic mug. Farmer hands, her mother would have said.
“No problem at all. Good to see you.” He stood up as if to hug her, but she took a seat on the bench opposite him instead. “Traffic wasn’t too bad. I was surprised. Took just about three hours to get here.”
“Huh.” Del waved to the waitress.
“But I stopped for gas. Think I could have done it in under three. Just about.”
The waitress appeared at the end of the booth. Her hair was short with frosted green tips, and she had perspiration stains under her arms.
“Just a cup of coffee,” Del said.
Maybe she’d get fries when Greg left. She was hungry but not desperate enough to extend her conversation with him.
“How long has it been, do you think?” Greg had a dopey, friendly smile. He was the least smart of the three brothers, and the worst at sports. All three of them had played football and baseball. Greg was junior varsity every year. He had some kind of learning difficulty related to reading, and Del had sometimes seen him at the study lab at school, pecking out words with his pointer fingers. She liked him best of his brothers because he seemed the least malicious, but still she didn’t like him very much.
“My mom’s funeral,” she told him. Greg had come with his brothers and his mom. Uncle Chuck arrived last, sat in the back row, and left before the service concluded.
“Oh yeah. Yeah. Sorry. That must have been it.” He was silent for a moment, then spooned more sugar into his coffee.
“Why are you—why are you here?”
“So—it’s a funny story. You haven’t been home in a while, so you haven’t seen it. The town, it’s really building up. You remember that development my dad did in the field on the east side of town, where the old horse stable was? Well, that sold right up. So then he did a second one, and it happened the same. Eighteen houses, two cul-de-sacs, sold in a month. Now me and Mitch and Kevin are all part of the family business along with Dad. There’s a new insurance company up Route 9. So there’s all these families moving in. It’s nice. A couple restaurants opened by the river. A pizza place, too. It’s fancy: you can get a pizza with potatoes and rosemary on it. You’d like it.”
Del didn’t respond. It was unclear how she came across as a person who liked “fancy” pizza. Greg glanced at her, then raised his now-empty mug to the waitress. When it was refilled, he pumped it full of cream and sugar and stirred until Del was ready to pull the spoon away from his fat brown hands.
“So why I’m here to talk to you—it’s about the house.”
She had locked the front door after her mother’s funeral, gotten a ride from her mother’s friend Eleanor to the local bus station, and bought a ticket to the city where her father lived. Occasionally she remembered that she owned a house, and she was surprised by the fact.
“What about the house?” she asked.
“That side of the pond is best for development. The land is pretty flat and dry, and it’s near the highway. And we own all the land around it, so we could develop the whole area. But the old house, it’s a problem. No one wants to live next to an abandoned house. The lot, too—it’s not how they build houses now. There’s too much land; you could fit three houses on it. Efficiency’s the thing. Space efficiency. And if you ever wanted to move back, you could get a brand-new house. We’d even give you a discount.”
He paused, waiting for Del’s reaction. She offered none, so he continued.
“That old place, you were never planning on going back there, right? Did it even have plumbing? You just had that coal stove in there. Coal!” He chuckled at the idea. “It’s basically a campsite. We just need you to sign the paperwork and we can get started. You’d get a fair deal. Family and all.”
Del’s coffee had gone cold. Her stomach was making little noises that she was sure Greg could hear. A man as thin as a grasshopper had come into the diner and sat at the counter alone, eating a hamburger. After him a family arrived. The youngest child was holding an orange plastic toy truck and crying. It must be near dinnertime, Del thought. Her mouth felt dusty. She wanted Greg to leave immediately so that she could order some fries with a side of gravy without having to look at his stupid pink face ever again.
She tried to imagine another family living in her house. No, she couldn’t—no one would want it. Maybe a single person. A weirdo like her. They’d fix the roof. Rewire the whole thing. Paint and such. They’d make it livable. Nice, even.
“You can think on it,” Greg said. “We submitted the plans to the town. It’s pretty straightforward, so we think it’d get approved fast. We would start building in spring when the ground thaws.”
He opened his backpack and brought out a manila envelope, which he slid across the table. She opened it and glanced at the cover sheet. The offer amounted to about four times what she made in a year.
“When you sign, mail it back to the head office. We’re on Elm Street now, the old Blake Building, if you remember it. You have to get it notarized, too. You can drop it off at our office if you want. We got our own notary.”
He checked his watch and gazed out the window at the backup of traffic on the road outside.
She had twenty-seven dollars in her checking account, but she bought their coffees rather than let him think she needed anything from him.
Greg stood to leave. “Goodbye, then. It was nice seeing you.”
Del didn’t bother getting up. “Bon voyage.”
Greg jingled his keys in the pocket of his fleece and then made for the door. The air in the diner was thick with the smell of fried eggs.
When she was seven, Greg’s parents had invited everyone out on their new boat. As Uncle Chuck lifted her in, she saw a metal trap with four doors that flopped open when the rope was let loose. Inside dangled a hunk of rotten chicken meat. They took the boat into shallow water and dropped the trap. A few green lobsters scuttled in, and the boys fought to be the one to snap the doors closed.
It wasn’t lobster season, and anyway the lobsters were too small to eat. Instead Uncle Chuck let them bring one small lobster back to the parking lot, where Greg’s eldest brother, Mitch, smashed it open with a rock. Mitch fitted a stick into the cracked-open tail meat and pushed as the lobster writhed.
She washed her hands in the diner’s bathroom and took the streetcar to the neighborhood where she had lived with her father. She hadn’t been there in years. She sat at the bus stop and watched the door for almost an hour until a young couple with a curly-haired dog walked out. Both the couple and the dog looked expensive. The rent must have gone up.
She walked to a nearby college bar where she wouldn’t know anyone. Gin and tonics were two for one.
“Can I get a sloe gin fizz?” she asked the bartender, who had a sprinkle of acne across his cheeks.
They didn’t have that. They didn’t have any of the other cocktails she asked about, either. Instead she ordered four gin and tonics and took a seat on a couch covered with a brown velour throw. Frasier was playing on the TV. It was a hot and drowsy night, and though she had tied her hair up in a knot, some strands clung to the sweat on the back of her neck and made her feel feverish and strange.
She drank the fourth cocktail, felt a wash of salt in the back of her throat, and rushed to the nearest bathroom. It was the men’s room. Thankfully, it was empty. She puked into a urinal and wiped her mouth with her sleeve.
A college boy in a school sweatshirt had taken a seat on the other end of her couch. As he leaned toward her, she caught the haze of cheap beer on his breath.
“Where you from?” he slurred in an accent she couldn’t place.
“Nowhere you’d know,” she told him.
She grabbed her bag, waved to the bartender, and started the long walk home.