Until my mid-teens I hadn’t lived in one house for more than I year. Though I’ve now been living in this house the longest, and my family thinks of it as home since we pay mortgage on it, I’ve always felt that my earlier houses were home. The “Yellow House” wasn’t one of those. I lived there before I entered school so my memory of the pale yellow house fuzzy, but almost all of my memories in that house took place upstairs in the converted attic where my siblings and I had our rooms. The house was very large and a lot of the upstairs was still undeveloped, filled with closed off areas and dark closets hidden around corners and under beams. A house perfect for hide and seek, which quickly became our favorite game.
Over the months we began picking up strategies such as taking our stuffed animals and arranging them in human sized shapes and hiding them around the attic to throw the others off our trail till we could reach the furthest corner and call it safe.
The last game we played still haunts me. After several rounds I was labeled as “it” for the next game and I put my face in the “safe” corner and began to count. Despite the lack of insulation and noise dampeners we could never hear what the others were doing or what direction they went in. I knew they had to be setting decoys before settling into their hiding spot but I couldn’t pinpoint where or how many.
When I reached 100 I spun and began my hunt. My brother was the easier of the two as he was only a year older than me and I found him with relative ease, but my older sister was a pro. She was where we picked up our tactics but she was still the best and always made it to base. I always started my hunt for her in her bedroom which was separate from mine and my brother’s and considerably smaller. Her bed was occupied, but I knew it wasn’t her—too lumpy. I looked underneath and in the closet, but she wasn’t there. I dug deep into the back of the closet and under piles of clothes but to no avail. I decided to move on when I thought I saw something move in her bed. I pushed onto the central lump and confirmed stuffed animals. I went for me and my brother’s room. There wasn’t anywhere to hide in mine really; it was the largest and emptiest in the house with no closet and our mattresses just sat on the floor instead of on bed frames. I checked around my side of the room and saw nothing. My brother’s side was just as empty as mine, but I went to check anyway. His box spring was moved out at an angle and his mattress flush against the wall. This wasn’t uncommon, but I still yanked the mattress away—nothing again. I headed out of the large room and began to search the closets and crawl spaces. I prided myself on how quiet I was, which was the only way I ever got close to where someone was hiding. I had narrowed it down to two doors and as I reached for one, I heard a call of “Olly olly oxen free!”
“Damn it!” I shouted. It wasn’t uncommon for me to swear even at a young age and I rarely got in trouble for something as mild as “damn”. I began to crawl back out when I heard shuffling from behind one of the doors. My brother was stuck sitting in the safe corner once I found him and my sister had just called safe. I knew there were rodents in the house and decided not to let one out of the closet. I finished crawling backwards out of the narrow enclosure and turned to stand up. My brother was frozen. He was shaking violently and staring up at our sister. I had never seen his eyes so wide before and when they flicked over to me he seemed to be begging for help while still urging me to run. What was he so scared of? I started to walk over and he whimpered. I stopped again when I realized how wrong the situation was. My sister wasn’t wearing her jeans and t-shirt but instead was covered in a pile of dirty clothes and stuffed animals. I almost laughed if it hadn’t been for my brother’s terrified face. As she turned towards me I saw not my sister, but something terrible.
Her mouth was oddly shaped—the corners dug in and didn’t close all the way and her smile was almost toothless. Those teeth that were left were yellowed and decayed. Her eyes were almost sweet but were watering profusely. She tried to blink but the area around her eyes just twitched. She didn’t have eyelids. She looked too thin and was bruised and yellow everywhere I could see. She called again, “Olly olly oxen free!” She grabbed me and shoved me towards the corner where my brother sat shaking. “You’re still it!”
I couldn’t speak, I grabbed onto my brother as hard as I could and realized I was crying. She waited. I couldn’t blink, I didn’t want to blink, and I certainly didn’t want to turn my back on her. She began to frown. Her eyes still watering, she narrowed them as much as she could. “YOU’RE. STILL. IT!” She yelled with a hoarse voice that was nothing like the sweet call she’d given before. A small glob of blood and flesh flew out of her mouth as she kept yelling over and over “YOU’RE IT! YOU’RE IT! YOU’RE IT!” She began to jump up and down, stomping hard against the wood flooring and blood spraying against us from her torn throat.
I could see my older sister standing there behind her, trying to gain the courage to hit the girl. She picked up one of the loose beams and raised it over her head. As she brought it down with all her strength, the girl spun and grabbed it, shoving her back. “SHE WON’T PLAY RIGHT!” She hardly had a voice now and every time she exhaled, blood would fly out and it was starting to trickle out of the corners of her mouth. She shook my sister violently, throwing the board to the other end of the room screaming over and over that I was still it until I finally found courage to stand.
“A- Alright. I’ll play.” I was barely audible but she heard me fine. She spun around again laughing. I gave my sister a desperate look and began to turn into the corner. “One… t-t-two… thr-three…” I heard a giggle and bony feet scamper off. My siblings slowly went to hide, together this time. I knew they were in one of the closets that were just barely in my peripheral vision and when I turned they held it slightly open. “…one hundred.” I whispered.
I gulped heavily and went about my usual hunt. I gave my siblings a nod and headed for my sister’s room. There was the form on the bed, this time I couldn’t be sure that it wasn’t the girl. I pushed against the lump and when my hand sunk in I thought it was fine. I checked under the blanket anyway. I turned over the clothes on the floor and when I didn’t find her there, I hesitantly opened the closet. I couldn’t see her and I was afraid to dig into there. I did it anyway. I pawed through the clothes and shoes in the floor of the closet and pretended that I hadn’t felt a bony foot under one of the shirts. I moved some of the hanging clothes to the side and as I released them, held onto a scarf. I moved the clothes to the other side and saw her unblinking eyes staring at me.
Shaking, I went to touch her. As I pushed my hand against her shoulder, it sunk into her flesh. I yanked my hand back and stuttered “…found you.” She smiled as wide as she could and swiftly moved past me. I shuddered as she brushed past my shoulder and turned to watch her, pulling down the scarf as I did. When she was almost out the bedroom door, I hooked it over her head and it slid perfectly into the sunken in areas of her mouth. I tied it hard as I could and started screaming for help as she struggled against me. My siblings ran over and tackled her. I grabbed another piece of clothing and kept handing them off until we had her so she could barely move. We dragged her to the smallest closet in the darkest area of the upstairs and shoved her inside, slamming the door and blocking it with several loose boards.
We couldn’t sleep upstairs anymore, so for the last months we lived there, the three of us would lie down in the family room and listen to her thumping and hoarsely shouting against her gag, trying to get out of the closet. When we finally got into the moving truck at the end of the summer, we all tried to pretend we didn’t see her pounding against my sister’s bedroom window, scarf still tied tightly around her head.