He sat there on the edge of the pond, remembering the days before the edict was passed. He and the neighborhood kids used to sail boats on its still waters. Sometimes they would race their boats, and sometimes they would lazily let them float from shore to shore. Jack kept those moments locked away, trying not to think of the times where happiness thrived. By doing so, he missed it less, almost fooling himself into submission. Though, try as he might, he could never forget those days. With a sigh, he picked up his school bag from off the ground and headed towards his university.
After a full day of math and science—the arts forgotten in the aftermath of the edict—Jack began his journey home. Jack meandered down the side streets in no hurry to reach his destination when something caught his eye. There, on a gate he’d passed by at least a couple of times on days like today when he had nowhere to go but still didn’t want to go home, was a rainbow. It was small, barely noticeable if you had no reason to look, but there it was. His curiosity piqued, Jack gently reached out to stroke the drawing. His simple touch was enough to send the old green wooden gate creaking open. Jack looked around before passing through the gate before it shut. The gate led to a garden of dead flowers, long forgotten. Past the garden stood a two-story building. Its dilapidated exterior matched the vibe of the garden: decrepit but charged. It was eerily quiet, yet Jack continued on. He carefully walked across the aged stone pavement, noticing how the stones were cracked and almost overrun by grass and weeds. Although its current state left much to be desired, Jack knew it must have been beautiful once. As he reached what must have been the back porch, he hesitantly reached for the door. He battled with himself about entering. This had been someone’s home once. Would it be disrespectful to enter? And yet, he felt like he was supposed to be here, like he had been drawn to this place for a reason. He was determined to find out what that reason was. As he entered the house, he felt a cold breeze rush past, blowing in leaves from bygone years. The leaves settled in the dust on the floor as Jack gently nudged the door closed. He fumbled around in the darkness, knocking into a table. The sound of shattering glass broke the silent stillness of the house as something fell, crashing on the floor. He reached down to feel for the object. Upon further inspection, Jack found it to be a photograph.
“Maybe it’s of the family who used to live here,” he mused to himself as he turned the photo over in his hands. Smiling faces stared back at him, forever frozen in their moment of bliss. It had been so long since he’d seen a smile, a real, genuine, happy smile. He gently placed the photo back at the table. His eyes, now accustomed to the darkness, scanned the room. It looked as if whoever had lived there had just gotten up and left. There were toys in front of a couch, identifying the room as their living room. Jack reached down, reverently picking up a toy truck from the old shag carpet. He inspected the model truck, using his thumb to wipe off some dust from the wheels.
“Kids today wouldn’t even know what this is,” he muttered. It was then that he came up with an idea. Jack turned around in a circle, surveying what would need to be done. The house would need to be cleaned, of course, as well as everything in it. The garden would need to be taken care of, but he could do that, too. The objects in this house told a story. It was a story of happier times, a story that needed to be heard. To most, it would have seemed like the end of the story, but Jack knew that it was only the beginning.
As the weeks went on, an observer of the forgotten house would have noticed things beginning to change. It happened slowly at first, but still changes took place. The rooms were less dusty, the furniture was cleaned, anything broken had gradually been repaired or replaced. The garden was tended to, quietly of course, which proved to be an ordeal for Jack. Due to gardening being banned, Jack could not just use a lawnmower. Instead, he’d had to cut the grass by hand. It was a painstaking task, but it had been done. He’d also pruned the flowers and bushes, trying to resuscitate the dying place. By the end of the month, his efforts would prove to have been worth it.
If one had chosen to venture into this forgotten corner of the city and happened upon this house, they would see a freshly painted green gate with a small rainbow depicted on it, emblazoned across the gate almost like a crest. It had taken hours of internet searching and the creation of homemade paints to achieve, but the evidence of labor was there for all to see. If one should venture farther still onto the property, they would find a garden featuring flowers slowly budding into bloom. The colors of the garden were akin to that of the rainbow on the gate, creating a cheerful nature in stark contrast to its former state. If one should be willing to forget their reservations about getting caught and enter the house, they would find it to be almost like a museum. Along the walls were pictures of smiling people hung on top of colorful wallpaper. Toys and follies were in every room. One room in particular housed books on every sort of matter that could be found nowhere else, which one could read should one dare. In fact, everything in this museum could be touched, prodded, played with, or read. Doing so was encouraged. These relics of culture were meant to be enjoyed. Smiles were meant to occur in this house, and occur they did. The first live smile ever recorded in this museum was unforgettable. The action, although small, was enough to start a movement, like a pebble being tossed in a pond, or a snowball being rolled down a hill. Amazingly enough, this smile, which would cause an aftershock quite large, came from someone quite small. It’s a moment that Jack will never forget. For although he did not have a camera to capture it on film, he knew that it was a moment to cherish, for it’s the little things in life that make it worthwhile.
This moment came on a day like any other. Jack was working in the garden fixing a broken sundial when he heard it: a small audible gasp. Jack turned to face the direction that the sound came from. There, peeking through the gate, was a small set of eyes.
“You can come in,” Jack said, “I don’t bite.” He turned back to his project. He heard the sound of the gate opening and shutting, followed by the sound of small feet scuttling across the pavement path. Jack turned to look at the visitor to find himself face-to-face with a little girl. She couldn’t have been older than seven or eight. She had bright blue eyes, full of curiosity and wonder. Her hair was the color of gold, which gave her an angelic look when paired with her slightly sun-kissed skin. She had turned away from him, completely entranced by a nearby flower. Her eyes were as big as saucers as she reached out and gently stroked its petals.
“What is it, Mister?” She asked as she further examined the yellow flower.
“It’s called a daffodil. It’s a type of flower. This is a garden,” Jack explained before raising an eyebrow at the little girl. “Would you like to see more, Miss…?”
“Juliet. And there’s more?” She gasped.
“Yes,” Jack chuckled. “There’s more inside.”
He led her up the stairs and opened the door. Juliet ran up the stairs and into the house. Jack took a seat on the couch, watching her carefully explore the house. She would methodically pick things up, turning them this way and that until she would tire of the item. Then, she would carefully place it down from whence it came. She went on this way for quite some time until she reached the corner of the room. There, Jack had set up a dollhouse owned presumably by the former homeowners. Juliet picked up a doll, her eyes growing wide. The doll was fashioned in a frilly dress with sparkles on the bodice before finishing in an A-line skirt. Juliet ran her finger over the fabric before stroking the doll’s hair.
“She’s so pretty,” she murmured.
Jack turned to peek at her from over the back of the couch. “You can play with her if you want,” he told her.
“How do I do that?” she asked.
“Well, you just…” he trailed off. It suddenly dawned on him that she would never have played with anything before in her life. With a sudden fervor, Jack jumped over the back of the couch and joined Juliet at the dollhouse. He picked up the male doll, the Prince to the Princess in Juliet’s hand.
“These are dolls,” Jack explained. “You can make them say or do whatever you’d like.”
“Like this?” Juliet asked as she moved her doll’s arms. She then turned to look at Jack. “I want to make them dance.”
Jack looked at her incredulously, but nevertheless, he moved his doll accordingly. “Where did you learn about dancing?”
“Sometimes my parents just hold each other and sway while my mom hums. They only do it when they think I’m asleep. I heard my mom call it dancing,” she replied as she rocked the dolls back and forth, trying to mimic the actions of her parents on those many nights. Juliet knew better than to tell anyone about their dancing. She knew it was banned, but here, here was a house full of banned things. Therefore, it was okay to tell him about their dancing, right? She hoped it was, at least.
Jack had started to rock his doll too hard, the momentum causing the crown to fly off the doll’s head. It crashed into some dollhouse furniture, knocking it over. Jack’s eyes went wide as he moved to right the furniture. However, his hands were slightly too large for the dollhouse, knocking over even more furniture in the process. Juliet couldn’t help herself; she laughed. It happened slowly for her. She felt her eyebrows raise at Jack’s failed actions. The domino effect of the knocked-over furniture then led her to feeling her cheeks tug apart, as if she were saying the letter “e.” This was followed by a sound she had never heard coming from herself before. To Jack, her laugh was like music, powerful enough to birth a fairy if J.M. Barrie’s words on laughter were true. She paused her laughter abruptly, her brow furrowed, and she looked at Jack in confusion.
“Am I dying, Mister?” she asked.
“No, you’re just laughing,” Jack explained, “laughter is something that happens sometimes when you’re really happy.”
“But I thought happiness was banned,” she replied.
“The ability to be happy resides within every one of us. No one can take that away or ban it. The only thing banned are the things that make being happy a little easier. However, that doesn’t mean that you can’t be happy, or that you can’t find something to be happy about if you really tried,” Jack told her. He then moved to get up, wiping his hands on his pants before standing fully upright. “The sun’s starting to set,” Jack observed. “You should get home before it gets dark.”
Juliet quickly cleaned up the dollhouse before heading to the door. When her hand reached the handle, she turned back to face him. “May I come back?” she asked.
“Any time,” Jack replied, “and feel free to bring friends.”
She nodded in response before exiting the house. Jack watched out the window as she walked through the garden and passed through the gate. With a sigh, he plopped back down on the couch. He could tell that he had become a part of something bigger than just him. He just didn’t know how much bigger that thing was.
As days passed, the number of visitors to the house grew. At first, visitors consisted mostly of children whom Juliet had told about the “house of wonders.” In fact, so many children had heard about the house that a group would already be waiting for Jack in the garden when he got out of class for the day. Attendance like this lasted for a couple weeks until the house hit another milestone: its first adult visitor. It happened on a dreary Saturday afternoon. The rain was coming down steadily outside. The children who had braved the weather to come had holed themselves up in the library with books and blankets. Jack himself was sitting on the couch in the living room, working on a term paper. He was so used to the influx of visitors that he didn’t even look up as the door opened. In fact, he didn’t even turn to take in the visitor until she cleared her throat. When he finally turned to face the newcomer, he found himself staring at a girl his age. Her hair was the color of a ruby reflecting the sun. Her emerald eyes were inquisitive, yet judgmental, as they scanned the room.
“You could be imprisoned for the rest of your life based solely on the contents of this room alone,” she commented.
“I am well aware of the risks,” Jack replied before turning back to his term paper. If she came here to lecture him about his actions, Jack was not in the mood. She crossed the room and peeked into the next room to see the children reading before turning back to Jack.
“Why did you do this?” she asked with narrowed eyes.
“Why not?” he replied as he continued to clack away at his keyboard.
“The risks involved…” She trailed off.
“Are worth it to see their smiles. Now, are you going to report me to the authorities or not?” Jack challenged as he saved his paper and closed his laptop. He placed it on the table in front of him before leaning back onto the couch.
“Yes,” she replied before stammering, “I mean no. I mean… Oh, I don’t know.” She sighed as she sunk down on the couch. “I came to see what my sister was talking about. She could get into big trouble if anyone found her here,” she said as she wagged a finger at Jack. “I have half a mind to report you to keep her out of trouble.”
“Well, Miss…” Jack looked at her with a raised eyebrow.
“Poppy. Poppy Hart.”
“Well, Miss Hart, I can assure you that I mean no harm.”
“The law cares not the meaning behind your actions. Rules are rules, Sir,” she contested.
“Rules were meant to be broken,” Jack said smugly.
Poppy sighed in frustration at his audacity and stood up. “But not by you! Rules were made for a reason. Should we not trust our leaders to know what’s best?”
“Trust is earned. I don’t know about you, but he broke my trust the day he signed into existence the worst edict to have been written,” he argued. As he rose to stand, so too did his voice. “I’m sorry if I can’t stand idly by anymore and pretend this is okay. And if you think you can, then get off your high horse, Miss Hart, because you’re clearly just fooling yourself. You can’t ban emotions! They’re what makes us human. Government shouldn’t be allowed to tell you how to feel. What’s next, telling us how to think? Can you honestly look around this house and say that you didn’t miss any of these things after the edict was passed?”
Poppy had shied away from him when his voice rose, but now she turned back to face him full on. “Of course, I missed it!” She yelled back before wandering over to the dollhouse in the corner. She gently brushed the roof with her fingers, almost longingly. Her voice grew softer, “I used to have one just like this. I used to dream of saving my dollhouse for my own children. Then, the edict was passed. My dreams went up in smoke, literally. My father had the list of everything that was banned. He went through the house, ripping everything out and throwing it into the street. All of our books, my toys, their hobby supplies, and our music just sat there in a heap, broken from the sheer force of being thrown. Then, he dropped a match on the pile. I could only watch as my childhood burned.”
“And you want today’s kids to never experience that life? To never know what it’s like to own a toy or a teddy bear, or read a book that inspires you? To never get a chance to have a normal childhood?” Jack asked, softly, as he walked over to her. He reached down to pick up a doll, holding it out to her. She looked down at it. She went to take it from his hand, but stopped herself, letting her hand fall back to her side.
She shook her head. “I never said that! I just… this is crazy talk. Nothing’s going to change.”
“It won’t change unless we try,” Jack staunchly replied, placing the doll back into the house.
“And how do you propose we do that? Your little museum is not enough to change an entire country,” she said, turning away before adding, “I’m surprised it’s lasted this long under the radar. Someone will find out eventually and shut you down.”
“I don’t have to change a whole country. Just one man. If I can get at least some support, then that won’t be as hard as you may think.”
“How do you figure?”
“A good leader leads by example. He’s been led astray by grief. If I can get him to see that by showing him that happiness could never have been banned in the first place, then I can get through to him.”
“Why not just overthrow him?”
“He’s still human. He made a mistake. He should be given a chance to fix it. The man is hurting. His logic may be flawed, but I’m not giving up on him.”
Poppy was afraid for this boy. She thought he didn’t know what he was getting himself into. Here he was trying to look out for their nation’s future, and yet there was no one to look out for him. She felt like she might regret the next words she said, but she said them anyway. “I want to help.”
“You want to help,” Jack sputtered in disbelief. “You were just arguing against all of this, and now you want to help?”
“You made a very convincing argument—”
“Bull shit, Miss Hart. What’s the real motive?”
“I like seeing my sister happy, but I also want to keep her safe. If I’m involved, then I can do so. Not to mention the fact that you can’t do this alone,” she told him as she held her hand out to him. “Do we have a deal?”
“If I say ‘no,’ then you’ll probably report me. You’re not giving me much of a choice, Miss Hart,” he replied as he took her hand and shook it.
“Poppy. If we’re going to be in this together, then we can at least be on a first-name basis.”
Jack sighed, “Very well.” He knew this was going to be a long process.
The next day, Poppy showed up to the house, bright and early. She was already waiting on the front porch for Jack. After impatiently waiting for ten minutes, she peeked inside the window, catching a view of someone asleep on the sofa. She walked over to the door and hesitantly knocked, watching for movement. Nothing stirred. She rolled her eyes and tried again, still nothing. Poppy took a deep breath and decided to knock incessantly until someone answered the door.
“THE DOOR IS OPEN,” Jack called from his spot on the couch. He loved the kids that visited, but goodness gracious, could they be annoying. He rubbed his eyes, staring at the ceiling as the door opened. His nose scrunched as he heard the sound of heels across the floor. He peeked over the back of the couch to see Poppy closing the door.
“Miss Hart, just . . . Why?”
“You wouldn’t answer the door.”
“So, you decided to bang a hole through it with your fist? I do advise against it, I put in a lot of work fixing this place up. I’d prefer to not replace the door,” he said as he stretched and sat up.
“Did you sleep here?” she asked as she sat in a chair.
“No, I just teleported here from my bed,” Jack replied sarcastically. “Yes, I slept here.”
“Why? Don’t you have a home?” she asked in confusion.
“The kids are more likely to visit on the weekend. It makes more sense to just stay here so they don’t have to wait around on me to show up,” he stated matter-of-factly as he grabbed a duffel bag off the floor and headed into the adjacent bathroom to change clothes and brush his teeth.
“Oh,” Poppy replied. She didn’t realize how dedicated he was to the children. It was very admirable in her eyes. She distracted herself by looking at the various pictures on the wall and flipping through a magazine sitting on the coffee table.
“Not to be rude, but why exactly are you here?” Jack asked, tugging down his shirt as he walked back into the room. Poppy blinked at the abrasiveness of his question.
“How am I supposed to be involved if I’m not here?” she asked.
Jack sighed. He honestly didn’t think she was that serious about being involved when they spoke yesterday. “Have you had breakfast yet?” he asked.
“I had a granola bar on the way over,” she told him.
“I’m a college student, and even I know that doesn’t constitute as a breakfast meal,” he teased. “How do you feel about pancakes?”
“Blueberry pancakes are the best,” she replied.
“See, you’re mistaken. That title is reserved for chocolate chip pancakes and nothing else. However, I’m willing to let that misstep slide and invite you to get pancakes with me down the street.” He offered her his arm out of habit. He remembered his mother teaching him chivalry when he was a child.
“How gracious of you,” she sassily replied. She hesitated taking his arm but eventually decided that it probably meant nothing. She hooked her arm through his. “However, blueberry pancakes are still better.”
Jack rolled his eyes and led her out the door. They would continue this argument another day.
A week later, Jack had given Poppy her own key to the house. He was tired of her waking him up on the weekends and felt bad when she was stuck waiting in the cold for him to return. He accepted that she was here to stay, whether he liked it or not. To be honest, sometimes he found her annoying. She had a tendency to be incessantly chatting about things or cleaning constantly. Other times, she was more bearable. She was probably the closest thing he had to a friend at this point, or at least she tried to be.
“Jack, why do you always sleep on the couch when there are beds upstairs?” Poppy asked one morning. They were sitting in the dining room, having just finished a breakfast Poppy had brought from home for them. Neither were ready to get up and go about their day in the house just yet. The children hadn’t even begun to show up.
“I already set up a museum in this family’s house. I feel like if I slept on their beds then that would cross a line,” he explained.
They sat in silence for a bit. Poppy stirred her hot cocoa with a spoon before asking: “Do you think they’re happy?”
“The family who used to live here. Do you think they’re happy wherever they are?”
“Honestly, Poppy? I hope they escaped and went somewhere that allows them to live a life unhindered by the edict. The alternative is a family getting thrown in jail for trying to be happy. That’s too much to think about,” Jack replied before taking a sip of tea. They fell into a slightly uncomfortable silence until Poppy finally spoke her mind.
“Jack, I know that up until I showed up, the main people attending have been children. I think it’s time we branch out and try to get more adults to come,” Poppy told him.
“Okay, Miss Hart,” Jack replied nonchalantly. Poppy inwardly groaned. He only ever called her “Miss Hart” out of spite when he didn’t agree with what she said.
“Jack, you can’t get off the ground with nothing but children.”
“Children are the future,” he replied sardonically.
“We’re not going to wait twenty years for this movement to get off the ground!” Poppy argued.
“How do you propose we get adults involved, Poppy?” he challenged.
“I’ll start with my parents. They’ll talk to their friends. It’ll happen. We just have to try,” she said emphatically.
“Fine,” he acquiesced.
As the weeks passed, what had started as something akin to an unauthorized school program grew into something more substantial. With the aid of Poppy, adult visitation to the museum picked up. Every adult that toured the premises felt a wave of nostalgia wash over them. They remembered the days when their houses were filled with happiness, transforming the house into a home. As the adults left the museum, they’d sign the petition to change the laws. That had been Poppy’s idea. It had taken another argument to convince Jack that he’d need to show that he had the people’s support in order to be taken seriously. What they hadn’t accounted for was a group of parents that wanted to openly form a resistance to the government’s rule.
“Jack, this is great!” Poppy exclaimed after the group had left, watching them leave through the window. Then, she appraised the look on Jack’s face. “Why are you unhappy? Isn’t this what you wanted?”
Jack sighed and shook his head. “It’s not safe.”
“You run this house! That isn’t safe either,” Poppy replied in exasperation.
“That’s different,” Jack insisted.
“How?” Poppy asked skeptically.
“These people have families that need them, Poppy. They can’t afford to be so reckless.”
“You act as if no one needs you,” Poppy retorted.
“I don’t have a family. I can do this and not worry about it,” he argued.
“Jack, there are people who would be devastated if something happened to you. Without people behind you, you’re just a single target, easily taken out. No one wants to lose you either, Jack.”
“No one, or you?” he asked quietly. Poppy was silent. This wasn’t the time for this conversation and she knew it. Both of them knew it. She turned away from him, watching the sun set outside the window. She couldn’t look at him. She felt too exposed.
“They want to be a part of something. It gives them a sense of purpose. I would know, Jack. Until I met you, I was just in denial, accepting whatever the government told me without opposition. For the first time in years, I feel like I’m living, not just existing,” she told him. “Don’t deny them this.”
“The risks involved are too great, Poppy,” he replied. She watched his reflection in the window as he turned to walk towards the couch. He sat down with his head in his hands, feeling the weight of the world on his shoulders.
“No one ever succeeded in doing anything without taking risks, Jack. Face it, you need their support. And although you may not see it, Jack, they need this. They need to take action and to not feel helpless as their government dictates what’s best for them and their children. You can’t take this away from them, Jack. Please,” Poppy pleaded.
Jack ran a hand through his hair as he stared at the floor. He had embarked on this endeavor alone, nowhere in his plans did he save room for other people to join in. Poppy gingerly sat down next to him. She slowly reached out to touch him, gently rubbing circles on his back. “You can’t do this alone, Jack.”
Jack turned to look at her before sighing, “Why do you always have to be right?”
Poppy smirked, “Because I’m a girl.”
Jack snorted and leaned into her, “Yeah… I’m sure that’s the reason.”
“So, what’s the plan?” Poppy asked.
“We fight. Figuratively speaking. I don’t want to make orphans of these children. We rally, we petition, we march on the capital until we’re standing on the lawn of his palace, and then—”
“Happiness rises again,” Poppy finished.
“It won’t be easy to get through to him,” Jack reminded her.
“Someone told me that ‘nothing worth doing seldom is’. . . or something like that,” she winked.
“Must have been a wise man.”
“He likes to think he is,” she teased, “so when do we start?”