Wednesday’s Words/Short Story: In the Night Houses

The first time I heard my mother’s bare feet pad down the hallway, I didn’t think too much of it. I was aware they descended the stairway. In the deep yawn of night, I was nodding over my journal, and my little solar powered, muti-colored lamp cast a rainbow of watery light. I’m a very light sleeper and Mom’s bedroom door’s hinges had needed oiling for months.

I half-waited for another bedroom door to swiftly open and Dad to call out her name, though that was silly of me. He has long slept in a diffrent room due to sleep apnea. He finally began using a CPAP machine to help him breathe correctly and–we all hoped– sleep well. Since it was working so far, I rarely heard him get up, anymore. So it was strange sitting propped against my pillows with pen in hand and hearing my mother’s footsteps. For years it was my father’s I might hear as he’d gotten up for a sandwich or shortbread cookies and chocolate milk, then to read in his kingly leather chair until he snored away. Luckily, we didn’t endure that annoyance from upstairs.

Since it was unusual for Mom to get up, I waited. But, of course, mothers and fathers can do as they please. And I was groggy–but questions bubbled up and I nearly tiptoed down to see what she was doing. I didn’t hear anything, but that wasn’t surprising since our house was big enough to accomodate twice as many people and still be about empty. The kitchen, for example, was on the far side of the glass, cement block and steel structure that was our house. Smelling the coffee in the morning required sleeping on a sofa that was a few hundred feet from it–food odors didn’t reach bedrooms. Part of my mom’s design.

The only thing I worried about was her leaving the house, but unless she was awake enough to use the security code, she’d set off the alarm.

Mom is not an ordinary person. I mean, she does all the things you’d hope or expect any parent would do–long days at her job, then domestic work at home. But she actually lives in another realm, and daily visits us on earth, I think. She’s dreamy and quirky, can be struck with sudden seemingly odd ideas. Like when she decided to build a custom treehouse in the gigantic oak that overlooks our back yard one way, the valley, the other. I was ten years old when she did that and was so excited. But it was for her idea and for her use. Didn’t she imagine I’d happily spend time there with my friends? But no, it was not to be for it was hers; not even Dad got to hang out on occasion, but he had his own space on the top floor. Seeing how upset I was, they built me a mini-dome clubhouse by the creek, complete with bright plastic furniture. Which was very cool–but it was a far cry from a treehouse.

The fact that she’s an architect–Ellie Harbinger and Associates– didn’t allow for forgiveness of her stinginess of spirit. I didn’t understand its importance until later. And eight years since it was built it’s still a top choice for her “think time” or “R and R”. I’ve been in it, sure; I just don’t stay long, not that I wanted to since getting older. The dome house came down before my fourteenth birthday. I found it embrarrassing to yet use a play house, though my friends were disappointed. We held a farewell party for it. Perhaps for our childhood, too.

So I was thinking of the treehouse and Mom as I sat in bed. I sure didn;t want her to go out decide to climb the rope ladder to her treehouse at nighttime. She’s fifty-two; she could work out and get stronger, she needs to practice yoga, get more agile. She’s attractive, and so tall she can’t help being the center of attention. But beauty and muscle strength are not priorities; brains are. In that area, she excels, if you wonder sometimes where it will lead her.

I lay down, unable to keep figting the need to sleep.

The next morning we were finishing a breakfast of blueberry waffles.

“Mom, did you have trouble sleeping last night? Is this going to be a thing now that Dad can finally sleep better?” I laughed, thinking that’d be a weird scenario, neither of them in sync yet. Didn’t they get lonely at night?

She did a full pivot, straight dark hair swinging at blue sweatered shoulders, and frowned at me. “What?No, I slept fine, dear.” Then she turned her attention back to the waffle maker, sipping her espresso.

Dad looked up from his phone. “Why do you ask, Dani?”

“I thought…well, I heard something….” I glanced at them both. Dad got up, then waited for me to finish. Mom popped a broken piece of waffle into her mouth before serving me a last one. “It’s nothing, only sounds in the night. Have a good day, Dad!”

He was already thinking of his work, and smiled at us before leaving.

“Love you–later, Erik,” Mom called out.

He lifted his travel mug in cheery salute, raced down the hallway to the foyer. He owns a construction company, but builds commercial buildings so he and Mom don’t talk business as much as you might think. In fact they are more like two different universes, and still coexist fine.

I got up and set my dishes in the sink as Mom wiped down the counter, humming to herself. I slipped by and afterr getting my backpack I turned toward her to say goodbye and when I did, caught her eye a moment. She was gazing at me or perhaps through me like when thinking hard, so I waved. She half-smiled.

“How can I convince them to finance an entire stable so I can get an equine therapy program going after college?” I asked Mel who was in the driver’s seat.

“Hold on, that’s in the far future. Just do incredibly well at university. They already know you can ride and love helping kids. Just stay passionate, they’ll get it.” She paused, then said as if lightning had struck, “Maybe you can get your own money, a small business loan for a smart woman!”

“An idea, I suppose,” I said, looking out the window at the rainy streets. And suddenly I saw my brother on a bicycle, grey hoodie loose on his slim body, face hidden as he passed in the other direction, legs pedaling hard, and I pressed my hands against the window.

“Quinn! Get over! Watch out for that car!”

But it wasn’t him, of course; he died six years ago.

“Oh, Dani,” Mel said, and she pulled over a few minutes so I could clear my brain.

******

Three nights later I was sketching an idea for a multi-purpose barn in my journal when I heard the telltale squeak of Mom’s bedrom door. I got up in a few minutes. Looking around the obscured rooms, I expected she’d hear me and say something. But she wasn’t in the living room or the library with its massive stone fireplace giving off that musky smoky scent I loved, nor the kitchen and dining room. Light leaked into spaces just enough as my eyes adjusted. I loved seeing the woods and creek beyond a wall made of glass in the living room so stood a moment, thinking how beautiful it was in the softness of moonlight. And then I felt her.

Mom was standing at the oppposite end of the room. She was looking out, too, so I began to walk toward her quietly so as not to startle her. But then she slowly backed away, turned and floated across the cool tile floor and ran up the stairs, her long ivory silk nightgown a fluid brightness. It was quintessential Mom.

“Mom?” I whispered, because to call to her, have her answer or come down suddenly seemed too risky.

There was some purpose to what she was up to and maybe I didn’t need to know what was going on. Right in the middle of the night, of all things. Nothing much, though, from what I could see. And what if she opened my bedroom door at night when I was journalling or maybe having a cry? It would feel intrusive. It would make me wonder why she didn’t trust me to either be alone or ask for her help. We all knew the temperature of things when we came home. Especially if one of us was alone. I mean the turned inward, dreadful alone. We knew to be there for each other.

When we lost Quinn after so long expecting things to get better–he recovered from a bad cycle accident, got cancer, went into remission twice, got it worse and died–all three of us feel into each other, got so close it felt like one breathing, aching human being sometimes. Survivors in a wilderness of loss. And then, gradually over the next couple years, we separated some. Went on. More or less. We were going forward or so we hoped. Yet we still think of him every day, we just don’t say it as often.

I looked in the distance at the treehouse, then at the hulking mountains beyond in black silhouette. I went to bed, fell asleep and dreamed of Gray. The one that rescued me from a kind of adolescent madness, the one that Quinn had said would become my favorite despite his unruliness. But that’s what I’d liked about Gray and my brother. I dreamed of Quinn, his horse Volt and me on Gray galloping all the way to the mountains. That’s as far as we ever get in that repeated dream–in reality, a very long way–but it’s far enough.

Mom was already leaving for work when I finally ran downstairs to grab two slices of cold toast.

“Is Mel picking you up as usual? Because I have a meeting with a client, pronto,” she said and scooped up her briefcase, high heels clicking brightly on the tile.

“Were you awake all night, Mom?”

Mom paused at the door leading to the garage. “What was that?”

“I just wondered if you were up late, too?”

“I slept as well as usual, and what a relief your dad finally is, too!” She blew me a kiss and was gone.

Mel arrived on time and hurried me out the door with one long blare of the horn on her ancient aqua Mustang. I settled in beside her and looked out my window.

“What’s up with you lately, Dani? You seem distracted.”

“I think it’s senior year ADHD or something. I can’t be focused, entertaining or joyful every single day!”

Mel gave a short laugh. “Well, you can, actually, if you try. And it’s only January, so we gotta stay on task, right?”

“Yeah, January…rain, sleet, rain, snow, rain. What I’d give for no mud when we ride!”

“True, but our beauties can handle anything, and it’ll be nicer in the woods.”

I sighed. She was right. But what about Mom? Was she becoming a sleep walker?

“Out with it,” Mel said.

“Okay–my mom is doing weird things at night. Like getting up when she’s always been a sound sleeper.”

Mel shrugged then made a U-turn too fast. “Stop it, Mel. I am being serious.”

“Look, she’s at that age, right? Men-o-pause and all that. You worry too much about everything!”

“Yeah, but she just wanders, stares at something I can’t see. I follow her but she never notices me.”

Mel waved that aside, then parked in St. Mary’s lot and we hopped out, running for the door to avoid being late.

She was probably right, I thought, but one more time and I might… just do something.

******

Everything went smoothly the rest of the week. Even the stony, rutted trails were good enough if a bit sludgey here and there; the meadow in the valley was manageable so Mel and I kept on. Gray and I were in our usual sync; I was comforted by the sturdy rhythm of his pace. I felt strong, and happiness welled up. Margot Henderson was quite interested in my help starting in spring. She suggested Mel help. too, out of politeness. Mel is not a kid person and working with anyone who has physical and mental issues requires patience. She just wants to ride– full throttle.

“Any more night adventures?” she asked later over turkey burgers and fries at Kat’s Corner.

“Not any for six nights. It must have been a fluke. Mom is consistent. Work and sleep, play on week-ends if work doesn’t interfere, daydream every minute in between. Spacey but highly efficient, you know?”

“It’s that she’s a creative type, that’s how they are. They still figure it out, sometimes they’re even spectacular. Like your mother. Mine whiles away the time with charity work and reads more books than I think is possible, but how do I know? She says she’s read four books already this new year!”

I chewed on that and my burger. Mel’s mother is a speed reader just like my mom is a speed thinker and worker–they both get their goals met.

“Mel, if my mom gets up one more time at night, I’m going to confront her. Something is on her mind, or she’s entered a sleepwalking phase. It just makes me nervous.”

“Oh leave it, Dani. Sometimes we don’t need to know what our parents are up to. I think we just need to deal with our own stuff, you know?”

I flipped a French fry at her. She caught it, then ate it. That’s Mel for you. But she doesn’t go as deep as I wish she would sometimes. She has three siblings she detests and adores, and very little weighs on her mind.

******

It had been unseasonably warm for two days. Even though I left the window open a couple inches at ten, I was radiating heat shortly after midnight so kicked off my blanket. Or was it a noise that awakened me? I sat up and listened, every fiber of my body coming awake. There was a heavy, muted strike on something. I looked out my windows into the side yard. A faint light fanned out from the house’s far corner. I made out very little. Voices, not alarming yet people talking. I got up, looked up and down the hallway, towards Mom’s room. Her door was open. So was Dad’s. I peeked into both; their wide beds were mussed and empty.

All the way down the stairs I was trembling, whether in anger or fear I wasn’t sure. Afraid of the peculiar density of night and unknown events, anger at my parents for doing things in secret that made no snese to me. My heart pummeling my chest, I slid across the slick tiles, opened and ran through a metal door that led onto our back acerage. Clearly the alarm had been disabled even as I felt it go off in me.

The ground was wet, my socks muddied as I ran around the house to them. They were standing on the deck of the treehouse, looking things over, talking or maybe arguing, as if it was nine in the morning and people could care less. Dad, I realized, held a sledge hammer; Mom, a flashlight and an ax which slipped out of her hands, and she was still in her nightgown, a coat over it.

I stood with my hands on hips and shouted at them as a few raindrops spattered on my face.

“What are you doing up there? What is going on here?”

They were startled by me, looked over the deck railing of the treehouse and gave me a look that seemed to say, We have this under control, go back to bed, stop bothering about things.

They stood in a mute solidarity that intimidated me a moment.

“Mom?”

She swung the flashlight my way then held up a hand in a gesture of self defense. Both hands fell with a soft slap on her thighs. “Aw, Dani, not right now.”

“Dad!” I yelled.

He put down the sledge hammer and came to the deck railing, leaned over. “She’s finally had enough of it, Dani. She’s been thinking about it for a good year and is done with it.”

Mom rubbed her forehead wearily, entered the treehouse, lit a candle.

My mouth fell open. Her beloved treehouse that she designed, that they built to last a lifetime? And if not for me, then maybe a grandchild one day…

“I’m…struck dumb…” I said, a lump gathering in my throat.

Mom poked her head out from a window and said, “Come on up, dear, maybe it’s time to talk.”

******

There was the candle, there always is a candle that burns if anyone is there as the sun goes down. It’s for light and warmth of atmosphere, but it is also lit for Quinn. The long flame wavered in a breeze that carried more rain; it cast a yellowish light upon the walls in slinky shapes across our rounded shadows.

Mom pushed the dark auburn hair from her face and met my eyes with gentleness, her own brown ones a familiar hue of earthiness. “Yes, I saw you a few nights that you discovered me looking and thinking it all over…. I didn’t want to talk about any of it, Dani. I had to make a decision on my own, make my peace. The treehouse came to be in this place near the time our Quinn died. It has held great importance, necessary with its solace. I needed my own comforts. The solitude it afforded me, the refuge it offered. It has given me much for mourning and recovery. But now…I don’t need hideaways, do I…”

Dad linked his arm through hers and they sat closer together on the worn yellow and sage Ikat rug. I sat on alittle desk chair made of knotty branches, Mom’s design, their joint crafting. I glanced about at handmade cups and boxes, other items in their places on the built in desk. The blue glass pencil and pen holder. A small tapestry of birds and grouped botanical prints. They had done much for the interior, but that was long after its orginal build. Then it was sparse, empty of ornament. It had held only my mother’s sadness and dreams. Her prayers, likely, although she likely kept them inside herself. But in its past design and its present, it was radically unlike the clean sharp edges of the impressive house we lived in, which she’d designed and they’d built when I was two.

This was another sort of home. Sometimes I felt it had selaed her within it, taken her from me. But in time I saw it as her healing place. And it became a comfort to see it there, whether or not she was in it. It was part of our larger sanctuary of family though it held secrets. Part of my mother’s heart.

“Why would you be done with it now, though? Why not save it for the future?” I asked, trying to grasp what she really meant and wanted. It seemd too much.

“Now you’re leaving us. More change, another transition.” Her voice petered out as she looked down.

“As well you should, my girl,” Dad added.

“But only for a few years and I’ll come back home, I have a plan–“

“The point is, I really don’t need it any longer. It was selfish of me at the start to claim it as mine for meditation and fun–but then it became necessary. It became a monument to loss, to Quinn…It is past time to create new from old, or let the old be. We all have the urge to learn, take on greater projects. To live bigger, I think. And hopefully better. I want to be full of the present good times and tough ones. I need to stop dipping into the past, see where time takes me next. Open more doors. Close others.” She turned first to Dad then to me, eyes glistening. “I think we all should let go of this. My treehouse is a symbol and not needed now. We keep Quinn in our hearts. The treehouse must come down–and be repurposed elsewhere.”

I nodded as much to myself as her. Dad kissed the top of her head, hugged her. I saw the labor in her decision, how she had pondered it for long by herself. And I was on the verge of melting into a pool of emotion due to words amd feelings bursting open in rich damp air: their loving ways, marvelous peculiarities, their vision. Strength. My parents.

How lucky had we been? Quinn and me, ending up with these people as our guides. I’d always felt guilty that he had to go, my big brother who was always off and running but kept me in partial confidence, some corner of his life, in the beautiful hoop of his love. He’d lived almost as long as I had now, so far, I realized. And I could carry on with my life; he’d not be mad if I released some sadness, but pleased I didn’t hold back growing up.

“Well, are you satisfied now that you know what kept me awake? Are you alright with t his decision I am making?” Mom asked.

“Okay, so you’re dismantling it? But not with a sledge hammer or ax!” They laughed a bit. “Yeah, I will get okay with it.”

Dad said, “We’ll be careful taking it down, of course. Maybe we’ll hold a ceremony for its being put to….rest, huh, Ellie? Maybe we’ll save it in the pole barn until someone else needs it.”

Mom said, “Or maybe start over on another piece of land…?”

I immediately thought of the stables, equine therapy. How might I reuse the treehouse there? And then thought, Another house no longer needed. Will they build a new house for only themselves?

“Just put that idea aside, Elllie.”

“We can donate it to a park, Erik. I do have plans all figured out in my head. I want to create a garden out here, one with archways and secret doors, a place where grandchildren might roam. Though we might manage a tryst in the maze we design. Then there’s the glass house I’ve always longed for, with a few stained glass panels handmade by possibly me, so I will need topnotch instruction and….”

I drifted away. Stared at candle in the center of the treehouse, its brilliant flame casting a dancing golden light about the one room. On us. I had my own plans, yes. We had between us such dreaming and planning and hopes for the future. Quinn would approve.

The room was filled with my parents’ intimate laughter. I stood and impulsively bent down to kiss their cheeks. They pecked me back. I let myself down with the swaying rope ladder. They needed to enjoy the last days and nights in the treehouse. I would miss it. I hoped they waited until I had left for university. But Quinn had long departed. And I was in search of my own country of happiness, to make another sort of home for myself.