By Maddie Sokoloski
This isn’t the house I grew up in. The one filled with laughter and family movie nights, the one with eight-foot-tall Christmas trees under the high ceilings. It’s no longer the house where my brother learned to walk and talk, the house where he got and I lost a first tooth on the same day. This isn’t the place my grandparents would come to visit on Easter and Thanksgiving.
This house was always there, hidden beneath layer after layer of good times. This is the house I saw countless years ago, the first time I ever really saw my parents fight, when my dad drove away and threatened never to come back. It is this house I briefly viewed when my dad and his brother got in a fist fight in our living room, the place I left as I ushered my siblings — in only their sweatshirts and pajamas — out the door into the snow. This house is the result of the fight I overheard a year ago from my bedroom, when I realized my parents’ divorce was on the horizon. This is my house, but it is not the same, and it is not my home.
I enter the house through the door that leads in from the garage to an empty space. The floorboards, brighter where the carpet was rolled up and moved out, are covered in dust that collected under the couches.The few chairs that we left in the living room are pushed up against the wall, huddled where we left them in our haste to move the big things into the garage. A few unused boxes that didn’t get swept into the moving van lie on the floor exactly where we dropped and forgot about them. It is quiet in a way that it’s never been before. For once, the only sounds are my footsteps that echo in the big empty room with no furniture to muffle it. There are no distant sounds of my siblings in their rooms. There is no sizzle of food my mother is cooking, no scent wafting from the kitchen. Everything feels sad and abandoned, left by a broken family who were in too much haste to fall back and pick up the leftover pieces.
The living room was cheerful. Brown leather couches surrounded the TV on one half of the room, red and orange paisley-print chairs rested in the other, the two sides separated by a big fireplace. I remember running in from the pool behind the house and pushing the present-covered coffee table out of the way. My sister Lily and her friends dragged themselves away from their pool party long enough to open the presents. Lily tore through the small pile of gift bags, her friends and siblings sitting awkwardly on the paisley-print chairs, water seeping through our beach towels. When tissue paper carpeted the floor and no presents were left on the table, my mother brought out the cake and we sang. After Lily’s wish was made and the cake was eaten, we left to go swim some more. Year after year, every birthday party was held in the living room. Countless presents were opened, countless candles were blown out, countless wishes were made. The living room was always a happy place; I never thought it could be so lifeless.
I walk past the living room and the kitchen with no pots and pans and the dining room with no table or chairs to “the green stairs.” Before, the stairs were the sights of many games. My favorite was one we never named but played very often. The objective: get out the front door before either of the guards could catch us. The game started with the guards sitting on the green-carpeted stairs counting to ten while the rest of us ran and hid. Then, the competition began, an all-out war of wits, speed, and sneaking skills.
Squeals of delight, groans of frustration, and the rhythm of many little sets of feet running from soft carpet to hardwood floors became the dramatic soundtrack of our battle. The game ended when everyone had either been caught or managed to sneak their way past both of the guards and the heavy wood door that creaks when it opens. We would play round after round, often grabbing shoes and jackets to keep away the cold that crept up as the sun set. Finally, the tournament would end with lots of panting, taunting, wiping sweat from our foreheads, and sprawling across the carpet to catch our breath.
When this house was my home, my mother put four baby pictures — one of each of us — on the wall next to the stairs. Now, all that’s left of these are the nails they used to hang on. Sticking out of the wall like porcupine quills, they leave me feeling sick. These nails were only ever seen when our games were interrupted by someone knocking a picture to the ground. They were only ever seen when there was a mistake, a pause in the game where someone had to hang the picture up to make things right again. These stairs aren’t supposed to be a permanent reminder of all the mistakes we, as a family, have made. They were always filled with so many positive experiences. Those good memories were replaced with the image of the raw, exposed, porcupine-quill nails that only serve as a reminder that there will be no one to fix the mistakes this time. The echoes of squeals of friendly competition and the pitter-patter of sneaking feet faded, covered by the heavy footfalls of tired, worn-down people using the stairs only to get to the top floor. The steps aren’t home base anymore — they’re nothing more than stairs.
At the top of the stairs is the room that used to be mine. As I walk into it, my footsteps sound different, as if I’m walking on a mock version of the home I used to have. It’s like a cheaper knock-off posing as my house but missing a few crucial details. The only things in this room are an old TV set on a little, broken table, two giant mirrors that have yet to be moved to my mother’s new house, and about fifty empty nails and hooks. I can see the secrets I tried to hide with posters and furniture: the hole in the uneven wooden floor, the place where the paint chipped, the places where we missed a spot when we painted the walls pink.
This room isn’t mine anymore. It doesn’t smell like my perfume or candles or laundry detergent. The soft mountain of pillows and blankets from my bed were packed up and moved out. Yet I can still imagine this room as everything it used to be in the nine years we lived here: Lily’s room, a playroom, a guest room, my bedroom. I can see the walls in every state they’ve been in: blue, brown, black, pink; covered in painted clouds, flower stickers, posters, picture frames. I can picture myself in every version of this room, sleeping or playing or hanging out with my siblings and friends. Through everything this room used to be, I never thought I would see it look like a crude imitation, a second-rate version of itself. I never thought that it would stop feeling like home.
My mom’s new house is not home, not yet. It is different, smaller, made for five people instead of six. My room there is almost the same as it was; it’s painted the same colors, has the same bedspread and knick-knacks. The biggest difference is the box labeled “Maddie’s Pictures” that sits beside my desk. Inside are all of the pictures and wall hangings from my old bedroom. I have yet to hang them on the walls. I’m afraid this new house will become too real, too permanent. I’m afraid to create a bad imitation of my old room and hold on to something that isn’t real anymore.
Most importantly, I’m afraid to lose my home. At the old house, my dad put the nails in the wall, stood on my desk chair to hang the pictures. In the new house, my dad won’t be there to help hang things up just like my mom was too busy unpacking to set up my knick-knacks like she did when we first bought them. I’m afraid because the new house is so different and my home is an empty shell of itself. The place that was my home for so many years doesn’t exist any more: it was replaced with this replica version that’s missing all of the love we put into it. My home is nothing more than a sad, fading echo in the gutted, hollow house.
Maddie Sokoloski is a Sophomore at Barbara Ingram