1st place, Providence Catholic School
2018 Fiction Contest Winner (11th/12th Grade Division)
Blue. But not a baby blue, like the sky. The house was the color of bluebells, the kind that only grew in the dead heat of a Texas summer. With white molding and double-paned windows, a door inlaid with a small crystal window, and a mailbox that could fit maybe a letter or two, the house stood tall and proud. Or perhaps resolute fit it better. Resolute, and maybe even accepting of its fate. When one looked closer, they could see the cracks that split the porch stairs into a pile of stepping stones, a perilous walk up to the door. The paint flecked and faded, a once bold hue aging and withering away with the wood of the molding. Once, surely, the house had the posture of a young soldier ready for battle, but now it shuddered with the weight of years past, a veteran. And it broke Elena’s heart.
“It wasn’t always like that,” her abuela, Catalina, told her.
They stood staring up at the house, its edges breaking and fissures etching holes into it, leaving its soul exposed, visible. The way abuela described it to her, the house was once a beauty, newly wed to the family and ready to start a life together. Crisp, clean. New.
“The diamond of our neighborhood,” Catalina said. “Or should I say sapphire?”
She chuckled at that, but tapered off quickly, glancing down at Elena and seeing the sorrow in her eyes.
“It’s just a house, mija,” she said.
Elena frowned and turned her gaze to downtown San Antonio, the house overlooking it on a hill. She didn’t know how her grandmother could be so accepting of this. Catalina had grown up here. Maria, Elena’s mother, grew up here, and of course Elena herself. The house bled all the memories each of them had, and now its life – their lives – seeped out from the cracks and holes.
“I don’t know how you could say that,” Elena said. “After all the stories you’ve told me. You and mom.”
Till she was about ten, Maria would read her a bedtime story every night, but each was always partnered with a tale of her mother’s upbringing, or when abuela read to her, Catalina’s own. She’d heard some only once, others so many times she could repeat them verbatim. When she got too old for the nightly routine, she asked for a story or two to be told during dinner, as they sat on the chairs and dined at the table Maria and Catalina had for decades. They were tales of love, of loss, of suspense and drama, all echoing through the house as they were told.
Now Elena took a deep breath and readied herself to walk through the house one last time. The door whined when she opened it, the handle rusted and peeling. All the rooms had been emptied, the furniture – some from five years ago, some from fifty – already shipped to her new home states away. The wooden floorboards, stained and scratched, were the same her abuela set foot on when she first moved in, never having been replaced. Now they creaked under Elena’s slow footsteps.
The living room was the first part of the house Catalina ever described to Elena, attempting to paint a fresher image of the room in her granddaughter’s mind, how Catalina herself had once seen it. Elena’s abuela had moved in at the age of five with her three siblings, pregnant mother, and unemployed father. Every time Catalina told Elena to count her blessings, she did so with memories of harsher times in mind. Her family had had it rough, to put it lightly. That she was able to move from one of the poorest parts of San Antonio to this beautiful house was something she gave thanks for every night, even to this day, when she lay in bed, a rosary tangled through her weathered fingers. When Catalina first stepped into her new home, the living room greeted her with bright eyes and a wide smile, sparking a fire of hope within her, a hope Catalina would never lose.
That’s how abuela told it, at least. Elena sighed and moved on.
The dining room was the center of the house and the center of most of Maria’s and Catalina’s stories. It was more than the chipped mahogany table and chairs, china set and crystal chandelier that once inhabited it. Her abuela had spent countless Saturdays of her childhood polishing the dark wood furniture, the smell of lemons and chemicals lingering in the air, and dusting around the room. Maria and her siblings had played under that very table as children, holding secret meetings and building a fort, all while trying not to bang their heads. And when they did, they ran to Catalina, tears streaming as they begged for a kiss and a Bit o’ Honey candy to ease their pain.
This was where every Thanksgiving and Christmas was spent, Elena’s whole family circled around the table, the house having always been the center of gravity for even the extended family. Not a single major holiday passed without her abuelo playing the guitar around the table, singing with his booming baritone and the family joining in, their voices floating into the kitchen, drifting through the open doors and into the night. Elena swore she could still hear the echoes.
Lying straight ahead, the kitchen welcomed her with the phantom scent of tamales being prepared by Elena’s mother and aunts on Christmas Eve. Elena and her cousins, ranging in age from four to twelve, would sit around a smaller table nearby and toss ingredients together to make abuela’s famous cookie recipe. Inevitably, flour dusted the children’s hands and faces and the little ones’ hair would end up matted with batter and sprinkles. When the oven was on, the kitchen door was open, the room heating to unbearable temperatures within minutes and needing to be aired out or the women would begin to sweat as they prepared dinner. The kitchen had none of that liveliness now, though, and Elena kept walking to avoid her own badgering feelings of longing for her home.
She spent less time in the bedrooms, finding that she couldn’t bear to be in the house much longer. She passed through them like a ghost, which was fitting, she thought, because the house felt more like it should be haunted than lived in now, the state it was in. There were only three bedrooms in the house, and she passed by her own last. It had been her great-grandparents’ once, and when Elena first moved into it she felt a little hesitant, feeling as if she might be disturbing a memory’s peace. As she got older, though, the feeling morphed into a kind of comfort, as if those very memories held her cocooned in their hands as she slept at night, keeping her safe.
Elena passed on and made for the front door, but stopped short when she realized she forgot to take a last look at the back room. She doubled back and crossed to the opposite side of the house, opening a door and stepping down into the concrete room.
Of all the rooms, the back room, once a breezeway, had seen the most damage. Plaster hung from the ceiling and walls, stains – both water stains and other, unknown stains – covered each surface like bruises. Piles of boxes, forgotten storage, had once made a forest of the room, going untouched for decades, but had been recently uprooted when her family got ready to move away. Now, cracks and cobwebs defaced the corners of the walls, their tendril-like fingers greedily creeping forward to claim more of her home. Of Maria’s home. Of Catalina’s home.
Elena couldn’t bear it. She couldn’t bear to leave her home, her city.
She felt her nose tingle, then the tears pooled into her eyes, and she climbed the stairs and left in a flood of tears and a flash of her childhood home. When she was outside again, the summer sun blinded her. She felt her abuela’s arms wrap around her as she wiped at her eyes and tried to stifle her sobs. Catalina held her there for a long moment, rubbing her back, until Elena sniffled and looked up at her with glassy eyes.
“It’s not just a house,” she said, voice muffled by her tears and her abuela’s dress.
Catalina’s face fell slowly and she nodded, and then Elena was the one who had to comfort her and rub her back. They sank to the porch steps and sat there with nothing but the sounds of cicadas, children playing down the street, an ice cream truck, and their breathing.
Minutes later, Catalina looked over to her granddaughter and took her hand in hers. “I know, mija,” she said. “I know.”