Posted in Writing

The Other House

“The Other House” was first published in 2016 in Under the Bed, Volume 4, #6. Since the digital magazine is no longer available, I’d like to share the story here.

The idea for this tale came from my friend’s three-year-old daughter who used to talk about the “other house” she had. She was quite convincing about this alternate home, and it got my imagination going. I like this story because it’s not meant to scare kids… it’s meant to scare parents. Enjoy!

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The Other House

by Carie Juettner

Dee’s parents laughed when she first mentioned her “other house.” After all, she was only two and had never lived anywhere else. They encouraged her creativity, asking questions, but Dee was pretty vague on the specifics.

“I go there sometimes,” she said, while staring out the window from her car seat.

“What do you do there?”

“Play.”

When Dee turned three, her vocabulary grew, and with it the descriptions of her other house. She talked of a bedroom with blue walls and white carpet. She described a bed with curtains at the top.

Dee’s parents thought their daughter’s imagination was cute. They thought it showed intelligence to be making up stories at such a young age.

“She comes up with the funniest things,” Dee’s mom told a coworker. “Pictures she describes, little bits of songs we’ve never heard before.” She shrugged. “I mean, I guess she could be picking this stuff up at daycare, but it’s so detailed.”

There was something to Dee’s stories that gave them a sense of accuracy—something in the way she held her little hands to demonstrate the size of the blue stool she swore she stood on to brush her teeth, something in the way she enunciated her imaginary friend’s name. GEN-E-VIEVE. There were definitely no Genevieves at daycare. It was not surprising that Dee had imaginary playmates, but that she’d created such a vivid setting for them to exist in. When asked where these friends were, Dee looked people straight in the eye and said, “my other house.”

Dee’s parents smiled at each other and marveled at their remarkable child.

*            *            *

“It’s just a phase,” Ms. Zenia told Dee’s mom. “Many kids have rich imaginations at this age. It’s nothing to worry about.”

“But, it’s just… she’s four now, and she’s been talking about this house and these people since she was two.” Dee’s mom blushed, knowing how insubstantial her argument sounded. She tried a different tack. “Dee’s just so obsessed with this place. The other day, she wanted her purple giraffe. Well, she doesn’t have a purple giraffe, never has. But Dee had a fit. She started saying, ‘It’s in the other house! I left it in my other house!’ It was the biggest tantrum we’ve ever seen. I tried to calm her down with the yellow monkey she loves, but she wasn’t having it. It took everything in my parent arsenal to get through that one. You don’t think, I mean, she doesn’t have… psychological problems? Does she?”

The Pre-K teacher smiled. “No, you don’t need to worry about that. She interacts with others, she makes eye contact, she’s an excellent conversationalist. I honestly don’t see anything to be concerned about here at school. Is she sleeping okay?”

“Oh yes, fine. Dee’s a great sleeper. That’s one way we lucked out as parents. She’s been sleeping through the night since, well, since before she was even a year old. I used to think about waking her up to check on her, but I never did. My friends told me enough horror stories about how hard it is to get kids back to sleep, so I’d just watch her breathe to make sure she was okay.” Dee’s mom wrung her hands. “I guess I’m a worrier.”

“All parents are worriers,” Ms. Zenia said. “Dee’s fine. She’s very creative and maybe just a little bit stubborn too.”

Dee’s mom laughed. “Well, you’re right about that.”

*            *            *

Dee’s dad felt the engine of his work truck shudder. Come on, he thought, get me home and then you can die on me. Right then his cell phone chirped to let him know it was running on empty as well. Damn it. He’d forgotten the charger. He picked up the phone and called his wife.

“Everything okay?” she asked.

“Probably. But this last run took longer than I thought and now the truck’s acting funny. Phone’s dying too. I think I can make it home, but if I’m late, don’t worry. It just means I’m walking to a gas station or waiting for a tow truck.”

“Walking to a gas station? Where are you?”

“About forty miles from home, I think. I’ll be fine.” He knew she would worry, but he didn’t want her to.

“It’s almost eleven o’clock, and it’s supposed to rain. I don’t want you walking on the side of the highway. It’s not safe. You could be—“

“How’s Dee? She asleep yet?”

“Of course. She’s been out like a light since seven. She’s sleeping so soundly. I felt her forehead and it seemed kind of hot, but I don’t know. She was asking for her frog pajamas again earlier.”

“She doesn’t have any frog pajamas.”

“I know, that’s what I told her. But of course she swears she has them at her ‘other house.’ I’m beginning to really hate that place. I think she likes the people there more than us.”

“She’ll be fine.” He could practically hear his wife wringing her hands. His phone beeped again. “I will too, but I’ve got to go.”

“Okay,” she said. “Be careful.”

Dee’s dad turned the phone off and chewed on his thumbnail. It had started to rain. He’d told his wife he had to make this run tonight, but that wasn’t true. He’d volunteered for it. The extra money was nice, but what he really needed was a break from the bedtime routine. He loved his daughter. God how he loved her. But it bothered him the way she interrupted his bedtime stories with tales of her own. They were nothing particularly special, but the glee with which she shared them made them seem magical. Whenever he asked where the stories came from, her answer was always the same. “My other house.”

It was ridiculous, he knew, to be jealous of an imaginary place, to feel left out of his little girl’s bedtime stories. But he did.

The engine shuddered again. He looked out the window at the dark stretch of highway and decided his wife might be right. Maybe walking wasn’t such a good idea. He took the next exit and turned into a quaint little neighborhood. His truck made it half a block before dying completely. The phone quickly followed suit.

He got out of the truck. Thankfully, the rain had stopped. In fact, the sky had lightened considerably. He decided the moon must be extra full behind the bank of clouds. He walked up the sidewalk, looking for a house with lights on. He didn’t want to scare anybody, just needed to use their phone and ask them where he was. The neighborhood didn’t seem to have street signs and the numbers on the curbs were too faded to read.

At the end of the street he came to a one story brick house with the porch light on and warm light spilling out from two of the front windows. There was a small bicycle in the front yard, making him wish he were home with his daughter. Dee had been begging for a bike. He suddenly regretted not getting her one for her fifth birthday.

A woman answered the door when he knocked. She wore jeans, a faded red sweatshirt, and a smile. She was wiping her hands on a dish towel. Dee’s dad stood far back from the door as he explained his situation and said he’d be more than happy to wait on the porch if she would just bring him a phone, but she said, “Nonsense,” and invited him in. “Don’t mind the mess,” she said. “You know how kids are. I’ll go grab the phone.”

He was surprised at her hospitality, considering the late hour and the fact that he didn’t exactly look respectable in his dirty work shirt and stubble. But he thanked her and stepped inside. The house felt warm and comfortable, despite the clutter. A dark hallway stretched off to his right, and he could hear a TV on low in a room somewhere to the left. There was a clock on the wall whose battery must have died. It said 5:25. Toys were strewn about everywhere, and without meaning to, he stepped on one. He reached down and picked it up. It was a purple giraffe. He laughed. He’d have to ask the woman where she got it.

She came back then, saying, “Here, I’ll trade you.” She took the stuffed giraffe from his hand and replaced it with a cell phone. Then, seeing that his eyes had traveled to the table of empty plates and glasses half full of iced tea, she said, “Oh don’t worry. You didn’t interrupt anything. We just finished an early dinner.” Dee’s dad resisted the urge to look at his watch, to reassure himself that it was close to midnight. Instead, he just nodded. “I’ll give you some privacy,” she said. “If you need anything, my name is Ginny.”

He stared at her as she disappeared around the corner toward the TV sounds. She must have turned the volume up because suddenly the words became clear. “That’s it for sports. Thanks for joining us. We’ll update you about those rain chances at ten.” He looked back at the clock on the wall. The battery wasn’t dead after all. The minute hand had moved. He looked down at the cell phone. The screen said 5:30. He glanced behind him at the front door. That was more than just porch light coming through the window.

Dee’s dad shook his head and leaned against the wall, suddenly needing support, and tried to catch his breath. From this angle, he could see an open door about halfway down the dark hallway. It led to a small bathroom, where a bright blue stool was tucked neatly beneath a sink. Across the hall, another door stood ajar. Voices, one deep and one childlike, emanated from the room beyond.

Unconsciously, he dialed a number on the phone. His wife picked up immediately. “Hello? Who’s this?”

“Me,” he said as he inched toward the open door.

“Oh thank goodness. It’s pouring here. Are you alright?”

“Yeah. Truck broke down. Calling from a house.” He tiptoed on the white carpet, past a child’s Crayon drawing framed on the wall.

“Is a tow truck coming? How are you getting home?”

“I don’t know.” He reached the room and slowly poked his head around the doorframe. The walls were painted blue, and there was a small bed with a pink canopy. It was empty. He leaned farther. “Is Dee still asleep?”

“Like the dead. Why? Do you think I should wake her up?”

“No.”

Beside the bed, a man sat in a rocking chair reading a picture book. In his lap, smiling and laughing and wearing frog pajamas, was a little girl. His little girl. Dee.

He pressed his back against the hallway wall, heart pounding. “No. Don’t wake her up.”

From inside the room, he heard the man’s voice say, “Honey, I’ve told you. We don’t have a yellow monkey.”

 

© Carie Juettner, 2016.

Posted in Life, Random

If I Get Eaten By a Chupacabra, Give the Cat His Medicine

Nature gives us gifts every day. Today I’ve already had my share.

It’s summer, which means great bursts of laziness followed by great bursts of creativity, culminating in me keeping vampire hours. I’ve been staying up way too late the past week doing everything and nothing. It’s been great, but I’m determined to get back to a semi-normal schedule. So last night, I promised myself I’d be asleep by 11PM. I went to bed at 10:30. I read my book until 10:59 and turned the light out at 11:00 on the dot.

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The great singer

At 11:15 on the dot, my cat Sneakers began to serenade me.

Ah, nature’s gifts…

It was beautiful really, with low notes and high trills, unexpected breaks and tempo changes. I’m sure some flirty feline out there would have been swept off her paws. Unfortunately, I am not the target audience for this tune, and, sadly, our female cat is deaf, so his song went unanswered, except by me yelling, “Sneakers!!! Kitty kitty kitty! SHUT UP!”

Suffice to say, I was awake until midnight.

As I drifted, finally, into dreamland, I thought, “I hope I can still get up by 7AM. I have things to do…” Then I fell asleep.

Until 4:45AM. When I woke up for no reason whatsoever. Like, REALLY awake. Like, I-have-a-new-idea-for-a-story-and-I-just-remembered-where-I-put-that-thing-I-couldn’t-find-yesterday-and-I-should-clean-out-my-closet-this-summer awake. I tried to ignore it, but there was no ignoring this level of alertness, so I made a few pages of notes for the story (it has potential) and decided to go for a walk.

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The note I left for the hubby

That’s when the real gifts began. While I can appreciate a good cat serenade and a random wake-up call, it was this unexpected morning hour outdoors that I am really grateful for.

I heard doves cooing and saw the shadow of something that might have been a chupacabra but was probably a possum. I saw a roadrunner. I petted dogs and chatted with neighbors about their dogs. I watched the sky lighten so gently that I didn’t see it happen. One moment it was dark; then I turned a corner, and it was light. It felt so delicate, so sudden, that I wondered if I could make the darkness reappear by retracing my steps.

Roadrunners and possums and dogs are common sites in my neighborhood. That doesn’t make them any less delightful, but they don’t cause surprise. What did surprise me was the last gift the morning had to offer. Just before I got home, a pair of bald eagles flew over, low and graceful and… shocking. I didn’t know we had bald eagles in Austin. I’ve certainly never seen any. Before I could doubt myself and wonder if my mind was playing tricks, one of them turned and swooped by again, its large black body, wide wing span, bright white head and white tail. It flew to the top of a big live oak tree and perched for a few moments, sending a squirrel running for cover, before taking off again toward my house. By the time I made the block, both were gone.

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I wouldn’t have seen these beautiful creatures if I hadn’t been nudged awake before sunrise. Their presence definitely felt like a gift.

Now it’s 8:30AM, and I’m yawning in front of my keyboard. I’ve had less than five hours of sleep, but it’s too late to go back to bed. Besides, I’m afraid of what other gifts I might miss.

***

[UPDATE: After doing a little research and talking to some friends, I think the birds I saw might have been caracaras, which look similar to bald eagles and are more common here. However, according to Texas Parks & Wildlife, we do have some bald eagles in Texas. Either way, they were really cool.]

 

Posted in Poetry, Reading

Making the Most of a Mess: 5 Book Title Found Poems

If there is a book lover out there who can pack a single box of books without opening, smelling, reading, or contemplating at least one, I haven’t met them yet. Then again, there are a lot of book lovers out there I haven’t met because we all spend so much time alone reading books. Did you know that secretly I’ve considered creating a meet-up for readers where we all meet at a comfy coffee shop, spend ten minutes introducing ourselves and telling each other what we’re reading, and then just read– silently– for the next hour? I have actually considered this multiple times. But I haven’t done it because of two very specific fears.

Very Specific Fear #1: Some bored extrovert will read the ad, grab a random book, and come to the meeting, but instead of reading, they will insist on talking to us the whole time. *shudder*

Very Specific Fear #2: That person will be me.

But, as usual, I digress.

I, personally, cannot pack a box of books without opening, smelling, reading, and contemplating several, if not all, of them. That can make packing up my classroom at the end of the year a fun but slow process. This year when I boxed up my large classroom library for summer, I made even more of a mess than usual. I had four piles going: books to be packed, books to be taken home to read over the summer (I will never read all of the books I brought home), books to give away, and books to be used in book title found poems before being placed in one of the other piles.

I made these giant, messy mountains of books (and knocked them over more than once) just before STAAR testing. During STAAR testing, I stared at the books longingly, and did a little rearranging in my head. Then, after STAAR testing, while my exhausted students watched an episode of The Twilight Zone that they’d read earlier in the year as a teleplay, I happily stacked, unstacked, and restacked my books until they were in the right poetic order. Then I packed them up for summer.

Then I came home and made more poems out of the books there.

Here they are:

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I have lived a thousand years.
Ask me no questions–
I can’t keep my own secrets.
My thirteenth winter
life, the universe and everything
found things hidden,
knots in my yo-yo string.
When the sea turned to silver,
the girl I used to be
ungifted my own true name–
just my luck.
That was then, this is now.
Come with me
through the woods
where the red fern grows.
I will always write back.

*

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When the outsiders runaway
it looks like this–
all the broken pieces
falling into place.
Listen, slowly:
Trouble don’t last.
Breathe.

*

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Ack! The book THE GIRL FROM THE WELL was supposed to be in this stack after FALLING OVER SIDEWAYS, but it was left out on accident. Oops.

Once Upon a River

Seven little Australians,
children of blood and bone,
linger
five feet apart.
Imaginary girls shout,
voices in the air
negotiating with the dead.
Things fall apart,
the madwoman upstairs
falling over sideways,
the girl from the well
mapping the bones
in the lake of the woods.

*

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The Night Diary

Within these walls
the sky is everywhere.

Love is a mix tape;
I was told there’d be cake.

Deep dark fears
linger
sailing alone around the room.

I touch the future.
I know why the caged bird sings.
I’m nobody! Who are you?

*

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Prom Dates From Hell (a poem in two voices)

Dear Evan Hansen,
I am not a serial killer.

………………………………………………. How did you get this number?

Even cowgirls get the blues.
Time you let me in.

………………………………………………. I feel a little jumpy around you.

Let’s pretend this never happened.

………………………………………………. As you wish.

Good night, sleep tight.
There is no long distance now
from you to me.

*