There was a house at the bottom of a hill by the shore. It was coated in a clotted-cream-colored siding perpetually speckled with dirt.
A sturdy oak sat in the back yard, centered between the off-white vinyl fence and a deck only big enough to fit a white plastic chair, a small sea-glass-encrusted table, and an ashtray.
In the summers, around 11 in the morning, the sun would hit the glass sending waves of color onto the siding. Blues and creamy whites would crash into deep greens to make a color so similar to the ocean.
After rain, my father’s Newport cigarette butts would swirl around like fish in the murky water of that ashtray. I would take my finger and push them around, sometimes naming them, sometimes not. My father watched me once, pick a snubbed wet butt from the pile and raise it to my lips. His grey blue eyes watched as I lifted it to my lips like he always did. The taste was bitter and harsh and filled my tongue with the taste of ash. Tears filled my eyes and ran in hot streams down my cheeks before my father grabbed my wrist between his thumb and pointer finger, tugging me along as I screamed for my mother.
Under the oak they built a sandbox.
Sitting and drinking Yoo-hoos, my sister and I watched my parents carrying buckets of sand across the three blocks from the shoreline, adamant about not paying for Quikrete play sand with real sand so close. Their faces were puffy red as they trudged back and forth filling the pit my father had haphazardly dug. Her chestnut colored curls were tamed in a ponytail but strands still poked out like a chia pet. His balding head, with its horseshoe ring of speckled grey hair, was damp with sweat. They kissed once when they were done, before my father left to go inside, leaving my mother to watch us play. She gave us a soft-sweet smile as we built sandcastles and dug holes to China, clicking her thumb nail between her two front teeth and looking back at the house.
Now, my mother tells me that isn’t what happened. In her stories her hair was pin straight with the strong scent of Just for Me relaxer still clinging to it. My father sits at the sea glass table overseeing through a cloud of cigarette smoke as my mother poured sand. They both sighed when my sister and I started tossing clumps of sand from the box, peppering the pockets of grass and weeds around us. Snubbing his cigarette, my father turned toward the house, tossing one hand up in frustration, and left my mother to watch us play. I like to believe she remembers it wrong.
Inside it was always warm. The walls were coated in pinewood panels that soaked up the daytime sun. Beige carpeting followed you from room to room, the same beige carpeting that has followed me in every home I have had since.
The entryway was worn, showing the heavy trails of feet that were dragged through the front door. It was stained slightly brown and matched the wood grain on the walls. There was clutter. From that day, and the day before, and a month before that. It was crowded with no hiding places.
On the top floor there was a door that led to a loft. The loft was kept bare except for three bay windows facing east and a bench had been covered in pillows and groaned under the weight of two people.
Often, my mother would wake me, quietly, from my bunk bed to watch the sun rise, nestled in the loft. Wrapped in a soft blanket, she rubbed the sleep from my eyes with a soft swipe of her thumb. We never said anything. But we would watch the sun peak over the horizon till everything coated in an orange glow.
As the sun cleared the shoreline my mother would kiss my forehead, tuck a blonde curl behind my ear and sneak us both back into bed.
My mother tells me now I can’t remember that house or the sunrises. What three year-old could? She reminds me I don’t recall the fighting on the nights that she took me from my bed. The way she trembled from either sadness or anger as she gathered me in her arms. How she would whisper to herself that the new house would be better, that we would be happy there. That things would change.
When I was nearly four we moved three blocks away into a house that was a bastardized mix of Victorian and Colonial style. The yard was bigger and had no oak or sandpit, but we all had our own rooms to escape into. It was painted a sea foam green that resembled no ocean Inearly four we moved three blocks away into a house that was a bastardized mix of Victorian and Colonia would go years without watching the sun rise together.
On the fourth floor there was a tiny window in our bathroom that faced westward enough to see those three bay windows. Inside, the bathroom had a sandy brown tiled wall that mixed with a cloudy sky mural that had already started to chip. I remember stealing a stool from the hallway closet to watch new families when they moved in. I could see the Harrises move in with their dog, and the Olsens a year later with their new baby. No one stayed for long–three families in four years, in fact. I liked to think we left our stain there, that somehow the new family could see our faces in the wood paneling, hear us as the house groaned when the heat kicked on. We were trapped in the walls.
One night, when I was almost six, my mother snuck me out of my room as I rubbed the sleep from my eyes. Her grip on me was tight as she strained to lift me high enough to see over the white windowsill. The skin of my thigh was pinched between her ring and middle fingers as she shifted me so I could see the orange glow was a fire.
Glass cracked, wood splintered and sirens clanged as whips of orange light rose from our old bay windows three blocks over.
The flames were bright and stung my eyes as I stared into them. My mother was tense holding me, her breath shallow but constant.
When it was done, and our old home was left steaming and crumbled, my mother carried me to my room without a word before tucking me back into bed.
Now, my mother tells me I remember it wrong, that together we watched the flames burning from that tiny window, my fingers tangled in her curled hair, tugging on the strands till she winced. She gave me a small-sweet smile, the same I remember getting that day in the sandbox, as I took her strands and wiped them across her cheeks for forgiveness.
I like my memory better. The one where she kissed me, no tears in her eyes, and smiled as she tucked me into bed, before leaving me in the blue black light of morning.
Stephanie Bills is a Baltimore-based writer/photographer/blogger. She is a recent graduate of Baltimore University’s MFA program. She would also like to remind everyone that she can quote Top Gun better than you and all your friends.