"What's the world for you if you can't make it up the way you want."

-Jazz, Toni Morrison


The House Next Door

The House Next Door

When school lets out for the summer, we run home, our JanSport backpacks overflowing with a year’s worth of book reports, math exercises, and grammar sheets. Bobby is telling us a story about the art teacher as we round the corner of our street. He’s practically screaming and we’re all laughing, but he pauses mid-sentence. We stop and stare down the street. An electric blue moving truck stares back at us; it sits in front of the big empty house, the one right next door to ours.

As we walk closer, we see moving men swarm the house, carrying boxes and chairs and sweating rivers. A glamorous woman in all black paces the driveway and passes out cold lemonade, her high-heels smacking against the pavement. But I’m mostly watching the two girls in the purple polka-dot dresses. Their fingernails are painted the same color as the sky and they dart and bounce around the front yard, like bunnies. When the glamorous woman tells Mindy and Jacqueline to run inside for more lemonade, I repeat their names in my head: Mindy and Jacqueline, Mindy and Jacqueline, Mindy and Jacqueline, until Bobby punches me in the arm and says “Tag you’re it.”

That night Daddy tells Bobby and me to pick up a very important package for him at the post office the next morning. Bobby is so excited he falls out of his chair at the dinner table. Daddy looks at me when he’s talking, but I look down at my plate and try to spin all the spaghetti onto my fork. I don’t want to go to the post office tomorrow. I want to put on that purple romper that’s crumpled up somewhere in the back of my closet. I want to dart and bounce around in the front yard. I want to be a bunny too. But I know Daddy will only let Bobby go if I go too. He always says I’m the most responsible ten-year-old he knows. 

In the morning, Daddy makes pancakes for breakfast - chocolate chip. It’s already hot and my bare thighs stick to the chair. Jason and Chuck are over and Bobby is wriggling in his chair like a puppy. He’s telling the story about the art teacher again and Jason and Chuck are howling by the time he gets to the glue spill. But I’m hardly listening. I’m looking into every window in the house next door. I start with second floor and then move to the first. Then repeat. I’m in the middle of the third round when Daddy drops a mountain of pancakes in front of us. The boys cheer and then we’re all grabbing forks and butter and syrup. I glance back at the house for a second, but it’s just as empty as it was before.

We tear through the pancakes and the mountain turns into a small hill. We take a break from eating and Daddy tells us about the critical bite, the moment when you’ve eaten so many chocolate-chip pancakes, you can no longer look at them. We nod in agreement; we’ve all reached the critical bite. Then the baby starts howling and Daddy looks tired. He tells us it’s time to go to the post office. As he climbs up the stairs to the nursery, he says, “Stay together!” but we’re already out the door.

We walk toward town and kick a pebble between us. The heat is overwhelming and we imagine we’re popsicles, slowly melting away until all that’s left of us are four wooden sticks. Chuck says he’s a Double Fudge Popsicle. Bobby quickly says the same. Jason and I think about it longer. ““Creamsicle,” I say. “Cherry and Vanilla Cyclone,” he says. Then I look behind us, half expecting to see a trail of multi-colored liquid, but all I see is the empty sidewalk.

We all get quiet and my mind wanders back to Mindy and Jacqueline. I picture them sitting at their own kitchen table, digging through their own stack of chocolate-chip pancakes. I wonder if they know about the critical bite.

Someone asks what’s in the package and we all start talking over each other—

“Maybe it’s stuff for the baby stuff?”

“It’s probably just bills.”

“I think it’s a new pair of glasses, aren’t his broken?” 

“I hope it’s Nintendo games!”

“NINTENDO!” 

And then we’re really talking over each other, shouting the names of every Nintendo game ever made - Mario and Bubble Bobble and Paperboy. We each try to prove our Nintendo knowledge.

We’re still throwing out guesses when I hear the click-clack of high heels on the sidewalk. The sun is angled directly into my eyes, but I see a woman walking ahead of us. She looks familiar and I’m trying to remember why, but then we’ve arrived at the post office and Bobby drags me inside. 

It’s cool and quiet and I immediately get goose bumps. Bobby, Chuck and Jason have all “put on their best behavior” as Daddy would say and remind me of miniature grown-ups. They march in single-file to the end of the line and stand behind a tall man. I follow behind them and stare at the man’s back. I wonder if he’s a basketball player. 

And then we wait. 

And wait.

And wait. 

I’m bored and fidgety, but all three boys are as still as statues. I gaze out the window. There’s a dusty green station wagon parked just in front, underneath the shade of the only tree on the block. A woman walks by pushing a baby carriage. I practice my times tables. I breeze through the 2’s and 3’s. When I get to the 4’s, a boy glides by on a skateboard. I’m just about to move to the 5’s when I see two small hands flop out the back window of the station wagon. Two more hands follow. I can see that all 20 fingernails are painted - they’re the same color as the sky. 

I rush toward the door.

“I’m telling!” Bobby hisses.

But I don’t care. I push it open and the bell on the handle jingles to let everyone know I’m leaving.  

When I get outside, the heat feels heavier than it did before. I can see Mindy and Jacqueline in the backseat. They’re wearing matching two-piece bathing suits. They’re so close I can smell the coconut scent of their sunscreen. It reminds me of ocean waves and sunburned skin. But they don’t see me. They don’t even know I exist.

I wonder if they’re going to the rec center pool. I imagine the three of us there together. We’d play tea party and I’d show them how to jump off the high dive. When our fingers turned to raisins, we’d get lemonade icees from the food stand. 

But I don’t own a two-piece bathing suit. Daddy says I’m not old enough to wear a two-piece bathing suit. And when we go to the rec center, I have to wear the speedo that’s so old, it sags at my butt.

I’m studying the sparkles on Mindy and Jacqueline’s bathing suit tops when I realize that something is off. It takes me a second or two to understand, but then I get a sudden feeling like cold water pouring over my head. The dusty green station wagon is moving. 

It’s slow and I don’t think Mindy and Jacqueline have noticed. I try to warn them, but my voice has been stolen, like Ariel’s in “The Little Mermaid,” and only air comes out. I blink once, twice, three times. The car groans and pushes its nose out from the shade. 

Mindy and Jacqueline scream. 

I want to run to them, I want to show them that I am there, that I exist, that I like to paint my nails blue too, but I am frozen. My legs have turned to stone and I can only watch as the car picks up speed. It reminds me of Bobby’s toy cars when he pushes them off the stair railing. The toys hang on for a second or two before they pitch into space. 

The car is rolling farther away from me and all I can see is a tangle of limbs and hair and tears. Then the bells on the post-office door ring wildly and the tall man from the post office is rushing past me. He reminds me of Superman and as he sprints after the car, I imagine a blue cape fluttering behind him. When he reaches the car, he lunges for the driver’s side door and flings it open. Then he dives inside, his body horizontal to the ground.

And all at once, everything stops. I feel like I’m standing in a Hollywood set. And the spotlight is on the dusty green station wagon.

I hear a rapid click-clack. 

The high-heeled woman is running toward the car and now I realize who she is: she’s the glamorous woman in all-black. My legs start to loosen. I take a small step to make sure I’m completely free. Then I run down the hill as fast as I can, toward the spotlight, toward the car, toward Mindy and Jacqueline.

I imagine the three of us skipping through our shared backyard. I’d show them my secret fort nestled between the oak trees. We’d tell secrets and make pinky promises to never tell another soul as long as we live. 

I am just a few feet away when the man climbs out of the front seat. He is breathing heavily and raking his fingers through thinning hair. Dark patches of sweat cover his shirt in a strange pattern. He looks nothing like Superman. He’s not even that tall. 

The high-heeled woman is fluttering her hands, to her head, to her mouth, to her hips. They are like hummingbirds that can’t keep still. She looks different than she did yesterday. Her skin is waxy and she has purple smudges under her eyes.

I glance at the backseat. Mindy and Jacqueline still clutch each other. They look like one form now and I can’t tell where one body ends and the other begins. Then they both turn and stare directly at me, like they know I’ve been there the whole time. I’m so surprised I inhale sharply and choke on my breath.

“What are you doing?!” Bobby yells from somewhere behind me. I am coughing as I look up the hill. He’s standing in front of the post office and holding a thin envelope - not Nintendo games after all. Chuck and Jason stand on either side of him. 

“You’re in the middle of the street!” He yells again.

I look around and realize that he’s right. There is no Hollywood set. There is no spotlight. 

“Let’s go!” His voice cracks. I can hear that he’s nervous. I feel pulled in two directions.

“One second!” I shout. I know that I have to do something first. I have to crawl into the backseat of the dusty green station wagon. I have to sit between Mindy and Jacqueline. I have to hold their hands and look them in their eyes and tell them I tried, I really tried. 

But when I turn back toward the car, it’s already gone.


Maddie Rottman currently lives in Los Angeles and works at a creative agency as a brand director. She enjoys running, reading, and gawking at dogs, both in person and online. Her fiction has appeared in Penny Shorts and she has authored several award-winning advertising case studies.

Cover photo by Scott Webb on Unsplash

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