This story is by Mark Shields and was part of our 2022 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Janie wrinkled her nose when her father slowed the car and came to a stop in front of a dilapidated, white Victorian house. The two-story structure seemed to grow up right out of the unkempt lawn and was topped with a jagged, multi-point roof that strained under its own weight. A round turret wrapped in windows rose out of the front left corner to form a partial third story. Janie could see missing shingles on the roof, and the peeling white paint covered less than half of the surface.
“It’s a fixer-upper,” Janie’s mom said looking back at her daughter from the front passenger seat. “Don’t worry. By this time next year it will be gorgeous.”
Janie squeezed her stuffed dolphin and wished to be back in her own room at her old house. Her real house.
Janie’s mother got out of the car and walked around to the other side to open Janie’s door. “Come look in the back yard,” she said, holding out a beckoning hand.
Janie shot her a skeptical look, wrapped her small hand around her mother’s first two fingers, and walked with her past the round tower and around the back left corner of the house. At first Janie only noticed a weedy, overgrown garden that had been neglected for the season, but once she looked past it the back yard opened up into an expansive, green lawn bordered by a creek fifty meters beyond with a thick woods guarding the opposite bank. The houses on either side also had large back yards and Janie could see all the way down to the next block in both directions. Her old house had almost no back yard, and the wooden privacy fence had kept her enclosed and separated from her neighbors.
Then Janie saw it. A wooden swing set with a slide, two swings, monkey bars, and a clubhouse that you needed to climb a ladder to get to.
“Momma!” Janie squealed. “It’s a swing set! Is it mine?”
Janie’s mother smiled. “Of course it’s yours. We wanted it to be a surprise. I told you the new house wouldn’t be all bad.”
“Can I play on it now?” she asked, lifting her head up towards her mother with a hopeful look. Her blond hair hadn’t darkened yet to match her mother’s, and the midday sun made it glisten.
“Yes, go play. I’ll go in the house and help your father unpack boxes. Once I get a few things unpacked in the kitchen I’ll call you in to help make lunch.”
“Okay, Momma,” Janie said. She held her stuffed dolphin in front of her face at eye level. “Come on, Dolphina. Let’s go!”
She ran to the slide first. She climbed the yellow plastic steps of the ladder and hugged Dolphina in front of her as she slid down. When she climbed into the clubhouse she found that it had a little counter with a bench built into one side. There was a firemen’s pole leading to the ground, which she slid down then hopped into a swing. She still had Dolphina clenched in one hand as she gripped the chains, and she started pumping her legs back and forth to get moving like she had learned to do last year at recess. Soon Janie left the pull of the earth and pointed her toes to the clouds.
Maybe Momma was right. Maybe this new house wouldn’t be so bad after all.
After Janie had been swinging for a few minutes she thought she would look at the creek. She knew she shouldn’t get too close to the water alone, but it wouldn’t hurt to take a peek. She dragged her feet across the worn patch of dirt beneath the swing and came to a stop. The breeze had felt warm while she was on the swing but the back of her shirt fluttered from a ripple of cold. Janie heard a voice behind her.
“What’s your name, Dear?”
Janie turned around to find an old woman walking towards her from the corner of the house. Her face had a kind smile and more wrinkles than Janie could count, and her white hair was set so perfectly it had to be a wig. She wore a yellow dress with a swirling pattern of pink flowers and white birds that went down just to the ground. Her brown eyes twinkled as she looked at Janie.
“I’m Janie,” she answered. “We just moved in. Are you my neighbor?”
The old woman shook her head. “No, Dear. I was walking in the neighborhood and saw the movers carrying boxes into your house this morning. I thought I would say hello. I did live in this house once, though, with my husband before he passed. My name is Ruthie.”
Janie held out her hand the way her father had taught her and shook Ruthie’s hand. The woman’s skin was papery and cold. It reminded Janie of her own grandmother, but it gave her a tiny shiver.
“You are the first person I’ve met here,” Janie said. “I didn’t want to move, but both of my parents told me I would like it here. Daddy got a new job so we had to leave Ohio.”
“That happens,” Ruthie said with a comforting nod. “I think you will like it here. This town is a good place to grow up.” She looked Janie up and down. “I suspect you are seven years old. Maybe eight?”
“I’ll be eight in two months,” Janie announced and she stood up a bit taller. “I start second grade next week.”
“That’s wonderful,” Ruthie said and she clapped her hands together. “There are a lot of nice children around your age in this neighborhood, and more than a few girls who like stuffed animals. Not to mention tea parties.”
“My new clubhouse is perfect for tea parties,” Janie told her.
“You should invite some of the girls in your class over for tea,” Ruthie grinned. “You and your mother could bake chocolate chip cookies, too.”
“I’ll ask her,” Janie promised. “You said you used to live here?”
Ruthie looked back at the house and scanned the back yard with a loving expression. Her eyes appeared to get misty.
“I did. Many years ago,” Ruthie nodded. “It was beautiful then. My husband and I gave the house a new coat of paint, and he and his friends from work put on a new roof. It was the prettiest house on the block. I kept the hedges lining the front porch trimmed neat as pins, and planted fresh petunias in flower boxes beneath the windows each Spring. They made me smile every time I came home.”
“Why did you move?” Janie asked.
Ruthie bit her bottom lip. “My husband and I couldn’t have children,” she told Janie. “It seemed like a waste to have this big house all to ourselves. It needed to be filled with a busy family. We moved around the corner and made another happy home. The new owners didn’t take care of the house in the same way we did, though. After a while the paint started to peel and some of the shutters rattled loose from their hinges. Don’t get me started on the inside. That’s one of the reasons I wanted to meet you. I hope you make it beautiful again.”
“My momma said it’s a fixer-upper,” Janie said. “She told me it’s going to be a family project.”
That reassurance seemed to make Ruthie’s smile return. “I’m sure you will make it look as good as new.”
“Would you like to have lunch with us?” Janie asked. She didn’t like the idea of Ruthie being alone.
“Thank you, Janie. But I don’t want to intrude while you’re getting settled. Ask me again after school starts.”
Janie heard a loud rattle and clack behind her and turned to see her mother at the back door. “How is the swing set?”
“I love it, Momma!” Janie said. “Come meet my new friend.”
“Who is it?”
“Her name is Ruthie.”
Her mother put her hands on her hips and gave Janie a playful grin. “Is she invisible like your friend Penelope at our old house?”
Janie’s face scrunched in confusion. “No, Momma. Ruthie’s right here.”
Janie turned towards where Ruthie was standing but there was no one there.
“Ruthie?” Janie asked with a disbelieving look. “Ruthie? Where did you go?”
“Come inside,” Janie’s mother said with a chuckle. “Maybe Ruthie will join us once lunch is on the table. I want you to help me cut carrots and fruit.”
Janie took two slow steps towards her mother but kept her eyes on the swings as she walked to the back door. The air rippled with a sudden chill and she shivered despite the hot August sun. She gave Dolphina a squeeze in response.
She knew Ruthie would be back.