Before there was darkness, there was everything: planets rolled like marbles in an infinite bathtub, the universe hummed loud, and its light was too bright for our eyes to see. In this everything, on a planet we once called Earth, people rose up from the ground and stood tall towards the sky, the light of their star burning down on their skin like it did the ground beneath their feet. Soon, they began to walk and shape sounds into words with their fleshy mouths. These people built dams and roads and wheels that turned and tall buildings made of glass that sparkled. They built — and that made them builders.
One day, one of these builders stood with his hands on his hips and looked at what he had built. It was a house. His house was normal for a person like him. It was made of wood and metal and a little glass and was large enough to hold a family, though the man didn’t have or want a family. By the standards he was familiar with, the man thought, this was a fine house. But standing there, for the first time, the man realized it made him sad.
Though the man’s feet were tired, and the air around him smelled of plastic and burning meat, he stood there staring for a long time, unable to move. The angles of his house grew sharp and the roof began to warp. The man watched, transfixed, as his house became grotesque: the structure, he thought, protruded from the ground like the taxidermied head of an extinct animal from a museum wall. Rain began to fall, slicking the man’s hair against his forehead. Amidst the sound of raindrops splattering the roof of the house, the man reached for a hammer out of the back of his truck.
Later in the day, some of the man’s neighbors drove by. They turned into the Maple Street cul-de-sac and sped up the road, the wheels of their car spraying out a fan of rainwater. As they approached their neighbor’s house, they squinted. On top of his roof, the man, their neighbor, was hunched over.
The neighbors stopped their car and rolled down their windows. “What are you doing?” one of them shouted.
Rain thundered against the roof, and the man didn’t respond. Instead, he pried a molded shingle off the roof with the prongs of his hammer and tossed it down onto the ground below.
“Crazy,” the neighbors mumbled. They rolled up their car windows and continued on to their own house, a little slower now.
All day and night, the man ripped up the roof of his house. When he finally finished his task, he clambered inside, leaping down into the living room from the rafters. The carpet squelched with rainwater under his feet. The rain was clearing, slowly but steadily. With no roof above his head, a little breeze swept through the house, and the man felt relieved.
What qualifies as a house? The man wondered. Having freed his carpet from the tyranny of a roof, the man was sure he wanted nothing to do with the concept. Houses keep. Houses have walls, and roofs, and windows. The man had no roof, but he did still have walls and windows surrounding him. He didn’t want to be kept. The man reached out his hands and felt the cool glass of the window in front of him. It fogged beneath his palms. The more he looked at the window the more he wondered why it was there at all. Stepping back, the man picked up a floor lamp and prepared to hurl it. He took a breath in. As he exhaled, his javelin slipped from his fingers and sailed straight through the window. Eyes closed, the man listened to the glass ring shattering.
The next morning, a camera crew from the local news station arrived on the man’s front lawn carrying microphones and large blocky cameras. When the man noticed them, he brushed off his hands and climbed out of an empty window-space to greet them, stepping carefully over broken glass.
“What can I do for you folks?” the man asked, smiling.
“I don’t know,” their leader, a reporter said. “What do you happen to be up to here?” She held her microphone up to the man’s face.
The man looked over his shoulder at what had once been his house. “I think it’s pretty obvious,” he said, turning back to the microphone.
The reporter scratched her head. She couldn’t disagree with that. She thanked the man for his time. Before she left, she asked if her crew could film the rest of the process.
“Why not,” the man shrugged.
The camera crew pointed their cameras as the man walked back to his house, picked up his hammer, and began removing large chunks of siding. Even through their tiny viewfinders, it was clear to them that there was something beautiful about this, about seeing a house built in reverse. After a while, the crew just left a camera recording on the sidewalk.
The news story on the man and his former house aired the next evening. The man didn’t see it — he had already ripped the electrical wiring from the veins of the house, so his television sat dormant. Other people saw the story, though. The man’s neighbors saw it, though they could have just as easily looked outside to the used-to-be-house across the street. A few local real estate agents saw it, though they didn’t like what they saw. Some people in China saw the story too. They thought maybe the man was onto something.
By the time the man had begun disassembling the inner skeleton of his house, several million people worldwide were watching on the livestream set up by the local news. In China, some kids dismantled their family home while their parents were at work. They had laid out the boards neatly in stacks as they went, climbing on top of them to reach each next piece with the tips of their splintered fingers.
Closer, in the man’s own neighborhood, some residents had raided a nearby hardware store. The owner promised not to press charges on the stipulation that, when they were done with their own houses, they return to help him dismantle his — and so the neighborhood itself became famous. Across the street, the man’s neighbors held a house-leveling party and handed out fresh lemonade to everyone who showed up. People, in town and in general, began saying maybe, just maybe, they could all live on Maple Street.
Across the world, people began dismantling everything that they had built. Homeowners disassembled their houses; business owners tore down their storefronts; governments bulldozed their senate houses, burned their founding documents, and toppled their marble monuments with wrecking balls. The members of the news crew that helped start this phenomenon retrieved their filming equipment and sunk it in the ocean. People scraped up roads with spiked ploughs. They knocked down telephone poles and folded up barns like cardboard boxes. They let water flood the dams and flush the landscape. They stopped building — and they were no longer builders.
On Maple Street, the man pushed over the last beam of wood on the plot of land that once held his house. As he surveyed the pile of rubble at his feet, he felt his muscles relax and settle onto his bones like the canvas of a very old tent. Wind rustled the hair at the back of his neck. Around him, all of his neighbors were finishing their houses. When the last boards came down, they hugged.
As night ascended, the man looked up at the sky and saw the stars, and for the first time, he felt happy. This, after all, was a world he had made. Closing his eyes, the man listened to the sound of nothing. Around the world, people laughed: What have I built? What have I built? They smiled, tears streaming down their faces as they ripped up phonebooks and unmade dining tables piece by piece.
Finally, when they had unmade everything, the people folded themselves over, crouched down to the ground on four limbs, and welcomed darkness with open hearts once more.
Kimberly Smith is a writer and cat-enthusiast from the Pacific Northwest. She recently received her B.A. in Professional and Creative Writing from Central Washington University. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Rag Queen Periodical, Homology Lit, and Nota Bene, a collection of writing by two-year college students.