a space for youth writing on mental health & identity
a space for youth writing on mental health & identity
The house is pink.
Bright pink, as of strawberry lemonade on a hot day. Like the taste of peppermints in church, rebellious. It is the color of laughter, and people to share it with.
The window edges are scalloped in white, with detailed dragons and worlds of stories written out in the painted wood. On most days the curtains are pulled up, showing the ancient wooden furniture and warmly colored interior. Cookies left every morning by the open window of the kitchen, a few missing in the afternoon.
In spring, the pink house is covered in riotous color: dahlias, wisteria, dafodils, rhododendron, camellias. Doors swung wide, inviting the brisk young winds to enter and twirl among wall hangings. The silver cat’s dignity overturned, Christmas hides by the windows until the cold comes again and the pink lady shuts the doors for the season, filling the interior with warm baking smells.
The pink lady matches her house in personality. Old, but ageless; her skin slightly faded, wrinkled with a thousand smiles, but filled with youthful energy. Her hair a white puff, styled in the old-fashioned way, but her eyes hold timeless sparkles of humor and love.
Maggie stomped the mud off her feet on the wide porch before walking into the warm kitchen. “Cookies?” she asks.
“Darling!” The pink lady came around the old oak table in the center of the kitchen, dusting her hands off on her apron and kissing Maggie on both of her cheeks. “Of course. You’re early, though, so help me with rolling and cutting them out?” Maggie nodded, unbuttoning her raggedy overcoat and draping it on the back of a chair. Rolling up her sleeves, she grabbed a ball of dough, pushing and kneading it into form.
The mist outside the window had yet to burn off. Outside was still just barely past the gray dawn, in a dreary half-way point. “Is something going on? You usually don’t come until the sun’s up.”
“Nope!” Maggie kneaded vigorously. “I just wanted to come see you.” A meow sounded from her feet, and she felt the brush of fur on her ankles. “Christmas!” She knelt and rubbed her ears. “It’s almost your season. Can you feel it?”
“Wash your hands before kneading the dough, dearie. I wouldn’t like cat fur in my cookies.” Maggie looked up. “Okay, but don’t you think Christmas is the cleanest cat in the history of cats? Look at her! No dirt at all.”
“My couches beg to differ.” Maggie laughed, standing back up. The silence swelled, companionable. “Can I stay here tonight?” asked Maggie, breaking the silence.
The pink lady set the rolling pin down and sighed. “What about Jack? Don’t you want to spend time with him?”
Maggie looked down at her hands. “No, not really.”
“Is something going on with him?”
Maggie shook her head vigorously but didn’t speak.
“Well, of course you can sleep here tonight, but I think you should spend more time with Jack. He is your father, after all.”
Maggie nodded, and smiled. After a bit more silence, she said in a small voice, “He’s ... quieter. And doesn’t spend much time with me anymore. And drinks a lot. Buddy’s great,” and she smiled in memory of the big, loveable dog, “but he’s not the same as my dad.”
“Of course, they fill different parts of your life, both of which you need.” The pink lady reached out to touch Maggie’s shoulder, but Maggie shrugged her away and looked up, smiling.
“Can we put them in the oven now?”
Jack’s world was thick and fuzzy. Drinking helped dull the memories, but it had weird effects on his dreams, adding people he had never known, or creating fantastical images, or making everything dull and pale. The dreamscape was full of his world, of trees and lines and saws, the great crashing, men everywhere. It wasn’t the nightmare; he knew the difference, for his body tensed up in the beginning before the nightmare even came, and they all started the same way, with that stupid bet he made with William. This one just showed trees, the rigging lines high and tight, men cutting away with saws, the trees floating downriver. He wasn’t part of it; above, looking into the scene and beyond.
“It’s not your fault,” said a familiar voice from behind him.
No. He couldn’t deal with William being so close, yet again, and yet so far out of reach. But he found his dream self turning, and there he was: the perfect gingery-red of his tousled hair, his warm hazel eyes, that scar from when he fell off the ladder picking apples, his cheeks reddish from the stubble that grew because he was too impatient to shave every other day. He wasn’t smiling obviously, but his dimple was just visible in a way that made Jack weak at the knees. After so long -- In the nightmare he never saw William’s face, just heard the scream. And his body after they found him. He thought that was bad. This was infinitely worse.
“William,” he said, reaching out, knowing this was a dream, knowing he wasn’t real, needing him all the same.
“Jack. I --” he stopped, let out a breath, then looked up again. “I miss you.”
The dagger twisted. “William. I didn’t --”
“Stop. It’s okay. I’m not here to punish you, I’m not here to make you feel bad. You’re my best friend. You’re everything to me. I don’t blame you in the slightest, not for what happened to me.” “But the bet --”
“That wasn’t what did it!” William actually laughed. “The rope was frayed, and the manager didn’t notice, and it was wet, and I slipped. That’s all.”
“I know you think you’re to blame, but you’re not. Not for this. Maggie, though -- she needs you, Jack. Way more than I do. I’m dead, for Chrissake!” Seeing Jack’s face, he became solemn. “Sorry. I know it’s harder for you. But Jack -- I love you.” Not the way Jack loved him. “And I love Maggie, and I just want you to get over this, over me, and live your life.”
“Get over you?” Jack wasn’t sad now, just angry. “How could you even suggest that? You, my best friend, my one true love, who died instead of me? If I had been there on the ropes, if I hadn’t suggested the competition, you never would have died!”
William smiled at him, his eyes soft. “But it happened. And now your life is in front of you. Go live it!” Jack stared at him, eyes going hard. “No. You are a dream. You’re not real. I’LL NEVER SEE YOU AGAIN!”
William stared at him. “If that’s what you choose,” he said, “god be with you.” And he was gone. He didn’t understand. It wasn’t a choice. He couldn’t just stop the feelings, the nightmares, the overwhelming guilt that sought to trap Jack under. It was never a choice.
She’s really having a hard time. She’s coming over nearly every day now, and staying until her bedtime. And her eyes ... I’m really quite worried about her. In the darkness Christmas’s fur glowed almost silvery against the mud brown of Buddy’s coat. The Lady went to talk with Jack, but it didn’t go well.
Ah think yeh worry o’er much, Buddy responds, nudging her with his nose. Ah mean, she hain’t brought meh treats fer days, but neither ‘as Jack. Ah think it’s just a ‘uman thing t’ worry and fret and she’ll be back t’ normal soon.
Christmas bristled and arose from her sphinx-like crouch between his paws to look him in the eyes. Tell me, is Jack better? Have his dreams stopped and does he go to sleep sober every night? You’ve been there for him ever since Tommy died. Do you honestly think that he’s improved with time?
Well ... ah mean ...
No, he hasn’t! she cried triumphantly, stalking back and forth in front of him. He’s gotten more obsessed with the past, more guilty, and fallen deeper into his cups! Don’t you see how this is affecting Maggie? You, me and the Lady are there for her, but she needs her father in the here and now, not the there and then.
Buddy quirked his eyebrows and dropped his head. Ah suppose yeh’re right. ‘E seemed like ‘e was improving but ah think the recent deaths of the riggers affected ‘im. But ah dunno what t’ do. Ah can be there when ‘is nightmares’re bad, and play wi’ Maggie, an’ yeh an’ the Lady are ‘er refuge, but we can’t talk t’ ‘er. His eyes laughed and his tongue lolled, but there was an uncertain air to his speech, as though Christmas might actually think they should try.
She sat back and busied herself washing her, a habit of hers that only happened when she was busy thinking deeply. No, she said between licks, but perhaps we need to do more of nothing.
More o’ what? Ah think ah misheard yeh ...
I think that she has too much dependence on us. We, and the Lady, are a crutch so that she doesn’t have to decide things on her own. She’s nearly of mating age, and there’s nothing we can do for Jack more than you already are, but perhaps if Maggie learns on her own what it means to grow up she’ll heal herself.
What’re yeh talking about? Buddy yelped, springing to his feet. Maggie’s still a pup yet. What she needs is more support, not less. An’ besides, weren’t yeh just saying that ‘umans need more support an’ that they just stay stuck in the past unless moved? We can’t just leave ‘er. I ain’t planning on it, and yeh ain’t, and the Lady ... He stopped pacing and stared at her. No. She can’t. Maggie’d die wi’ out ‘er.
She has no plans yet, said Christmas primly, but I was thinking of suggesting it to her.
If yeh do that, yeh’d be forcing Maggie to rely on Jack, an’ we both know he ain’t capable of handling that. She needsus. Christmas’s eyes glowed opaque as the moon hit them. She looked like a spirit, insubstantial. Perhaps.
Maggie woke, the sun slanting through the dusty curtains into her eyes. She rolled over, the blankets bunching up around her torso. Cold air rushed through the cracks into her warm cocoon, and begrudgingly she got out and dressed. Beyond the wool curtain, Jack sat at the table, his huge frame taking up an entire side. He stared into the metal cup he held, probably containing the awful brown sludge he called coffee. Even half milk and half sugar, the stuff tasted terrible!
She walked quietly past him, trying not to disturb the reverie that was near sleep-like. She had her hand on the door knob when he spoke.
“You shouldn’t come back.” It was gravely, low, reluctant.
She turned. His head was still hung low over his mug. “What?” she forced out, barely louder than a whisper. “I said --” still not looking up “-- you shouldn’t come back. I’m bad for you. This house is bad for you. You should go and live with the lady who lives in that house that you like so much. I’m a bad influence, a bad parent. Ever since Elizabeth died, I haven’t known what to do with you. That woman is the only one who seems to make you genuinely happy”
“Don’t try to trick me,” she said, her voice like a stranger’s, ahrd with anger, spiky, dangerous. “This isn’t about mom, it’s about William. You were --”
“Don’t say his name!” He stood up, knocking his cup away. The coffee dribbled out of it and onto the floor. “You don’t know what it’s like.”
“To lose someone I love? I think I know a bit more about it than you do. I had to lose mom, then William -- yes, he was your friend, but he was like my godfather, or an uncle. But honestly, you know what’s hardest? Losing you. You’re my dad, but you seem like you hardly care about me anymore. Losing you in pieces is way worse than losing anyone else all at once.”
He stared at her, and she thought he was going to start crying, pick her up, whisper, “I love you, Maggie. I’m sorry,” but instead he took a deep breath and said, “You don’t understand. You’re just a kid. You need someone else, not me.”
“The only person I need is you! The real you! Not your alcoholic self who is guilty about William, but my DAD!”
“YOU WILL NEVER UNDERSTAND!” he roared at her. He stalked closer and leaned in so she felt the whoosh of air when he yelled, “LEAVE, MAGDALENA!”
Her eyes filling, she ran from the house, trailing tears like diamonds in her path. Jack stood, and watched her go.
The pink lady’s house was deserted. She ran around ten times, calling for the pink lady, for Christmas, looking into every doorway and nook and cranny inside the house and out. At last, giving up, knowing the fruitlessness of it, she crawled into the towel bin. It was warm there, and she curled into a tight ball, her tears soaked up immediately.
Some time later, she heard purring and the soft brush of Christmas’s silky fur. Sniffling, she sat up, petting her. “Hey. You didn’t desert me at least.” It hurt, being turned away like that. Her own father! She knew he didn’t care about her as much as he used to, but kicking her out of the house ... “He’s so selfish. All he cares about it his sadness about William. It doesn’t even matter to him that I’m here now! He only wants to live in the past.” Christmas purred harder, almost as if she was saying, It’s okay, I’m here.
“Thanks. You don’t know where the pink lady is, do you? She’s always somewhere around here.” She thought she felt a stiffening of Christmas’s spine, almost like guilt. It couldn’t be, though. Couls it? “Do you know where the pink lady is?” Christmas moved several steps back from Maggie’s hand, her head drooping. The very sign of remorse. “She’s not gone!” No. It couldn’t be. The bottom dropped out of her world, an endless, bottomless pit that nothing could fill. The pink lady! She didn’t even say goodbye. She left. Just like Jack, making her leave. Like her mom. Like William. Everyone left her, no one could stay. She wasn’t worth staying for. “Let them leave,” she said suddenly, decidedly. “Let them go. I’ll show them that I can do it on my own. I’m strong enough to keep house, I can make cookies and bread the same way the pink lady could. I’ll do it.” She climbed out of the towel basket, smoothing her dress. And if she shut the door behind her a little too hard, well, no one can tell for certain.
*Some months later*
The warm spring air dallied among the curtains and twirled the nodding heads of the dafodils. Maggie, out in the garden planting the corn, paused in her work to pet Christmas, who sat in argent dignity at the edge of the bed. “Who’s that coming along the lane, Christmas?” Maggie, who had never left the house since she decided to stay there that awful night, had come accustomed to talking to Christmas, mostly to stay in the habit, and because it made it more companionable that way. She shielded her eyes to peer down the still muddy road. It was a man, tall and broad-shouldered, with a dog trotting along beside him. Could it be?
She hadn’t spoken to her father since that night, though they lived only a quarter-mile apart. She hadn’t forgiven him, either, but the sight of him still made her leap with hope and excitement. “Pretending to be an adult isn’t all that it’s cut out to be, anyway.” She watched as he walked up towards her gate. She made no move towards him.
He stood there, on the outside of the gate, looking at her. She stared back, trembling, uncertain. “I’m sorry, Maggie. I hope you’ll --” she started running as soon as he said sorry. Reaching Jack, she hugged him as tightly as possible, cutting off his sentence.
“I forgive you.”
This was going to be historical fiction, but it became a bit of historical fantasy, with less history than I was planning. It was inspired by my pen pal, the Pink Lady (her real name is Sandra), with whom I am pen pals with because her house, on Naito Pkwy, is painted totally pink. When I was younger, I would tell stories about how the person who lived there was an old woman who looked like Queen Elizabeth II and gave out peppermints to kids. The story idea flowered off of those made-up facts.
* = Editors' Choice work
Unless otherwise noted, all pictures used are open-source images in the public domain.
Support youth writers
Donate to our GoFundMe!