Non-Fiction Short written by Dawn Bear Published in Pithead Chapel
2nd Place Creative Non-Fiction Contest at Mesa Community College
Mustard Seed Yellow Brick House
The house was made of mustard-seed yellow bricks and had balding tires on the roof to keep the few remaining rusted red shingles from blowing free during tornado-like dust storms. The winds blew so fiercely, the corners of each windowpane contained piles of fine reservation sands year round. Dust-infested once beige carpets, camouflaging them brown, polluting all porcelain orifices, and flecking undisturbed dishes with its fine powder, like a crime scene being dusted for fingerprints.
On days when dust devils twirled higher than the tallest trees, I was trapped within its walls. No Nintendo. One television with temperamental reception (on good days, three channels came in clearly). We had a small collection of VHS tapes, movies like Stand By Me, that my cousins and I saw so many times we quoted it word for word. We invented games based on the films we watched, each of my cousins playing a part. I always played the narrator or writer. Hiking through the dry desert landscape, climbing small mesas, following the dirt roads briefly, and if we heard a truck I’d be the one to scream, “Truck!” (a substitution for “Train!”).
Instead of board games like Monopoly or Life, we made up imaginary games that all ages could play, from the oldest teenager to the youngest toddler. These games were mock imitations of House, but we called it “Rich People.”
The mustard seed yellow brick house was the base for our game. On weekends, our parents would leave the house empty to go into town, normally into Winslow or Flagstaff to do the weekly grocery shopping, check the mail or do other adult things away from us kids. Using their absence to our advantage, we’d set up each room in the house to be our version of a restaurant (that mostly served ramen), shopping center, salon, homes, or whatever else we thought rich people needed. Each crevice represented a theme in our game, even the door that I was too frightened to enter.
At the end of the hallway, the last door on the left, was the haunted hotel. Instead of being the biggest tourist attraction in our game of rich people, it was the place we all avoided. Hollow craters decorated the door as warning signs, where angry knuckles or maybe a frustrated toe met the fragile imitation wood. Light danced with shadows through the gap in the bottom of the door, like someone pacing back and forth impatiently. My cousins told me they often heard a girl screaming and crying from the other side of the barrier. They said the room was dangerous. And for the purposes of our game, it was the perfect haunted hotel, just like the ones we saw on Unsolved Mysteries.
Outside of our game the room was a source of fright and curiosity for me, like a child testing the burners on a stove. Most days, I would run by it, holding my breath, my chubby cheeks puffed out like a cabbage patch doll, hoping not to attract any attention. Some days, when I felt brave, I’d place my eight-year-old ear next to the door, my newly shorn mahogany hair falling into a matching set of eyes, listening for the thomp-thomp of feet pacing, or lay flat on my belly, peeking beneath the crack in the door, desiring a glimpse of the entity inside. And when fibres would slither across my neck, the gooseflesh would appear on my arms and I’d race outside until I realized it was just my hair and I’d curse the day I got lice.
The mustard seed brick dwelling was only a place to visit. It was not my home, but my Auntie’s. The cousin I idolized lived there until I was eight, the year my mom cut my hair because I brought home lice; the metal scissors were ice against my neck. My cousin came to live with us and shared a room with me. My dad said we have better schools and more room. At night we’d take runs through the dark, pine trails, breaking at the community college down the street for hot tea. Some mornings we’d ride bikes to school, stopping at the local market for jelly donuts, her smile drilling dimples from cheek to cheek when we noticed the cherry blemish on my white tights. She liked Garfield, so my dad for Christmas bought her a bed set and matching curtains that had a black and white zebra print with different images of Garfield on it; in each image he sported a blue bow-tie with orange polka dots, sometimes he held bananas, in others he wore a pink lampshade.
When I was eight, my Dad thought of adopting my older brother and sister, of letting them take our last name. Auntie started to mention having my cousin adopted by her husband. I assumed my uncle was her father but my cousin had a different last name from her siblings. I’d never met her real father, and I wasn’t sure if she had either. Talking about changing her last name seemed to come up a lot at dinner and I didn’t see the big deal.
On her school binder, a Trapper Keeper, she had a purple and black pattern with an imprint of a peace sign. In black Sharpie, her name was inscribed. I took the sharpie and wrote the last name of her stepdad, the dad I knew, the one who took her shopping on weekends, who bought her school clothes; the one she called, “Daddy.” When she saw the big, black, block letters imprinted on her notebook, her charcoal eyes magnified pink with tears and she screamed, “Get out!”
I had nowhere to go and didn’t know what I did. Instead of leaving, I cried, like a two-year-old, frightened because I didn’t know what I did wrong. Hugging me like a pillow, she cried with me until we started laughing about her snot in my hair.
Blacked out by Sharpie, the front of the Trapper Keeper resembled a large empty void. When it got warm and moist, it left bruised imprints against her skin, but even though I offered to give her my allowance to get a new one, she wouldn’t accept my offer. Each time I looked at the glistening ink splotch, I wondered what I did wrong, but was afraid to ask.
My auntie lives in a home made of mustard seed yellow bricks. She has nine children: four stepchildren, her current husband’s kids; one through her first marriage; and four produced through her current union. All of them are my cousins.
Within the sulfur concrete blocks, are rooms in which my cousins lived. At eight, I thought one room was haunted. My cousin, the one through my auntie’s first marriage, told me it was dangerous, and I believed her. She said that you could hear a child screaming. That the cries of a girl could be heard throughout the house, but nobody came to help her. At eight, I offended my cousin when I took a Sharpie and renamed her, blue bruises reminding her of that name in hot and rainy weather.
In a mustard seed yellow brick house where tornado-like dust storms force children indoors, is a room at the end of the hallway on the west end of the house. The door is now patched up, like brands on cattle, and is always closed. Whistling through the cracks in the glass, the wind haunts the hollowness of the room like a stone skipping across a stagnant pool. Across from the door is my auntie’s bedroom. She shares a bed with her husband, my uncle. At eight, I took a Sharpie to my cousin’s Trapper Keeper and renamed her, not knowing that my uncle, her stepfather, took her into a room on the west end of the mustard-colored house, where a girl’s cries could be heard. And that the screams that haunted that room were hers.