By Maria Capezio Crookes
Mother stopped the car in front of the house, where the fence paused to give space to the pathway to the front door. She turned the car off and put her head on the wheel. The rest of the family looked out the car window and stared at the new house. Built in the 1960’s, the house looked and felt old, but with a strange modern touch; it reminded Mother of the house from I dream of Jeannie. The two trees in the front yard lined the pathway, creating the illusion of a tunnel of leaves and low branches; there were rose bushes under every window, and the traditional white picket fence delimiting the property framed the first impression of the house that they had only seen virtually.
After some time gathering the courage to step down from the car, Father got out of the car, opened everyone else’s door, and waited. Like in a movie, they all stood with their backs to the car, facing the house, each waiting for another person to take the first step. With an exaggerated sigh, Mother started towards the front door, taking in her surroundings, looking at all the windows, making a mental list of all the things that needed to happen for the house to be livable. Mother had given up on the concept of “making a home” that was attached to one building. It was too painful when they needed a reset.
The key turned easily—no need for jiggling, or frustrations.
Father pushed the door in, and it felt like releasing the valve from a pressure cooker. A cloud of old and musty air hit them in the face, making the youngest child tear up; it reminded Mother of plastic on couches, green appliances with very round edges, linoleum everywhere, and carpet in the bathrooms. The sun, shining through the color-tinted windows, gave the open space in front of them a feel of still sacredness, of an empty church after the ceremonies are over and the congregants leave. Was this moment a sign of what was to come? Was this the house that would become a home?
They stood there, just like before, staring, waiting for another to make the first move. This time, the oldest child was the one to take the measured step over the threshold, breaking the silence: “Welcome home.” That was all the youngest child needed to run inside to find the perfect bedroom to claim possession of. Mother and Father clasped their hands together, squeezed hard, and walked in, like they had done many times before, with closed eyes, saying a little prayer.
“Welcome home,” whispered Mother.
While the children ran upstairs to find their rooms, Mother and Father slowly walked the periphery of the living room area, planning in their heads where the furniture would go. Running scenarios in their heads, they looked carefully at the exit routes, best places to hide, and where to place their defensive gear in plain sigh, without attracting any attention to it. Next, Mother and Father evaluated the kitchen, studio, dining room, and interior patio. They waited until the children where downstairs again to do the upstairs space. This process used to take the entire first day of moving, but after so many reiterations, planning took about 45 minutes, enough time for the children to prepare a small lunch, picnic-style, on their kitchen floor.
The afternoon of that first day in the house was spent unloading boxes from the moving trailer, every one of them carefully labeled, and color coded, as usually, starting with defensive gear and some sharp objects that would hang as decoration by each window and outside-facing door.
The youngest child remembered every room that he had claimed in each house. His favorite was from the house they had in Horizon City, TX, at the end of Plum Court. There, the bedroom faced north, to a backyard that looked like any other, with a trampoline, a swing set, and a grill. It was the last time that he truly felt like a child. The bedroom in this house was not bad, he just needed to paint over the ugly mustard color to make it more his own, for a little while at least. He started hanging posters on the walls, and hanging clothes in the built-in-closet when the doorbell snapped him out of his stupor.
He walked down the stairs to find Father directing the workers from the furniture company, Mother standing next to one of the decorations on the wall, and the oldest child sitting innocently on the floor, by a set of fireplace tools. The youngest child had to stand by the other decoration, looking excited about his new bedroom set. Everyone knew their positions by now, without reminders or training. The second day was always for new furniture, and to iron out any details of their planning.
The routine had been set many years ago: Father would contract the workers to set up the furniture in each room of the house, and as they finished the room, the family would start unpacking that room and setting it up, trying to finish before the furniture in the next room was done. It was also a way to keep an eye on the strangers walking around their house. The order of the rooms was also the same: oldest child’s room, youngest child’s room, Mother and Father’s room, studio, dining room, living room, and patio. This house was not going to be any different.
The youngest child walked into his already unpacked and ready-to-live-in bedroom, opened the chest (the only big piece of furniture he was allowed to bring from place to place), and took his picture out. Stared at it for a long time, and wondered what would happen if he called, just this one time, to tell him that he was ok, that there was nothing that he did to push him away, that he will be forever his first love. He had memorized his phone number, he could go to a pay-phone close to the grocery store and call.
At a knock on the door, he hid the picture under some books right as Mother walked in the room. “No closed door, child,” she said in a low voice. “You know the rules, we have been doing this for a long time.” The youngest child lowered his eyes, mumbled an apology, and grabbed the first book on the pile. Mother reminded him that dinner was in 30 minutes. She had ordered pizza after the last room was unpacked.
After dinner, Mother and Father checked all downstairs doors and windows, the oldest child set the alarm, and the youngest child checked all the upstairs doors and windows. Curtains drawn by 8:30pm, lights out before midnight. Day two was the most exhausting one, but the house was ready to live in.
He was exhausted and wanted to sleep, holding the picture in his right hand and a handful of coins on the left, he paced, trying to figure out if he could leave the house unnoticed. “Don’t you dare,” the oldest child’s voice startled him. “I wasn’t going to. I…” his voice trailed off. He knew he couldn’t lie to her. She was the one person that knew him best. She was the only reason he followed the rules, he knew that she would always keep him out of trouble, even if that meant for her to be punished.
It didn’t take much for her to talk him out of making the call. She put her hand out, with a mixed look of concern and pity, waiting. He gave her the coins and walked to his bed. “Good night, kid,” she said, walking to her bedroom. “Good night, sister.” The youngest child fought intrusive thoughts until 2:00am, holding the picture close to his heart as he drifted into a restless night of sleep.
The oldest child woke up at 6:00am. “Time changes sucks,” she whispered out to into the darkness of her room, thinking that saying it out loud would help her get over it. Dragging her feet, she forced herself out of bed to be the first into the bathroom. The silence of the house before everyone started waking up was almost sacred for her. It was the only time that she could be herself, do what she wanted without checking the perimeter, or remembering not to raise her voice at the wrong time, so as not to disturb Mother or Father. There was nothing she could do to disturb the youngest child, she knew that. All they had was each other to stay sane and keep their intrusive thoughts at bay (like yesterday, after lights-out, when she had to convince him not to make the call).
The oldest child knew the third day since moving in meant going to the grocery store, the bank, and the school to enroll. Mother expected her to wear something presentable to keep the neighbors guessing, but not guessing enough that they would start gossiping. She chose a Flaming Dildos tour t-shirt (from the concert she wasn’t allowed to go to), a flannel, jeans, and bright-red Chuck Taylors. “If I am expected to blend in, I might as well look the part,” she said to Mother when she was asked to change. Mother sighed loudly and walked away.
At 7:00am everyone was around the table. The only thing the family always carried with them was coffee, powdered milk, rice crackers, and honey, enough for a quick breakfast before heading out. The youngest child was sitting across from the oldest, looking down at his reconstituted milk, wearing a Star Wars t-shirt, cargo shorts, and Green Chuck Taylors with golden laces. Mother had yelled at him earlier. Mother and Father were looking at the map of the city, tracing the fastest route along with three alternatives, just in case somebody started to follow them. Father would go to the school to enroll the children; Mother would go to the grocery store, and would finish at the bank. The oldest child was trying to figure out how to slip away from Mother while at the store.
An entire day out. There was not one opportunity for her to escape Mother’s gaze or grip. She knew all her quirks, pace, and even the order of the aisles, and still couldn’t find the opportunity. She thought that after all these years, she would be able to do it, but she would be back at home at the end of a long day, not one chance to explore the city by herself.
She had been thinking about getting away since the move out of Horizon City. That place was flat, dry, and empty. And still, it was the hardest place to leave. She did the best she could to keep the youngest child happy, who had a blast in that house (there was a trampoline and swing set in the backyard). And she had met her first love. Her whole life she shielded herself from real friendships and relationships, because she knew it wouldn’t last, but he was different. He made her feel like her true self. She was able to talk about books, movies, music and art. They would go on dates to museums and art galleries.
And then, in one night, she had to pack all the things she could fit in the chest she was allowed to bring from place to place, and burn the rest. In 2 hours (a new record for the family), the entire self she had built in that house was gone. How she wished she could call him, and tell him she was ok, living a new life in a new house, and that she misses him every night.
“Dinner will be ready in 15 minutes,” said the youngest child. “Mother said to wash up and set the table.” She could hear it in his voice. He had resigned himself to this life, of new cities, new houses, breakfast at 7:00am and dinner at 6:30pm, lights out before midnight. It happened so quickly.
Dinner happened as usual. Food on the table at 6:30pm, everyone done at 7:15pm, kitchen cleaned by 7:45pm, doors and windows checked at 8:00pm, curtains drawn at 8:30pm. In bed, to all the things going through her head, she added failing the younger child to the list. He was the only reason she didn’t try harder to get out, he needed here. Or was it the other way around?
Father was the first one downstairs on the fourth day in the house. He made pancakes, eggs, and bacon for everyone. The children would be starting school, and he wanted everything to go as it should. And it did: the children were at the table by 7:00am, out the door at 7:30am to make it to the bus. Lunches had been prepared the night before and placed in their lunch boxes just minutes ahead of time.
He stood at the door, waving, while Mother did the dishes inside. After the bus drove off, a shiver ran down his spine, a feeling he hated, and that he couldn’t shake off, even after his untimely shower. He decided to do some gardening. The roses clearly needed trimming, the lawn needed mowing, the fence needed to be cleared, and he saw a flower patch that needed some love. With all his tools at the ready, Father stepped outside and started with the roses. The day was perfect for gardening, sunny but not too warm. A breeze kept the bugs away. Mother decided to bring lunch outside for them to share under one of the trees. The impromptu picnic under the trees made them look like a normal couple, married for a long time. The parents of a family that has not been running for the past 16 years thanks to one bad decision made in New Port, RI. Father looked up from his sandwich and saw a woman, about 5’6”, 150lbs, light brown hair cut in a classic bob, razor sharp bangs that barely covered her well-trimmed eyebrows. Father felt Mother’s posture shift, but held her hand to reassure her, “We are ok,” he told her, almost in a whisper.
“Hello, there! My name is Winnifred Rose, I am your neighbor across the street. I didn’t want to let another day pass without welcome you to our little piece of heaven on earth.” Her voice was shrilled, and reminded Father of one of those little-barky dogs that Mother really wanted when they first got married. Father helped Mother up, and both of them approached the fence, shook hands with Winnifred Rose, who handed a pie to Father, and a bouquet of fresh cut flowers to Mother.
“Thank you, Winnifred. This is quite a peaceful street,” Mother said. Father was surprised that she took the initiative in the conversation, but felt relieved when Winnifred Rose said, “Well, let me know if I can help you with anything!” as she walked away, almost in a run.
“She is about my height,” Mother said. Trying to hid a chuckle, Father said “No need for that, yet.” Mother run inside to get ice cream and plates for the pie, not hiding her amusement. Father turned around to see Winnifred Rose driving away, with the same hyper energy she had when she introduced herself.
Such a beautiful day it was, they didn’t realized it was time for the children to return home from school. After the bus drove off from their driveway, the same feeling crept into Father’s spine. He turned around to see a car parked across the street, a car that he hadn’t seen before and didn’t notice until that moment. He signaled Mother, and in one instant she knew what to do.
Father collected his tools and walked inside the house. The rest of the evening went as planned. The children did their homework, Mother did laundry, and Father cooked. Dinner was served at 6:30pm, done at 7:15pm. Mother finished cleaning the kitchen at 7:45pm, and together they checked the doors and windows. Father held Mother’s hand as they walked upstairs at the end of the fourth day in the house. He couldn’t help to feel he had failed them all.
Mother woke everyone up before 5:00am, creating a familiar scene. Everyone knew what that meant. After an early snack, everyone started on their checklist. With the curtains drawn, and lights mostly off, Mother packed all the important paperwork, while Father took care of clothing and computers. The children were packing their rooms at the same time, but without making too much noise—they didn’t want to draw attention.
The moving trailer was still parked in their garage, and already had the boxes with clothes and kitchen utensils. Next would be the chests from the bedrooms, important documents, electronics, and some of Father’s favorite tools.
Mother had taken care of her part, but waited until everyone was in the car to leave the leftover untraceable fuel by the garage door. As the car drove off to the next city, the house was embraced in fiery inferno that destroyed everything. The emergency responders would find a family of four deceased in the house.
They will have to try again. Maybe the next time would work.