Read an Excerpt
Our new house had a blue door. The rest of the house was painted white and shingled gray.
“Isn’t it beautiful?” my mother asked.
She climbed out of the car first and then my younger brother, Miles, and then me.
“Don’t you think this is the perfect place to end the summer?” Mom wanted to know.
We were spending the rest of the summer in Iron Creek, a small town in a high desert, the kind with pine trees and snow in the winter. It got hot in the day and cold at night. When a thunderstorm, all black and gray and blue, did come rolling in, you could see it a mile away.
I knew that stars would come out and rain would fall and that the days would be hot and long. I knew I’d make sandwiches for Miles and wash dishes with my mom. I knew I would do all of that and summer would be the same and never the same.
Last summer we had a dad and a brother and then they were gone.
We did not see it coming.
One of the things Miles and I whisper-worried about at night was that our mom could fall in love again.
It didn’t seem like it would happen because she’d loved my father so much, but we had learned from the accident that anything could happen. Anything bad, anyway.
Mom didn’t end up falling in love with a person, but she did fall in love with a house. We were in Iron Creek in June, visiting our grandparents—my mom’s parents—when she saw the for sale sign while she was out for a drive. She came home and whispered to Gram and Papa, and then they went with her to see the house while Miles and I stayed with our uncle Nick and his wife. Two weeks later, Mom used some of the money from when my dad died, the life insurance money, to buy the house. Since she’s a teacher and didn’t have to go back to work until the end of August, she decided we would spend the rest of the summer in Iron Creek and all the summers after that. She planned to rent out the house to college students during the school year. We weren’t really rich enough to have two houses.
“It will be good for us to be around family more,” she said. “Next summer we can stay for the whole time.”
We didn’t fight her about it. We liked our grandparents. We liked our uncle and our aunt. They had known our dad and our brother Ben. They had some of the same memories we did. Sometimes they even brought things up, like, “Remember when your dad went out in the kayak at Aspen Lake and he flipped over and we had to save him in our paddleboat?” and we would all start laughing because we had the same picture in our minds, my dad with his sunglasses dangling from one ear and his hair all wet. And they knew that Ben’s favorite kind of ice cream wasn’t ice cream at all, it was rainbow sherbet, and he always ate green first, and so when I saw it in my grandma’s freezer once and I started crying they didn’t even ask why and I think I saw my uncle Nick, my mom’s brother, crying too.
“Well,” Mom said, “let’s go inside and choose rooms before we start unpacking.”
“Me first!” said Miles.
They went in the house and I sat down on the steps.
The wind came through the trees, which were very old and very tall. I heard an ice-cream truck a few streets over, and kids playing in other yards.
And then a boy rode past on a bike. The boy wore old clothes. Not worn-out old, old-fashioned. He was dressed like a peasant. He had on a ruffly blouse and pants that ended right under his knees and a hat with a feather and he was my age. He didn’t glance over at me. He looked happy.
Sad, I thought. That’s so sad. He’s weird and he doesn’t even know it.
Actually, it’s better not to know it. My brother Ben was different and he knew.
The trees sounded loud as a waterfall above me. “We’re so lucky,” Mom kept telling us when she bought the house. “The trees on the property have been there for fifty years. They’re beautiful. Not many like them in the whole town.”
I think she noticed the trees because my dad always loved trees.
We bought the house from a family who had lived in Iron Creek for generations, the Wainwrights. The kids had all moved away but one of them came back to sell the house when his mother died. He didn’t want to live in it, but he was also kind of weird about selling it. When he ran into my mother at the realtor’s office, he told her, “It will always be the Wainwright home.”
My mother said she nodded at him like she agreed but she didn’t waste any time having the velvety green carpet torn up and the hardwood floors underneath sanded and varnished.
“I want the heart and the bones to stay the same,” she said. “Anything else, we can change. We live here now.”
She also had the front door painted blue.
I heard that blue front door open behind me and Mom came out. “Hey, Cedar,” she said.
“Miles picked his room,” Mom said. “There are still two left. Want to go next?”
Shouldn’t you go next? I wanted to ask, but it didn’t matter. Her room could be as small as ours now because she didn’t have to share.
“Sure,” I said, because I knew she wanted me to say Sure.
Inside, the house was empty, no furniture yet. Living room to the right, stairs in front of me. “Want to look around downstairs first?” Mom asked, because Miles and I hadn’t spent time here yet, but I shook my head and started climbing. When I got to the top of the steps, I stopped.
“Isn’t it fun?” she asked. “I left these the way they were. I couldn’t help it.”
Each bedroom door was painted a different color. One yellow, one purple, one green. The bathroom door was painted red. “Are the rooms inside the same colors?” I asked.
“No,” she said. “Only the doors. Each room has something special about it, though.”
Right then the green door opened. “I picked this one,” Miles said, sticking his head out. “It has a big, big closet. Like a hideout. For me.” Miles was eight, young enough to still care about hideouts.
“So green is gone,” Mom said.
I didn’t care which room I had but I knew she wanted me to pick.
“I’ll do this one,” I said, pointing to the purple door at the end of the hall.
“You can check them both first,” Mom said.
“No,” I said, “I’m fine. Unless you wanted purple?”
“I like them both,” Mom said. “The yellow room has a window seat. The purple room has a diamond window.”
That settled it. I knew Mom had always liked window seats and our real house, up in a suburb of Salt Lake City four hours away, was newish and beige and had no window seats anywhere.
“Purple,” I said. “It’s like a rainbow up here.”
“That’s what made me want to paint the front door blue,” Mom said. “It was the only color that was missing.”
Lots of colors were missing. Pink. Orange. Brown. Gray. But I didn’t say that.
It turned out that a diamond window was not a window shaped like a diamond, which is what I assumed it would be. It was a big, regular-shaped window that opened outward, but instead of having two big panes of glass it had lots of small panes of glass, and those were diamond shaped.
I couldn’t see out clearly because of all the shapes and that bugged me, so I opened up the window. The wind in the trees was relentless. It sounded like an ocean outside my window so I closed it again.
Because of that stupid window, it felt like the house was a fly with those eyes that have a million parts. And it was looking at me.
I’d picked the wrong room. I should have done yellow.
Then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw something move. Something big, and black, and outside my window.
It was in the tree. I took a step closer. And then closer again.
The thing stretched its wings and settled. I could see that much, even though the window made it smeary and bleary and in diamonds.
I took another step.
I wanted to open the window to see what the thing was, but I also didn’t want it to fly in.
Another step. The thing outside the window turned its head.
The purple door slammed open behind me and I spun around to see Miles. “Come on!” he said. “Gram and Papa and Uncle Nick and Aunt Kate are here! They’re going to help us unpack!”
I looked back at the window but this time it only showed me trees. Something had looked away.
“What room would Ben have picked?” Miles asked at breakfast the next day.
Ben loved blue, he would have picked blue for sure, but there was no blue room.
And then I knew the real reason we had a blue front door.
“Maybe mine,” I said. “Purple is closest to blue.”
“Maybe not to Ben,” Miles said, and he was right. You could never be sure how Ben would see things. He had his own kind of logic.
We were getting better at talking about Ben, but not much. Better because we did talk about him but also there was so much more to say and we were all still too fragile to say it.
After lunch I sat outside and I saw the boy on the bike ride by again, and he didn’t see me that time either. And he still had on the same clothes and he still looked happy.
Next day, same thing all over again. Boy, bike, clothes, happy.
In my family we never call people names because sometimes people used to call Ben names and we all hated that. When he was younger he didn’t notice so much, but when he was nine, the year he died, he noticed every single time. You’d see his eyes flicker. He’d take it in. And then who knew what he’d do with it. Or how it made him feel.
Here is something bad about me.
I call people names in my head sometimes.
I don’t do it to be mean.
I do it to label.
But I know names-to-label are bad too. Names-to-be-mean are worse, but both are bad.
Here’s the name I called the boy in my head:
“Look,” Miles said. “I found this in my closet.” He dragged something into the middle of my bedroom. Outside, the wind blew and the sky had gone dark. A thunderstorm was moving in.
It was a box of old board games.
“Remember,” I said, “you may play these games, but they will always be Wainwright board games.”
We spread the games out on the floor. Outside the trees went crazy. The storm was almost here.
“Your room is noisy,” Miles said.
“I know,” I said. “It’s the trees.”
“You could ask Mom to trade rooms,” Miles said.
But he knew I wouldn’t do that. He knew I wouldn’t ask Mom for anything I didn’t really, really need. We both tried to be good for her and she tried to be patient with us. Sometimes I thought of the three of us as pencils with the erasers scrubbed down to the end, and the next swipe across the paper would tear through the page and make a scree sound across the desk.
It turned out most of the games were missing parts. But there was a very old version of Life that had everything in it. We played a few rounds before we got bored.
“Is there anything else in your closet?” I asked Miles.
“A box of old dolls,” Miles said. “They’re all broken up. Arms and legs sticking out. Eyes that won’t close anymore.”
“Are you serious?”
“No,” he said. “There’s only a box of old clothes. Like dress-up clothes. And some shoes. The shoes are gross. They’re all curly.”
“Show me,” I said.
He was right. The shoes were disgusting. They looked like elf shoes, twisted up and pointy. And the dress-up clothes smelled musty. They all seemed like they were from our parents’ era, except one shiny blue dress that was fancier than the rest and probably older. It had fur on the cuffs and the collar. I couldn’t tell if the fur was real or fake. I hung that dress up in Miles’s closet so it wouldn’t be so wrinkled. It was kind of pretty.
“Want to walk to the gas station and get a Fireball?” Miles asked when I was done.
Miles was into Fireballs, the huge red kind that you get at convenience stores. Tears ran down his face while he ate them because he couldn’t stand how hot they were but he wanted to suck all the way through one without stopping by the end of the summer. Since the house was in the middle of town, we didn’t have to walk far to get to a gas station, which meant that Miles had learned quickly about every kind of cheap candy, like Lemonheads and Necco Wafers and gum shredded to look like tobacco. My mom wouldn’t let him get the gum, or the candy cigarettes.
I liked Lemonheads best. They were so sour they made my nose sweat.
“It’s raining,” I said.
“It doesn’t matter,” Miles said. “The rain will feel good.”
I decided to stay put.
I stayed put a lot, ever since last summer. My mom worried about it because she thought it meant that I was afraid to go out, because of what happened to my dad and Ben.
I walked over and opened the window. Even with the wind. Even with the rain. I felt like I might as well let all that sound surround me. I curled up on the bed and waited to see if the house would look at me again.
The black thing came back. This time, in the daylight, I could see what it was.
It was a bird.
It was a vulture.
I had never seen one up close but I recognized it from movies. Or TV. I wasn’t sure how I knew, but I did.
It looked at me. It probably wasn’t used to anyone living in my room, because no one had for a while. It watched me and the house watched me.
If the vulture wanted, it could fly right inside.
“I’m not afraid of you,” I whispered.
It cocked its ugly red head.
It knew I lied.