House Rules

Michele Finn Johnson

Samantha and I are both “the babies” when we play house. Samantha has better dolls, so we stage our house in her bedroom. Her closet doors are mirrored, and so when we play house, it’s like there are four of us—Samantha, Samantha’s twin, me, my twin—and when we skip and dance and laugh, we multiply even more.


The summer heat is brutal. Samantha’s house does not have air conditioning, so we play house outside. Samantha’s older sister, Lorraine, watches us from a woven lounge chair. She wears a polka-dotted headscarf and sunglasses and reads Seventeen magazine. Mostly, she ignores us. When Samantha fake-spills tea over me and my ragdoll baby, I scream very realistically, as if my legs are actually burned (they are, but only by the sun). Lorraine looks up, peers at us from over the top of her sunglasses. Of course, you both play the baby, she says. Lorraine is only fourteen, but to me she looks as glamorous as Elizabeth Taylor.


Now when we play house, Samantha is the mother and I am the baby. We did not negotiate this. It just happened. Lorraine doesn’t sit with us much, even though Samantha’s mother tells her she has to. We hear Lorraine yell through the porch door—You are the mother, not me. Not my fault. You chose this for yourself. Doors slam inside the house. Samantha picks up the aluminum pan from her Easy Bake Oven and wallops my buttocks. Bad baby. Bad.


Samantha’s mother had to get a day job on account of Samantha’s father leaving. We play house at my house. I am still the baby every time. The dolls we use as my siblings are split at their seams. My mom allows us to wander the neighborhood as long as we come back when she rings the cowbell. Sometimes, we sneak all the way up the steep hill to Samantha’s house, our mission—to spy and catch Lorraine doing something she shouldn’t be doing so that Samantha can rat her out. One time, we see Lorraine smoking a cigarette on the back patio. Ut oh, I say. She’s in big trouble. But Samantha says no, her mother knows all about it. I think they play house differently, up here, than we do, down there.


I drag my new doll, Velvet, up the hill, excited to show Samantha how Velvet’s hair can be long or short, just by turning a nob on her back. Samantha does not want to play house. House is for babies. I am not a baby, Samantha says. Her voice sounds like a soap opera star, a little like Lorraine’s.


Lorraine is gone. No one will say where she went. Samantha says she doesn’t know. Samantha also says she doesn’t want to play anything, anymore. Samantha stays in that dark house, up the hill, all summer. Sometimes I climb up the hill and try to peek through her windows, but all of the rooms are dark. I go home, pull rag-tag dolls out of my closet and have a tea party. My closet door does not have a mirror, like Samantha’s, and so we are alone.




 About the Writer
Split Lip Magazine

Michele Finn Johnson’s work has been published or is forthcoming in Mid-American Review, Puerto del Sol, Necessary Fiction, Conium Review, The Indianola Review, Bartleby Snopes, and elsewhere. Her creative nonfiction won an AWP Intro Journals Project award. She lives in Tucson, Arizona. More at