The stale air of vacancy met my nostrils. A layer of dust settled over the tidy couch. Photographs appeared faded in their frames. I picked up the closest one. Father and I at a baseball game. His body language spoke volumes as he stood a small distance from me, no warm hand around my shoulder. Mother hovered in the background, her fake smile just as beautiful as the real one she rarely revealed.
I had been gone too long.
I ran away from everything, unable to endure the dramatic atmosphere any longer. Mother cried when I left, my father offered a mere nod. Their emotions evaded me. I never could quite grasp their affection or the lack thereof. Why they adopted me, I did not know. My childhood lacked little, save love. My efforts to find my natural family eluded me, so I returned.
I pressed a key on the piano. The soft note sang harshly, out of tune. A pile of letters on the side table caught my attention. My hand trembled as I reached for it, closing my eyes against the words I hoped not to see. There they laid, black against the white paper. My return address hovered at the top left corner. All but one had been opened. My father must have passed before he could read it. If he had, maybe he would have held on a little longer.
I stayed away too long.
If only I’d come home sooner.
I wandered the empty rooms, memories snapping before my eyes as though pages of the photo albums Mom had kept on the coffee table.
Dad’s chair with his remote at hand. Mom’s china displayed in perpetual newness in the over sized hutch.
The dining room table, ragged centerpiece bookended by the salt and pepper shakers I’d sent her one Christmas.
It had come to this. Clearing their lives away, packing their bits and pieces into bland cardboard boxes.
Each bit laid away, each piece folded and stored, chiseled at my strength.
Memories of two people I knew, yet never knew.
Familiar items that meant everything and nothing.
My room, almost as I’d left it. Patches of darker paint on the sun faded walls where I’d peeled away posters, long since discarded.
On the bed an unfamiliar quilt made by mother’s hands. Hands that rarely held me, yet so carefully stitched each square into place.
Red and blue checkered fabric here, that came from the new dress for my first day of kindergarten.
Different shades of denim scattered throughout saved from multiple pairs of jeans. The center square, the shiny iridescent pink of prom. Around the edge, strips of soft fabric stamped with pastel bunnies recognized from old pictures as my baby blanket.
I carried the quilt past the crowd of boxes awaiting the moving van.
Twenty minutes later I stood in front of a door clutching the bundle tightly. I turned the handle with shaking hands.
She sat in front of the widow. Late afternoon sun highlighted the yellowed gray of her uncombed hair.
As I approached her chair, she turned. Pale blue eyes met mine with confusion, then settled on the riot of color in my arms.
She gently touched the fabric, her hands smaller than I remembered. Her eyes focused as they returned to my face. A smile began to bloom as she stroked my cheek with the same tenderness she had afforded the quilt.
I wished I had come back sooner.
I opened my eyes, remnants of the daydream hazing around the edges of my mind. A gust of wind made the rocking chair creak, its chilly finger caressed my cheek as it passed. Tears pooled against my eyelids. I let them fall, unable to withhold the ache of my heart any longer. I buried my face into the quilt, inhaling the scents of the house—cinnamon, moth balls, Downy April Fresh. The wind changed direction, resting heavy arms on my shoulders and threading wispy ribbons around me. I wailed once, my voice filled the small space. It bounced back to me from the window and trembled through me. The wind clutched me tighter giving me pause.
My face rose from the blanket, and my eyes sweep the room. Ice ran through me again, jerking the blanket from my grasp, and it fell to the floor. I gasped as a shadow crossed the wall. It waited for a moment, like a beckoning finger, and disappeared as I stepped forward. I opened the door to another shadow bathed room. Whatever I thought I saw was lost in this darkness. Wind pushes me forward. I stumbled over something in my path. I knelt, and searched the floor until I found it. Soft velvet crinkled under my fingertips.
A tear plopped hollowly on the wooden floor. My childhood teddy, the one Christmas present I ever received, its white fur yellowed with age, its soft brown nose peeling, and its sapphire blue velvet vest cloaked in dust, cradled in my arms. I had thought it lost so many years ago, but here it was, a kept memory.
Yes, I had indeed stayed away too long.
A flashback zapped me from the dusty room. My fingers still caressed the soft velvet; the fake fur pure white, the plastic smell of the department store drifted to my nose. Music played softly in the background. The room spun with powerful scents of pine and cinnamon, a fire flared in an open fireplace. The heat penetrated through my red sweater and sweat moistened my skin. An unrecognized voice mumbled behind me. I turned toward the sound and gasped. The little bear in my grip tumbled to the floor and into the ashes scattered in front of the fire.
“Octavia!” Ice edged the shrewd voice.
I trembled and reached out to gain my balance. The sharp tips of the evergreen bit into the soft flesh of my palm. Instead of supporting me, the whole tree crashed down on top of me, the small ornaments jabbing splintered glass into my skin. My mouth quivered, and one tear after another fell on my cheek. I shrank into myself as the old woman raced towards me, her hand raised high, and her voice a belt across my back.
“You stupid child” echoed from the walls around me as reality crashed in, the dampness on my face the only witness to my nightmare.
“Oh my god.” The words slipped from my lips before I knew they desired release. I clutched the teddy tight in my arms, pressing the musty body into mine, my nose burying itself in its head. I squeezed as hard as I could, but something resisted. I turned the bear over. Small, neat stitches held his back seam together.
Someone had hidden something inside.
My fingers fumbled nervously as I tore at the stitches. My curiosity grew larger every second. Just as I burst, the last stitch broke, and the seam spilled open. My eyes closed as my fear trembled hand reached inside, and touched something cool and metallic. I opened one eye as I pulled the item out. A shiny silver key sat there on my palm. Long and thin with a wide top, it was an antique key that would open an old lock. My mind shifted through the various rooms of the house. I knew I overlooked something. I wandered through the house slowly, until a small silver chest tarnished with age atop my mother’s dresser caught my eye. The lid refused to open until I stuck the key in the lock and turned it. A stubborn click released the top, which flipped open spontaneously. The wind blew cold breath on the back of my neck, pushing me forward just enough to peek in the box. It contained papers, neatly folded and yellowed by time.
I sat on the bed, and chewed my bottom lip. The wind ruffled the papers in the chest before planting a kiss on my cheek. Heat chased the wind out, and I sat there, too stunned to move. The house had been sealed shut, and I had not opened a single window. Where did this wind come from? Icy fingers crawled up my arms, and I rose. A push of frigid air brought me to the chest again. I stared at the papers, not yet ready to cure my wonder. The wind pushed again, insistent. I reached out, then balled my quivering fingers into a fist and shook it.
Dust bunnies scattered as I lifted the paper from the chest. As I opened it and read, memories rushed over me. The old woman returned, my face intimate with the palm of her hand. My cheek stung as though I had been slapped, yet no one was there. I lowered the papers, taking it all in when a news clipping fluttered to the floor.
“Couple saves child from house fire.”
My mother and father stood in the headline photo, a small girl between them.
“Octavia Wylde accused of arson and child endangerment.”
My eyes focused on the papers again, taking in my name and the two names beneath it. My final gift of love from the parents I never thought loved me, my adoption papers. My entire life history contained in one small box.
I had been gone too long.
Afteword: This story is the property of the authors listed above. I made some formatting changes from the original posts for uniformity. Thanks to everyone who participated in the contest – looking forward to future stories! Be sure to tell the authors they’re awesome and keep a look-out for future prompts.
As always, think happy thoughts!
Image Credit: Image found via Google Image Search on whatsyourgrief.com