When gumball wrecking balls tap warnings on our roofs like pink hail, we’re wearing furry orange coats over nightgowns and navy-striped pajamas and yesterday’s underwear and under today’s coffee. Our starter homes were built bare-handed and full-hearted from scrap sky and scrap metal and plywood that wasn’t pliable or even wood; each house was wearing their own coats of leftover dollar store paint.
Shortly after the nightly roof tings, a strange stranger man harassed us in our half-dressed morning state to let us know he wanted our houses, like he wanted a woman that didn’t want him. We rushed out as he inspected our homes, patted dentil molding teeth and crawled in crawl spaces and ran his fingers down gutters. He wore a mustard yellow good man slash good realtor jacket with mustard yellow pants and mustard yellow shoes topped off by a yellow hair plume that was almost the color of the crocuses and daffodils in our front beds, but not quite; it was a cranky, sad-not-sunshine yellow that matched his teeth.He peeked around corners with his yardstick and shovel and wagged his hot dogs fingers at us, threatening on Tuesdays and odd extra Mondays in longer months where five weeks huddled together in the rain.
“Here’s five bucks,” he said. “But I’ll negotiate.”
“We will not,” We said with a unison resolve.
Our houses didn’t like this man either. We knew the signs of repulsion and fear, the way their siding shivered and shutters clanged shut. They cringed at his low ball offers that slowly escalated. We patted them gently.
The predator mustard man skulked in the alleys and sideyards, a yellow stain slithering in the green grass; he was never really gone, just out of sight for a moment or two or hiding under the snow. Every night, he made a slow walk of shadowy shamefulness back into the neighborhood from wherever he slept, perhaps in his late model black sedan that slunk past the school buses even when the stop sign was up.
“How can we keep him away?” We whispered.
“We plan on wearing this.” The houses told us. “Please help us hide. Please make us ugly.”
They rolled out Astroturf purchased at the corner fabric market, scratchy to the touch and scratchy to the prying eyes of passersby and realtors who liked smooth white houses against their smooth white eyes and smooth white cars and smooth white eggs that came from smooth white grocery stores.
“Our friends the trees are crying,” our houses sang in a sad chorus. “They’re almost all dead.”
When they said that, it felt like a desperate moment. We’d been so busy avoiding the yellow man to protect our homes that we missed his friends chopping down all the trees too.
It was time to hide our homes. First, we attempted buttoning on the fake grass like green waistcoats up to their eye windows, but soon we resorted to glue because there wasn’t time. Elmer’s. Rubber cement. Hot glue. Cold glue. Glue we stirred in a pot that smelled of beer brew and witch’s brew.
None of it worked. We were being careful so we wouldn’t hurt our houses. They sensed the hesitancy.
“Just do it.” They said over the growing sound of digging machines and logging machines and machines named Digger that surrounded us at all hours. The sneakiness of the mustard man and his evil friends was over.
“We love you and want you to stay here forever.”
We held up staples and fake grass and got started.
Snap. Staple. Staple. Thwack.
Our houses winced, but begged us to continue until they were covered in fake grass that the fake HOA lady would undoubtedly send us real warning postcards about.
It worked for a minute or a month. Spring almost returned as birds and roosters roosted on our houses that they thought were made of real grass. Worms and frogs nested. Golfers arrived to play vertical rounds, landing shots in chimneys and open sliding doors.
Our houses stopped shaking in fear for the first time in months.
One day, the man in the mustard yellow suit returned and stood in front of each house taking selfies, smiling, enjoying the contrast of his sallowness against Astroturf green.
We had failed. It was time to up our game but he had a plan too.
“I’ll give you a million dollars. Each. But it has to be all of you.” The mustard-suited man said.
Our houses collectively gasped. We collectively gasped. Mrs. Smith was behind on her mortgage. Mr. Jones wanted to move to Arizona to be close to his children. Hazel Adams’ house needed a new porch and new steps. Bruno Pano’s mother had just died.
“What will happen to us? What will become of the trees and the flowers and the families?” Our houses were understandably grouchy and panicky.
“We’ll preserve it all. Nice new families will take care of you.” The man said.
We knew not to believe him because he had mustard bottles in his pockets and a mustard plaster on his chest, but inexplicably smelled of ketchup but we had a million reasons to leave, and so we did. One by one. We took the coward’s way out and left when our houses were sleeping, our furry orange coat pockets stuffed with the mustard man’s money.
We snuck back a week later with spouses and children. The cul-de-sac had been skinned alive. There was no more green – alive or Astroturf. Our houses were gone, gutted into a tiny pile of sticks, door frames and windows that would show up some day on Google Earth or an “Abandoned Houses” TikTok.
The families with white eggs in their pockets were milling about with gold brick and gold wood samples to match their fool’s gold souls, laying out blueprints and yellowprints and lifeprints on the leveled dirt.
“We’re breaking ground,” they said to each other.
We heard our broken houses whispering over daffodil graves and the new neighbors’ voices, but their words were lost as the man in a mustard yellow jacket offered to show us shiny new white houses with white picket fences and white flowers peeking out from beneath the snow.
Amy Barnes is the author of three short fiction collections: AMBROTYPES published by word west, “Mother Figures” published by ELJ, Editions and CHILD CRAFT, forthcoming from Belle Point Press in September, 2023. Her words have appeared in a wide range of publications including The Citron Review, JMWW Journal, Janus Lit, Flash Frog, No Contact Mag, Leon Review, Complete Sentence, Gone Lawn, The Bureau Dispatch, Nurture Lit, X-R-A-Y Lit, McSweeney’s, SmokeLong Quarterly, Southern Living, and many others. She’s been nominated for Best of the Net, the Pushcart Prize, Best Microfiction, long-listed for Wigleaf50 in 2021, 2022 and 2023, and included in Best Small Fictions 2022. She’s a Fractured Lit Associate Editor, Gone Lawn co-editor, Ruby Lit assistant editor and reads for The MacGuffin, Best Small Fictions, and Narratively. You can find her on Twitter at @amygcb.
Other stars in the Crescent asterism:
Wingspread (Letter to Yanyi)
How mysterious and almost divine it feels to be capable of sending through words the understanding of emotions across space and time.
Sometimes I feel like this, like my inside-body is going to pop out of my outside-body, because the inside is too sour to keep in.
The Sound of a Door Opening in the Forest
There was something calming about the totality of the fog, its constant movement appearing as unchanging stillness. It looked like the landscape of a dream.
The Unicorn in Captivity
Now the trumpets of battle blare; the castle is under siege. The young queen thinks: the unicorn is me; treasured, trapped but able to see beyond its flimsy cage.
At the school, kids would sometimes sneak looks inside each other's cavities, carefully cracking the little doors open just a sliver, not wanting the animals to escape before full gestation.