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On the first night that my family sleeps in our recently purchased home, I lay awake in our second floor bedroom, listening to every groan the house makes. It's a cottage-style brick home on a quiet street in southern Virginia, built in the 1940s.

Twice I take an investigative trip down the long flight of creaky hardwood stairs. The central air contracts our house's ventilation system, then shuts off and allows warmer air to pour through the duct work, causing it to expand and make a furnace-like popping sound that reverberates throughout the house. And I'm convinced that someone is on the verge of murdering all of us.

When I'm given over to this fear, that odd smell in our basement isn't a mustiness that needs aired out—it's a cancerous mold. That not-quite-normal looking mosquito bite protruding from my wife's leg is probably a poisonous spider bite, from a kind of spider that doesn't exist near our former home in central Pennsylvania. When the neighbor acts a touch reserved when we meet him, he must not like us—he probably hates us. He probably resents the fact that we haven't been able to set our trash out yet, and so it's piling up right beside the boundary line of our yards.

Maybe he's the one inside the air ducts.

In a new house, in a new city, every sound, space, and person is new in an alien way. We don't yet feel "at home." And in a newly inhabited older house, in particular, our acute awareness of every creak, groan, and smell—and the seemingly imminent threat presented by these strange impositions on our senses—doesn't get old until we get settled in to that particular locale. And when you've just purchased the ...

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