By the time that Jacqueline moved away, the house in between ours had been abandoned for what seemed like an eternity, so long the roof sagged under the weight of its distress, and the white tiles in the kitchen had turned what a permanent moldy grey. The “For Sale” sign in the yard had fallen over years ago, and now was so overgrown that it appeared only a vague mound hidden under patchy grass. It didn’t matter. The neighbors grumbled about it, sure, but the house just was – was a disgrace, was condemned, was ours.
Jacqueline and I had met at school, when we were both ten. It was in a class we all collectively hated, with a teacher who collectively hated us, but Jackie took it particularly personally. She was a great student, and most teachers treated her like a gift from God. She took any threat to her standing very seriously. I was never a great student. I was average – in appearance, grades, and social status. My dyslexia made it hard for me to excel in school, especially with a teacher who refused to “make special allowances to accommodate one girl.”
It took us a few days to figure out we lived only one door from each other, finally realizing our proximity when I noticed that the silver minivan that picked her up from school had the same plates as the one that was parked in front of the neighboring house I had previously referred to in my head as the Flower Bomb, after the blooms that grew in the front yard, carefully planted but widely spread. Soon, we were visiting each other every weekend, and then almost daily. Jack-and-Josie, neighbors took to calling us. We were always together.
Eventually, Jackie got the idea that it would be fun to try and explore the empty house in between ours. I didn’t want to, at first, but the lure of a genuine adventure – and the need to win her approval – won out. It was quite a thrill, climbing over the wooden fence and scampering through the untended yard. The back door was held closed by a rusting padlock, which was easy enough to break (Jackie did it, with a rock), and then we were inside. Sneaking through the empty hallways, we felt something that had been practically forbidden to us before: a sense of freedom.
We used to joke that the house taught us more than the classroom ever did. Through trial, error, and a few close calls, we learned how to quickly scale fences, to walk without too much sound through tall grass, and to not startle at the noises of a settling house and the shadows that collected in corners like mold. We also learned how to tell what was too rotten to support our weight (namely, the center of the living room floor, where sagging floorboards invited the unwary to take a surprise trip to the basement) and to check every room for excessive spiders before entering.
Most of our free time was spent there, playing at being adults among the decay.
In hindsight, it was definitely dangerous, but somehow I taught myself to ignore that. We would pretend the house was our house, sweeping whenever we could be bothered, scrubbing off some of the mold, and clearing out the worst of the cobwebs. We left windows open to help with the musty smell, though it never would completely dissipate, and sometimes I would bring over snacks, which we would eat sitting cross-legged on an old blanket. Other times, Jackie would bring over flowers from her garden, and we would set them up in a vase on the kitchen counter – just like a proper house. Soon, the darker aspects of the house seemed to fall away, replaced by our bright memories of days spent running through its halls.
We went on like this for two years, but like the rotting house, our friendship was not built to last. Jacqueline’s family was just renting the house, and eventually, their landlord decided to sell. The new owner didn’t want to keep it up for rent, so they were forced to move, her parents deciding that the time was right for a fresh start in a different city. Jackie and I felt like our world was ending. Though we agreed to keep in touch, and visit whenever possible, we felt like a large part of our relationship was being ripped away by forces beyond our control. Our shared home was collapsing.
For months, I avoided the house. I wouldn’t climb under or over the fence, or sneak through the back door. I wouldn’t run down the halls, or have picnics in the bedrooms. Nobody swept the floors anymore, and the darkness slowly seemed to creep back in. Eventually, in my eyes, the house seemed to revert back to the one it was before – dreary, crumbling, and alone. Haunted by its past and lack of a future. I spent my days inside my own house.
When the new family moved in, I was at first relatively uninterested, if more than a little bitter. It was their fault that Jackie had been forced to move; I wasn’t about to welcome them with open arms, no matter what they were like, so there was no point in trying to get to know them. I knew that the family was made up of a rather tall, stern-looking father, a son who scowled the entire time they were moving in, and a younger daughter who was about my age. I didn’t try to speak to her. She seemed a stark contrast to Jackie’s previously vibrant presence – I never once saw her smile. After they moved in, the flowers in Jackie’s garden began to wilt.
A few weeks later, I finally decided that it was about time to stop moping and at least try to make an effort to make the new family feel welcome, no matter how intimidating they might seem. At least, that was what I told myself I was doing. Really, I think I was just tired of sitting around an empty house, for my own felt more abandoned than the house in-between ever had.
“Please, don’t be her dad, don’t be her brother, either….” I muttered as I rang the doorbell, beginning to regret my decision to swing over unannounced. I only wanted to speak to her, but I was playing a game of chance, and my odds were one in three. My small fingers curled around the edges of the plate, piled high with chocolate-chip cookies, which my mother had helped me make during some of her rare time off from work. When the foreboding oak door finally swung open – had it looked so threatening when Jackie lived there? – I almost passed out from relief.
“Yes?” Her small, angular face stared out at me through the half open door, framed, as always I would learn, by a mess of hastily brushed, dark brown hair. Her ever-present frown didn’t change at all upon seeing me, her dark eyes widening minutely in surprise. “What do you want?” Glancing down at the plate, she added, “If you’re selling those, I’m not interested.”
“No, I just wanted to say hi!” I blurted out, startled by her unfriendly reaction. “I live only one house down, and I figured I should welcome you…” I held out the plate. “So here!”
Her hands tightened on the hem of her overlarge shirt, advertising some sports team I’d never heard of. “Why?”
“I – what?”
“Do you greet everyone who moves in this way?” She almost sounded angry.
“No?” I didn’t know what else to say, and my brow furrowed in confusion. When she just stared at me, I stumbled on. “I just thought.... thought that you might like them? And I wanted to be friendly. You seem about my age, and…” I trailed off awkwardly.
“I don’t want them.” Her voice was flat now, her face almost expressionless as she continued to clutch the dull red fabric. “Just go away.”
“But why –“
Another voice cut off my protests, coming from deep inside the house. “Rose? Who’s at the door?” It was a man’s voice – almost – and I realized it was probably her brother.
She froze for a second before calling back to him, over her shoulder, “Nobody. Just some kid trying to sell us something.” So her name was Rose. That suited her, and it took me a second to get offended.
“Hey, I told you—”
“Tell them we’re not interested!” The voice echoed out from the doorway again, and Rose narrowed the gap even more, pulling the door close against her body as she moved back into the house.
“I am, I am!” She turned back to me. “You need to go now.”
“Wait –“ The door clicked shut, and I could hear the bolt slide into place. “Rose!”
There was no answer, and I stood there in shocked silence for a moment before turning and hurrying off, tears stinging my eyes. What had just happened? I didn’t understand what was going on, why Rose was so aggressively unfriendly. I had dealt with rude people before (of course I had, I was in middle school) but never so directly, and with such a lack of an apparent reason. As I stumbled past the old house, I glanced up at its crumbling façade, and my confusion and embarrassment soured into anger.
Before my mind had time to catch up to my emotions, they were pulling me over to the front door of the abandoned house. I had never done this in broad daylight before, let alone entered through the front door. What the hell was I thinking? I wasn’t, I realized, as my hand wrapped around the doorknob. I just wanted to get away from Rose, and the fact that she was quite clearly not Jackie, and had no intention of being my friend.
To my surprise, the handle turned, and I slipped inside as fast as I could. From there, I stalked to the kitchen, avoiding the rotten floorboards, and jumped up to sit on the counter, shoving the cookies onto it beforehand. The seat of my jeans turned grey as they wiped a hole in the tablecloth of dust. Across the room, a vase full of moldering flowers eyed me balefully from their perch on the windowsill. Jackie must have left them for me.
With that revelation, I broke down into outright tears, bending over to press my elbows against my knees and my palms to the sides of my head. My fingers tanged with my auburn hair as I sobbed, half with anger and half with the melodramatic realization that I might be doomed to be alone. My parents were always working; I didn’t have many friends at school, and none with whom I’d want to share the magic of the house. They might think it too dangerous, which it might have been, or too creepy, which it wasn’t.
Rose, even after she had driven my best friend away, had been my best option for a replacement. Now it was clear that it wasn’t up to me.
Angrily, I shoved the plate away from myself, expecting it to fall to the ground with a satisfying crash. Instead, it teetered right on the edge before settling, stubbornly resisting the fall. A few individual cookies tipped off the top, and plummeted silently to the ground. It was not nearly as cathartic as I’d hoped. Sighing, I straightened up and scrubbed at my eyes, suddenly aware of how melodramatic I was being. I glanced around at the watching walls. Peeling wallpaper had never seemed more ominous, half-open cabinets more judgmental. I slid off the counter with a sigh, and walked out, leaving the cookies behind. Whether they were a new sign of life to replace the flowers, or just something else for the mold to grow on, though, I wasn’t quite sure.