The Valley, By Julia Harmsworth
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The Valley, By Julia Harmsworth

We used to live in a yellow house. It was beautiful, with white shutters on the windows and a garden in the back. We would spend every Sunday afternoon in that garden, helping Dad plant the chrysanthemums. My sister Daisy would pick which colours went where, I would dig the holes, and Dad would carefully lower the plants into their places. Mom would watch from the side of the yard with a content smile on her face. We grew there, together. The four of us.

Then Mom and Dad started fighting. At first it was about little things, like who had control of the remote, or where we went out for dinner on Thursday nights. Then the fights got too big for the pot, overgrown, unable to fit, like the roots of a plant aching to escape. They yelled at each other about why Mom had quit her job, and about where Dad was all the time. They yelled about who was taking care of us. And we all started to wilt. That’s when the Valley started to grow.

It started as a small dip in the garden that made it impossible to plant the chrysanthemums. Then it swallowed the fence, and the trees, erasing any sign that the garden was ever there at all. You forget about gardens, sometimes, when valleys start to grow. Then the house started to droop. Its bright-yellow paint turned mustard and its shingles fell to the earth. Cracks grew in the floor, until they split. The house was tearing itself apart, like it couldn’t bear to stay together any longer. Soon it split in two—the yellow house with the white shutters and the garden became two muddied, decrepit versions of itself. And the Valley grew to fill the gap. It became this deep green hollow, with one house holding ground on either side. Each edge was sloped, and the middle was flat. It had rich, soft dirt you could scrunch your toes in, and the sun shone down on fresh grass and white flowers.

Mom picked the house on the left, because that’s where her books were. Dad picked the house on the right, because that’s where his recliner was. Daisy and I didn’t get to pick. We lived in both, and in neither. We made the trek across the Valley once a week. It wasn’t so bad, at first. The walk didn’t take long, and we didn’t mind the exercise. The air was clearer in the Valley. It smelled like spring, and days at the park when Daisy and I were little. We talked all the way there, about our friends, a new movie we’d seen—anything but our parents. When we reached the house on the left, Mom was waiting with a new board game for us to play. When we reached the house on the right, Dad was waiting with a new recipe he’d found. It was remarkable, how happy they were to see us. We’d spend that whole week together, the three of us.

After a while, though, Mom and Dad tired of the happy game. Instead of spending their week with the two of us, they spent it on the phone with each other. Dad yelled about how it wasn’t fair that he saw us less—his weeks always fell on Daisy’s soccer practices. Mom yelled about how that’s not her problem, that was the agreement. And they both yelled about not wanting to see us back on whichever day they had to.

“Isn’t it funny?” Daisy said to me once, when we were sitting in the living room, waiting for Mom to get off the phone so we could eat dinner. “Before they were fighting about who had to take care of us. Now they won’t shut up about who gets to.”

Daisy and I started crossing the Valley more and more often. It started as twice a week, then three times a week, then every afternoon. As soon as we got to either side, we’d get a text from Mom or Dad, asking when we were coming back. And when we said we weren’t sure, they’d pick up the phone.

Each time we crossed the Valley, it grew. After a while, you couldn’t see one house from the other. When we descended down the slope and into the Valley, we walked down, down, down, with no sight of the other side. Each time, my breath felt more ragged, my legs heavier. I hated that walk—it sucked something out of me. Over time, the weather worsened in the Valley. It traded sunny skies and a light breeze for fierce storms, storms like you’ve never seen. The water pooled and mixed with the earth, so we had to free our shoes from the mud with each step. It weighed down our shoulders, our clothes, so we had to cling to each other to stay standing. By the time we dragged ourselves out at the other side, the day was gone, and we had to go back again. And sometimes we forgot why we were even doing it, because we were the prize, but we were the players too. No one won.

We started taking breaks in the middle of the journey. When we reached the abyss at the bottom, we lay there, watching the rain or the snow or the hail pour down on us. We felt it on our faces, on our clothes, pushing us down into the earth. Sometimes, we’d forget about our parents, or what was once the yellow house. We couldn’t see the house on the left, or the house on the right, from the bottom. It was just us—us and the Valley. We spoke to each other, to stay awake. We talked about Daisy’s practices and my classes, about the rain or the snow or the hail and how pretty it was. About how much nicer it was, when it was just us lying in the Valley. But then we’d have to get up again and finish our walk. And the storms just got worse.

We continued on like this for a while, until we just couldn’t do it anymore. When we lay at the bottom, the mud crept over our clothes, tethering us to the ground like overgrown vines. I could barely move, let alone stand up.

I turned my head, inch by inch, to look at Daisy next to me. “I just want to plant chrysanthemums in the garden again.”

She smiled at me and closed her eyes.

And we lay there, soiled, tarnished, like some old forgotten currency, until the Valley swallowed us too.