NaNoWriMo, National Novel Writing Month started November 1st. The goal…to write a novel in 30 days. It is now 10:59 pm on Tuesday and I have written almost 9000 words of my novel and zero for the blog. Oops.
My plan was to write a few posts and schedule them so the pressure was off, but I didn’t quite make it. So, at this late hour I’m going to cheat, and give you a short story out of my vast array of short stories. This is the story I submitted to the Toronto Star Short Story Contest. Not a winner I’m sorry to say.
I’ll warn you in advance, it’s long. Won’t leave it to the last minute next time.
Who was it said you could never go home again, she wondered as she took the exit ramp off the highway. It would have been nice if it had been her idea and not something forced on her in response to an ultimatum.
As she’d avoided this trip for the last fourteen years, it was a sure bet she wouldn’t be here if she’d had any other choice. Well, she was back now, and if she couldn’t lay all her childhood ghosts to rest this time, she would be haunted by them forever.
Turning in the direction of town, she drove right on past the street she was looking for with a quick and fearful glance. Not quite ready to face her demons, she followed the signs that directed her to the town’s downtown business section.
The stately old houses she passed were familiar, and the main street looked the same, and yet different. The old style store fronts with their second and third floor apartments lined and defined the downtown core. It was the stores that had changed, there were new signs, new businesses, and tucked here and there were the tried and true shops she remembered; the bakery, the bank, the smoke shop.
She drove on through the four corners and turned back, toward the old house, back to where it all began.
As she turned down the road she’d bypassed before, she was surprised to see the old house looking so abandoned, showing the signs of age and neglect. The house stood, fighting the ravages of time, while the neighbourhood had moved on, changing to meet the needs of the town. The other homes on the street had been razed in the name of progress, and in their place was a strip mall, a gas station and a school.
She turned into the school driveway and parked. Across the street, sitting with an eerie emptiness, was her house, the one she’d grown up in, the one she’d inherited, and the one she’d been afraid to claim.
The ultimatums had come from two directions.
First, the town wanted their money, their due, in the form of annual property taxes, and the bank had informed her that the payment was overdue and there were no more funds to pay.
The other ultimatum had been delivered by her husband of seven years. His reason for an ultimatum, ultimately, led back to this house, she thought. For what happened all those years ago still had a grip on her, filled her with anger, with fear and with grief.
The house had never been pretty, not with the green clapboard on the second floor and the horrible insul brick on the lower level. The windows were boarded up, the plywood weathered grey, and there were black patches evident where the shingle-like insul brick had been lost.
With the yard full of knee high weeds, the out buildings falling down in pieces, the house was an ugly reminder of the ugliness of her childhood.
There had been some good years, she supposed, before the drinking changed everything. Her father had always enjoyed a beer after work, then one beer became more and not just after work. The long liquid lunches had affected his work, and he’d lost his job, and every job that came after.
She got out of the car, pulled her coat tight, though the shiver she felt was not from the cold, and crossed the street. There was no path as there had once been, leading to the front door. The house stood, isolated, in a sea of brush that formed a barrier to keep trespassers from the door.
She had no intention of entering, the door could remain closed on the echoes of her past, yet it didn’t matter, those echoes were with her always, in the memories that haunted her.
She’d spent most of her childhood avoiding her father. She learned how to gauge his mood by the number of empties strewn across the living room floor, but avoidance wasn’t always possible.
At first the abuse was verbal. Angry rantings when her father would use words to hurt his wife and daughter; use words to lash out at what he perceived to be their inadequacies, rather than face his own.
She was twelve the first time he struck her, a vicious backhand across the face that sent her sprawling to the floor. The shock of it, the pain, the shame, were overwhelming…and so the circle of lies began. He was a mean drunk, but he wasn’t a stupid one. He never hit her in the face again; it was too visible and encouraged comment and speculation.
The house rule, what happened at home was family business, and was not to be discussed with any outsider. So she’d lied, and her mother lied, they all lied to keep the violence a secret.
She made her way through the brush to the window, stumbling when her foot caught in a tangle of weeds, catching herself and scraping her hand on the rough exterior. The windows were covered over, hiding an interior that was dark and empty. But it didn’t matter, there was nothing to see, the evidence was long gone.
A sob escaped, suddenly and without warning. How could she have known, she asked herself, that his abuse would take such a violent turn?
She made her way around the side of the house, struggling to walk, the tears running down her cheeks unchecked. The grief she’d held in for years suddenly hit her like it was yesterday, instead of fourteen years ago.
The day she turned eighteen, she’d left this house, to escape the anger, the abuse, the battery. She always wondered why her father hated her, for she could find no other reason for his horrible treatment of her. He’d never struck her mother, though she’d not always avoided his angry attention.
It had been crazy, she knew, to think if she was gone from the house, the abuse would end. What it did, was escalate. Unable to hold down a job, angry all the time, drunk more than he was sober, her father had lost one target for his rage, and found another, her mother.
They couldn’t find her at first; after all, what was the point of running away if those you were running from knew where you were? But find her they did. Not her parents, but the police, when they informed her that her parents were dead, the result of an apparent murder/ suicide.
She had never been able to forgive herself, thinking her mother’s death was her fault. The last time she was in town she’d buried her parents, with no ceremony, no visitation and no funeral. There were no friends, no family to consider, and she’d wanted it over and done, and did it quietly, secretively.
When the lawyer told her she inherited the house and money from an insurance policy, she couldn’t touch it, for it was blood money in her mind. So the money had paid the taxes, and the house had stood, a monument to death and disaster, until now. The money was gone, the taxes overdue, and she had to decide what to do.
“What are you going to do?” her husband had asked her last week. She’d accused him of having an affair, a cliché seven year itch thing, and he’d laughed. Laughed, she remembered, with a sad and resigned look on his face.
He’d denied it of course, said she was the one who’d shown no commitment to their marriage. From the beginning, he said, she’d had one foot out the door, ready to leave at a moment’s notice.
And she supposed he was right. She’d been afraid to trust, had waited for that first strike, and this time, when it happened, she’d be ready to run. She had no intention of living through that hell again.
When her husband found the letter from the lawyer he’d discovered one of her secrets. Why was he so angry, she wondered, that was how families worked wasn’t it, they kept secrets?
When they married, she’d been ashamed of her family and told him her parents died in an accident. She had kept the house a secret, just as the house had kept all of her family’s secrets. Now her husband wanted to know why a lawyer was writing to her, and she’d broken down and told him the truth. It was a novel experience, to shed the burden of secrets and lies.
At the back of the house there was a makeshift mud room, pieced together by her father to shelter the door from the wind and cold. She gave it a push and felt a sense of satisfaction on hearing the groan of wood on wood, and stepped back to watch the structure fall, in slow motion, in on itself with a bang.
She looked quickly to the gas station next door, wondering if anyone was watching, if the noise had drawn any attention. But no one noticed. It was late in the day and the sun to the west had turned the sky to a blend of blue and gold. She’d lose the light soon and wanted to be away, far away from this house before dark.
Groping her way past the remnants of the shed, she stepped carefully. Her foot hit something where the shed joined the house and she saw a hint of colour, of silver and red.
The memory hit her, and kneeling, she pushed and shoved with her bare hands until she had what she was after. It was an old metal cookie tin, with an embossed Christmas design on the lid. It had some rust, but was in fairly good condition. It had been protected from the elements in a hole in the shed wall.
This was her time capsule, filled with keepsakes from her childhood.
She hugged it close and ran. Tripping and stumbling, she reached the curb and ran on, without looking or thinking of the risks, across the street and fumbled her way into her car.
She held on to the tin like it was found treasure. It was filled with items of no value, but they were invaluable to her, collected and stashed away…in secret. The tension eased from her body and she laughed; an easy heartfelt laugh that gave her hope.
She looked beyond the house to where the road ended. A solitary house on a dead end street was made for secrets, she thought. The guard rail was still in place, a warning that there was nowhere else to go, that it was a road to nowhere.
She’d seen that barrier everyday from her bedroom window, and thought it mirrored her life, until she’d finally found the courage to leave.
A car pulled out by the guard rail and came toward her from the end of the road. She slipped out of the car and walked to the end of the parking lot. She’d missed it before, all her attention had been directed to the house. The road continued to the right, past the front of the school and on into a subdivision she hadn’t known existed.
She stood on the sidewalk and had an epiphany of thought. What she thought was a dead end, didn’t have to stay a dead end. Things could change, things could be different.
As she turned back to her car she saw the silhouette of the house, a dark shadow against a sky painted in a glorious blaze of colour, and realized what her answer to all the ultimatums was going to be.
She didn’t want to live her life feeling trapped on a dead end road. She wanted to take a new road and see where it would take her, with no more secrets and no more lies.
If she had stayed all those years ago, would her mother have lived? Maybe…or maybe they would both be dead, victims of her father’s rage. She would never know for sure, and that was something she would learn to live with.
As she made her way back to the car she remembered an old argument with her husband, when he’d said she had ‘issues’ and needed help, professional help. She’d scoffed and retaliated, in her own defence. But he’d been right, she realized now, she needed help. All the feelings and emotions she’d kept bottled up for years were about to overflow, and she’d need help to survive the flood.
Tomorrow, she’d call the lawyer, make arrangements to cover the tax bill and, finally, let it go, put the land up for sale. She didn’t need the house any longer. She’d done her penance and punished herself enough.
And that other ultimatum?
He’d asked what she was going to do, forcing her to make a decision. Go or stay, he’d said, but if she stayed things had to be different. Well, so be it. She dug her phone out of her purse and began to text. She was avoiding a conversation, she knew, but she needed a bit of time, and some distance from the past first.
She quickly sent the message. I’m on my way home. You were right all along. LOL It was good I came back, please be there so we can talk, really talk. Love you.
She looked over, saw the cookie tin on the passenger seat, and smiled. She wouldn’t open it until she was home, and she wouldn’t open it alone. This piece of her childhood was worth keeping, and worth sharing.
And when she opened it, she knew she would be opening more than just a cookie tin, she’d be opening her heart and mind, getting rid of all the shadows and secrets that had kept her closed off and isolated.
Go or stay, she chose stay. Suddenly she had a new direction to go, and she was anxious to see where it would take her.