I think, this could be a lovely photograph. A girl walking up a gently curving driveway that disappears into the trees, the end out of sight of the viewer. The sky is cloudy not overcast, the kind of clouds that show up really accentuated in pictures; high contrast. Big flakes of snow flit and flicker across the sky — though they would be motionless in the photo — as the girl breaks trail to the car parked out of sight. As I’m experiencing the moment, I realize I’m seeing it in third person. I’m behind myself, outside myself again. I stop in the middle of the driveway and close my eyes, dig my winter boots into the snow, then turn back to the house and refocus. Back inside myself, I look at the house that kept five of my 17 years. It could keep those years if I could strain the good from the bad and only relinquish the latter.
But why even try? The bad didn’t start there. It started in the before-house, the one on the long road outside of town, a barely developed area with houses on only one side of the street because the other was still wild. The houses had been so far apart my mom had driven us on Halloween to go trick-or-treating, our flimsy costumes tugged over bulky snow suits, climbing in and out, in and out of the minivan. Or what about the year my mom dressed up as a man for Halloween but no one got the joke because she was so convincing — everyone thought it was so sweet that our dad was taking us three kids trick-or-treating. My mom didn’t correct them; I think she didn’t want to embarrass them. It matters a lot to my mom, what other people think.
The bad started in that house, before that Halloween. My mom’s boyfriend’s cold, oddly silken feet touching mine, which were tan and rough from running outside barefoot. I used to like to walk on the gravel driveway without socks or shoes, to see how tough I could be. Pretty tough.
The bad got so much worse than that, but I learned it can’t be talked about. I had tried pushing words through seven-year-old lips, describing his hands between my legs and eyes that never left me unseen. I tried again, with a 12-year-old mouth, a confession I couldn’t remember, a last resort. Words had landed like falling snow on warm cheeks, turning to water and disappearing.
The bad came with us to the new house, a big house with a steep hill down to a lake. In the winters, like this one, the school bus sometimes can’t make it to the house, or any of the other houses on the street, because the roads are so bad. We don’t even trick-or-treat on this road because there aren’t enough neighbours. Instead, we drive 20 minutes into town and go in someone else’s neighbourhood, where the houses are close enough together that we can walk. We have to leave this house to feel joy.
I wasn’t there, of course, when my mom told her boyfriend we were all moving and he couldn’t come with us. She must have, but I wonder if he understands, because he’s helping us move. He smiles often at us, at me. I work to be invisible — I watch him from hidden places, the way I always have. It is important to see where he is, where he’s coming from, what kind of look is on his face. Still, even when I can’t see him, like from the bedroom in the basement that I share with my sister, you can tell how it’s going to be by the way his feet come down. Some days you only hear the creaks, heavy but not important. Other days it’s like his legs are pistons, slamming his wide, flat feet down. Those are the days to conceal yourself, but if you can’t get out of the way, you get out of yourself. Away somewhere, running in the woods, barefoot, keen eyes clocking the mulch-brown piles of pebbled deer poop, an opportunity to see how far I can jump.
Today though, he smiles and it’s strange. He’s never been so nice, taking all the heavy boxes, helping my mom with the bigger furniture. He doesn’t yell at anyone, not even my brother when he drops a corner of the monstrous army-green desk and dents a stair. Even my mom seems confused, on edge. But I think he thinks he’ll get her back still, that she’s not serious. She’s tried to leave before, after all. And maybe he thinks a day of nice will make up for five years of the rest of it. I don’t assume, don’t fully believe she’s done with him, but I hope.
This is my first move as an almost-grown up. The other times, I’d been given little jobs — sweep after the room is empty, or carry the loose, random things that didn’t or couldn’t get boxed. Like the giant rag doll I got at a yard sale for 25 cents that moved with us until she got turned inside out in the washing machine. With stuffing everywhere, I learned how precious things are too fragile to risk loving.
Now I’m hauling all my bags of clothing and my sister’s; boxes of books, dining room chairs. We aren’t good packers. Things aren’t labelled, not all the boxes have flaps to close, we ran out of tape and didn’t bother getting more. There’s a giant truck in the driveway that somehow made it down through the snow. Only my mom’s boyfriend — ex-boyfriend — knows how to drive it. It’s too big for all our stuff and my mom has to constantly tell us, “We aren’t taking that,” or that, no, that’s his. His. I feel bitter, wild, even though I’m glad we don’t have to live with him anymore, and I don’t have to smell the steamy shower air when he’s finished, the smell that carries the things I don’t want to remember, the things this house can keep. I’m angry because my mom was beautiful when they first met, her laughter so loud until he told her it made people stare, and now she is small and scared of dying.
We make a trip to the new house. My mom, brother and sister and me. Evan and Christie get to stay there and wait for the truck to arrive and help unpack, but I’m to return with my mom. She loved the house we are leaving, the sharp, rocky incline to the water, the quiet. This house is in town. I won’t ever take a bus again — the high school is a seven-minute walk away. I can come home during lunch when I’m too sad to talk about normal things. There are fewer mosquitos.
The drive back is strange. My mom is thinking so loud I can barely focus. I turn off the radio because otherwise it’s too much noise. I watch my side of the highway, the houses I saw season after season on my bus ride home, changing with weather, renovations, families coming and going. It’s the last time I’ll ever be going back to that house. The old house.
We park at the top of the driveway and walk down, the way we do all winter. There’s a black sled at the top that we bring with us. Most winters, the well won’t supply us with enough water to run the washing machine so we’d bring our clothes to the laundromat in town and stay all day, washing, switching, folding, back into the black garbage bags, into the car, then onto the sled. Sometimes my mom would laugh if the bags fell off the sled and sometimes she would say my long name and get upset because we’d just folded them and now they’d be a mess.
I remind her about the laundry.
“The new house has a washer and dryer,” she tells me. I know this, but I had wanted her to think about the laughter, not the inconvenience. The snow is really coming down.
We drag snow into the foyer with us when we enter again. No one has been taking their shoes off in between trips to the truck, so the linoleum is covered in slush and yuck, right into the living room where there’s carpet. I can’t forget about the new owners, coming into the house they bought and seeing the mess. I ask my mom if we’re supposed to clean it, and she says, “Everyone who moves in winter has to do this.” I think, then that’s just the way it is and I try to forget about it, but then maybe she’s just tired, too tired do the right thing.
He’s still at the house, wrestling things that are awkwardly shaped and taped into the truck. I pretend to be busy in my room, but it’s empty. There’s broken glass on the windowsill, it’s too high for me to clean or even see because it’s a basement window, but I know it’s there. One time I won two awards for writing poetry and a short story about Remembrance Day — they had been framed because everyone was So Proud. With the slingshot my dad had given me, I had shot a battery at the awards propped on the window sill where they waited to be hung. It had shattered the First Place Certificate for Poetry. I’d put a poster over the window, over the awards, over the broken glass. My room in the new house has two windows.
Will I be able to go trick-or-treating, now that we’ll live in town? I realize that no, I’m too old. The light coming in through the bedroom window has a blue-grey tint, touching me and making me otherworldly. Winter light. There will be no more childhood homes for me, no little-kid things like trick-or-treating. I leave it all here, in the yellow room with the broken glass and the blue-tinged fading light.
My mom’s boyfriend says things really loud as he makes the last trip to the truck. I don’t come to say goodbye. I hear him and my mom talking. I know he will take almost all the bad things with him when he leaves, except the ones he left with me, inside my head.
I hear the truck go up the driveway. It’s steep and the snow is a mess but the truck manages and he’s gone. I want to take as long as possible to get back to the new house because he’ll be there too, touching my things and putting them into my new room, proving that he will not be banished after all.
I’m enlisted to do one last sweep inside the house while she does the outside. I say nothing about the broken glass on the windowsill, the coat hangers in the master bedroom closet, or the empty roll of packing tape by the fireplace. They belong to the house now and can never be free. I leave them as offerings, a sacrifice to a space that housed a coldness, a loudness, a secret.
I watch my mom lock the house and wonder what happens with the keys. Do the new owners get them, or will they change the locks? We never locked it when we lived there, but my mom says we’ll have to lock the new house because it’s in town. Inside my head I tell her I’ve never been afraid of what’s outside the house trying to get in; just of what is already inside.
In my photograph moment on the driveway, snow almost to the tops of my boots, my mom walks up behind me. I tell her to take one last look at the house with me. She touches my shoulder as she passes and says, “This snow is really something, isn’t it?”