As I pulled into the driveway, all the dreadful old feelings came flooding back, and I struggled to stay afloat. I tried to recall the last time I'd been there. The old white house stood before me like a relative I hadn't seen in just under fifteen years; familiar, but different somehow. Aged, weathered, worn and tired.
The windows sagged with a strange morose quality as if years of chagrin had settled into the very bones of the structure and forced those windows to have a permanent frown. They sat too heavy.
I sat there, paralyzed in a sense, afraid to step out of the car. Neil sensed my apprehension and reached out and wrapped his hand around mine and sat quietly with me. After a spell, his voice calmly suggested, “We talked about this. You need to do this.”
I agreed, first just a nod of my head before I found my voice. “I do. I need to put the past behind me. That’s the only way to truly move forward unencumbered.” My palm became slick with sweat within his. I couldn’t let my nerves get the best of me today. “It’s just difficult. How did I not realize it? How did I forget about her, about them?”
“You know, our brains have a funny way of protecting us from unpleasant things. And you weren’t ready until now.”
“I don’t feel ready at this very moment.”
“But you are.” He gave my hand a squeeze, then let it go.
I turned my head to face him. The look in his eyes gave me courage. Calm, loving, accepting. He was right, I could do this, and I had to. “I’ll call you when I’m ready?”
He nodded. “Take whatever time you need. I’ll come for you.”
“I love you.”
“Love you, too.”
With that, he stepped out of the car and came around to help me out. As my car door opened, a gust of autumn air slipped into the car and tickled me, and I slinked back in my seat. Neil’s hand on mine was firm and convincing, and I let him guide me out of the vehicle. He wrapped his arms around my ever-expanding pregnant form and gave me a hug, whispered in my ear. “The sooner you do this, the sooner you can come home.” He kissed me on the cheek and let me go.
Time had had its way with the house, as it does to everything. Time had changed me too. No longer the naive teenager who nervously walked the halls and lost sleep at night, I now walked up the drive with a sullen calm, the swell of my baby-belly pushing out in front of me as I headed to the house. I felt, not saw, Neil standing several yards behind me still at the car, giving me some distance to perceive what I might.
I stepped from the driveway onto the quarry stone path leading up to the house. Smooth, odd-shaped stones lined a curving semi-circle path up to the front steps. I caught the toe of my shoe on the second stone, looking down to right myself. A memory tiptoed into my brain, and I realized I’d somehow always managed to trip over that very same stone. An old, familiar disembodied voice spoke out clearly.
“What do you see, Amy?”
I sighed. A heaviness filled my chest. I hadn't heard that voice in years. Think, Amy, since... Mom's funeral. I could almost picture my sister, Lainey, as I'd seen her last. Dressed in a long flowing black dress, a black hat tilted just a bit to the side, her brown hair ravaged by too-early graying. I wasn't ready to look up yet, nor ready to go down memory lane, so I stared at that stone step like it was the most interesting thing in the world.
I swallowed down a lump that was forming in my throat and finally picked my head up, taking a big stride forward to the next stone. From one to the next, I concentrated on the light sound of my shoes as they went click, click.
The wind rustled through the sparsely covered leaves on the old maple in the middle of the yard. A mini wind-funnel kicked up out of nowhere, spinning a plot of fallen dried leaves, and tousled them about, turning like a threadbare but multicolored merry-go-round. They swooshed and rustled, then quickly fell back to the cool, hardening earth as if they had never moved at all. The wind kicked up again, this time in the opposite direction, and swirled the leaves, covering the ring of rocks that had circled that tree for as long as I could remember.
My peripheral vision narrowed, and soon all I properly saw was what was in front of me. I concentrated on the house itself. Its wood badly chipped and worn away by time and neglect. The white paint faded and dilapidated.
The sight made me suddenly tired as well. And her voice came at me again.
“What do you expect to see, Amy?”
Her words had changed a little, and so had her voice. No longer the adult at Mom's funeral, now the voice of the teenager I grew up with. Oh, Lainey. My sweet, estranged sister. I pictured her then, just a teenager, still and always my big sister. Her long brown hair flowing around her face, her glasses tilted down so she could look out over them at me like she always did when she was serious. Even though I was not ready for the memories, they were ready for me.
Until that moment, I hadn't realized how much I missed her. Hearing that voice that I grew up with. The sister who was my rock, my confidant, my best friend—until she wasn't.
“But you know why I did it. You must know,” her voice whispered, barely audible over the breeze. The autumn sun splashed its last lazy rays of the afternoon over and through the maple tree that still stood in the center of the yard. I was aware on some level that it wasn't Lainey, rather the combination of my guilt and a memory imprinted into the property.
Darkness and nighttime waited patiently on the edge of day to take over the whole yard itself. A cool trickle of air swept over my skin, a reminder that once the sun set, the temperature would drop drastically, and cold would wrap itself around and through my bones.
“I know why you thought you had to,” I spoke aloud to nothing but a memory. I lowered my voice and continued, “But you were wrong. You gave up on me too easily. You all did.”
Imaginary conversations and memories of a childhood gone wrong would get me nowhere. I hadn't come to reconcile with the pain and memories of a childhood with a sister who was still alive. I came for them. The voiceless. The leftovers. The dead who walked uneasily. Unable to rest. In Between. This was their story I came to complete—not my own.
But maybe that wasn't entirely true. Perhaps to solve their mysteries, to free the ghosts stuck in this house, I had to free the ghosts of my own childhood, those things I couldn't let go of.
I approached the steps leading up to the porch and back door, and an eerie feeling washed over my skin that had nothing to do with the brisk autumn weather. I pulled my peacoat collar up and adjusted the infinity scarf around my neck. At the top step, I paused. I wasn't ready to go inside. I knew there wasn't going to be a moment of “ready,” but I still couldn't move myself any further.
A breeze rustled through the dry, crinkly leaves remaining on the trees. The susurration of the leaves carried along a queer sound. Laughter?
I heard a giggle.
I tried to speak, but the dry air wrested my voice away. I cleared my throat, and without looking behind to Neil, I whispered, “She's still here.” I didn't expect an answer. This was more for me to verbalize and make it real. He did not respond.
Still looking ahead, and not towards the trees where she was playing, I pictured her, and my heart grew both overjoyed and forlorn. She'd been with me the whole time I lived in that house, those hard years of my life. Years that shaped an entire life. A sadness washed over me as I realized I'd never known her name.
I didn't have to turn to witness her golden curls frolicking in the autumn air, her orange scarf trailing behind her, getting tangled under her feet.
Now at the door, I gave a long pause. Procrastinating was what I was doing. Searching for the perfect first word. For the exact thing to say after all this time. When my father opened the door, how would I address him? Would he recognize me? Would he welcome me, or close the door in my face? I racked my brain for the last time we saw each other, the last time we spoke.
Yes, my mother's funeral, of course. Six years ago, when I'd last seen Lainey. Spring, I recalled. The picture became clearer in my mind as I hesitated at my father's door
The sky was swollen with rain-soaked clouds hovering overhead. If not for the time on my watch, I never would have guessed it was day. The sun struggled but couldn't bully its way through the clouds. Now and then, the sun won a small battle and cast petite streaks of orange rays through, highlighting the parade of calla lilies around her burial. They were her favorite. Calla lilies. I remember hearing dad say they were a signal to heaven, that an angel was bound.
Fool that I was, I actually snickered as a ring of mourners all nodded their heads in agreement with his solemn words. What kind of angel treated their daughter the way that she had?
But the flowers were lovely.
And so was she, I guess. Until we moved into that house and my “syndrome” came back with a vengeance. Hugs and smiles were replaced with cold sideways glances and doubts.
Neil had caught me snickering and tugged on my hand. The umbrella shifted, and the rain pelted down the back of my coat, causing a shiver. I met his gaze, and his stern look brought me back to a sober reality. Mom was dead.
And I hadn't cried. I didn't know exactly what a mother should've been, but it wasn't what she was. Surely it hadn't always been that way—but that was the way that things ended. I lifted my head and looked across the hole in the ground. My father was staring, for who knows how long. His eyes cast a look of such disappointment and shame. Must've heard my laugh. I shrugged my shoulders ever so slightly. He'd ought to have been used to the disappointments of his daughter Amy by then.
The rain continued, as did the burial. Dark, wet, and solemn. The rain had changed direction and taken on a sideways slant. After the service, my father approached me slowly, with a trepidation no father should have for his own child. Neither of us spoke. Just stared at the other. Again, Neil tugged at my hand and broke me from my stupor. I chose not to linger. I was getting wet and more uncomfortable by the second.
I met my father with a forced, awkward hug and strained canned platitudes. I introduced Neil, my husband he'd never met, and then we disappeared without a goodbye. That was the first and last time Neil met my father. Quite an introduction. Sorry your wife is dead, estranged father. Here's the husband you never met...