We parked on the street in the grey light of the overcast afternoon. The house loomed over us as we stepped out and quietly closed the car doors.
I glanced at Sam, wondering if he was experiencing the same sense of déjà vu as I was. It was all hauntingly familiar. The brick house with the blue window shutters, open to reveal the white eyelet lace curtains draped lazily to either side. An orange cat peeked out at us from the nearest window.
“Are you sure about this?” I asked. My hand still rested on the handle of the car door, reluctant to let go.
He either didn’t hear me or pretended not to. Sam purposefully walked around from the driver’s side and marched up the steps to the red door. He rang the doorbell once.
I hurried up the steps behind him, not wanting to be hovering awkwardly beside the car when someone answered the door. By the time I joined him on the top step, he had already pounded the doorbell four more times, rather aggressively. In my periphery, I saw the cat disappear from its perch at the window.
Sam made an impatient sound and went to ring the doorbell again. I slapped his hand away. “Hey,” I said, squeezing my way between him and the door. “I have a really bad feeling, I don’t think we should be doing this. Let’s just go home.”
He stared back at me with desperate eyes. “We can’t, we have to at least try to find it.”
“Samuel, it’s been years. It can’t be here anymore. We shouldn’t have—”
The door opened, and I jumped back in surprise, nearly sending Sam toppling down the steps. He managed to catch himself by grabbing the railing. We both looked at the woman who stood in the doorway.
She looked old enough to be our granny, at least seventy. Her thinning white hair was cut short to just below her ears. She wore a grey sweater that reminded me of one our mom used to have. Her nice church sweater. The woman was also wearing those chunky white tennis shoes that old people wear.
Trying to be polite, but clearly bewildered to find two strangers on her doorstep, the woman said, “Uh hello, can I help you?”
“Sorry, wrong address!” I blurted at the same time as Sam said, “We used to live here.”
The woman’s eyes flickered back and forth between us. Her lips parted.
Sam rushed on, “Our mother lived here for many years. I’m Sam, and this is my younger sister Maddie. We’re sorry to bother you, but we were just passing through town on our way to Richmond, and we wanted to see our old house one last time.”
I tried to keep my face neutral. He was telling the truth until the part about us “just passing through.” This had all been his stupid idea. I couldn’t fathom why he wanted to see this place again.
There were no good memories here.
The lady smiled, “Oh! You grew up here?”
No, we didn’t.
“Yes!” Sam responded immediately, flashing a smile.
Our dad had raised us. We lived with him and our stepmother Joanna in Rhode Island until we went off to college. Neither of us had set foot in this house since before the divorce. I had probably been five or six the last time I was here. Sam would’ve been ten, I think. More than twenty years ago.
I wondered then if the woman had noticed that we were both dressed in black.
Apparently oblivious to our attire and my brother’s lies, she invited us into her home.
The interior looked completely different from what I remembered. The walls, an ugly burnt orange years ago, were now pained a modern light grey. The beige carpeted floor with its occasional coffee stain, had been replaced with wood flooring. Of course all the furniture that had belonged to our mother was gone. Still, as we followed the lady—she introduced herself as Mary—into the living room, the grey suede couch was strikingly similar to mom’s. But it didn’t have the cigarette burns on the arm.
I realized I had been expecting to smell the faint lingering odor of cigarette smoke, but instead the house smelled pleasantly of a sugar cookie candle that was burning on the glass coffee table.
Mary went into the kitchen to pour glasses of water for us. “And let me see if I can find something for a snack,” she said as she left the room.
As soon as I felt sure she must be out of earshot, I turned on Sam. “Okay, we’re here now. Are you happy? Was this your plan, intruding on a sweet old lady’s home just to find closure, or whatever it is your looking for?” In twenty-six years of knowing him, I had never felt so furious and disappointed, and—and betrayed.
“I’m not looking for closure,” he said simply. “Just trust me and play along.”
Mary came back into the living room carrying a tray with two full glasses of water and a plate of Goldfish crackers and Cosmic brownies. My mouth started watering despite my impatience to leave. I knew they were chock full of sugar and preservatives, but those brownies were delicious.
“I knew I’d have something in the pantry. I always try to keep snacks for my grandkids.” She placed the tray on the coffee table and took a seat in the arm chair across from us.
“Thank you!” I gratefully reached for a glass of water and took a measured sip. The orange cat I had seen earlier sauntered in and hopped into her lap, not bothering to acknowledge Sam and me. He—I decided he looked like a he—began purring almost immediately. Mary scratched behind his ears, and he closed his eyes contentedly. Wanting to make polite conversation and hopefully get us out of here, I asked, “How many grandkids do you have?”
“Well now, me and my husband Walter, we’ve got three kids. And they’re all married with kids of their own. So there’s seven grandchildren in all. Beth, my oldest, has Elise who’s seventeen now, Tyler—let’s see, he’s fourteen—and Benjamin’s eight…” I began to regret inquiring.
After she finished informing us of the rest of her grandchildren’s names, ages, birthdays, after school activities, and what she was going to give them for Christmas this year, she went on to talk about her husband and what he did for a living. Even though I stopped listening after Benjamin, I couldn’t help thinking that it was sweet the way she was so invested in her grandchildren. It almost made me wonder what our mom would have been like, as a grandmother.
But I already knew I would never willingly bring my children to see her, even if she were still here.
Mary asked us what had brought us to town, and Sam told her we were here for a cousin’s wedding. Another lie.
My head spun at the irony. Weddings and funerals, not quite opposites, sharing more similarities in the way they bring family and friends together. I took a bite of a brownie, hoping the sugar would help relieve the wave dizziness creeping over me.
It tasted like mud mixed with ashes.
“Mary,” Sam said abruptly. “I wonder if it would be asking too much, but I would really like to see my old bedroom.”
“Well, I don’t see why that would be a problem at all! It must be either the study or the guest room.” Mary carefully lifted the cat up from her lap and relocated him to the floor. He gave a quiet “maow” of protest, and then promptly hopped back up into the chair she had just vacated.
There was a sinking feeling in my chest, as I watched Sam get up and follow Mary to the stairs. I remained seated, staring at the candle, still holding my the Cosmic brownie that I couldn’t bring myself to finish. The inside of my mouth felt sticky, and a sour taste lingered on my tongue.
The stairs creaked with each footstep as they climbed to the second floor, and I flinched at the sound. It sounded exactly like my mom, all those years ago, coming up the stairs in the middle of the night with some unfamiliar man, neither of them bothering to tiptoe or be quiet. I shuddered, remembering the night I had gotten sick and thrown up when I was four. How I had almost gone to get mom, but Sam wouldn’t let me. He had told me to go sleep in his room, and he would take care of the mess. You can’t bother mom, he had whispered.
Tears tickled the edges of my eyes. I took another gulp of water, hand trembling. Even though everything had changed, I hated this place. Being here was making me feel sick and on edge, like the air itself was poison. And years of this old lady’s vanilla-scented candles couldn’t cleanse it.
I heard footsteps coming back down the stairs, followed by Sam’s voice, “Thank you so much, Mary. We really appreciate your hospitality.” I stood abruptly, setting my glass down on a coaster made with a photo of a smiling grandchild.
“Sam, we need to get back on the road if we’re going to make it back to Richmond before dark.”
He had this strange look on his face, almost like satisfaction and disappointment. As if he’d been thinking about a problem for a while and finally figured out the solution, but he still wasn’t pleased with the outcome. He nodded at me, and I felt a flood of relief.
We were leaving. I already wanted to purge this place from my memory.
“Maddie’s right, I think we should probably get going to avoid traffic. We still have a few more hours to go before we get home.”
“Well, don’t let me keep you,” Mary said kindly. She shook our hands and insisted on sending us off with ziplock bags of Goldfish crackers and a handful of those strawberry candies that I’ve never seen sold in stores and I was convinced that they just materialized in one’s home after they reach the age of 65.
After we said goodbye and thanked her again, we walked down the steps and back to the car. A cool wind brushed between us. I rubbed my arms, shivering. At the bottom of the steps I noticed something metallic half-buried in the dirt surrounding the hedges (which hadn’t been there when I was a child). Impulsively, I reached down to pick it up realizing what it was a moment before my fingers touched it.
A bracelet charm. A sterling silver heart outlined with tiny rhinestones. It was the last birthday gift I had given our mother. Before we went to live with Dad. I had never seen her wear it.
Seeing it here, now, lying in the dirt caused something inside me to shift and crack. An overwhelming grief that threatened to swallow everything, all of me.
And then nothing.
I pocketed the charm and hurried to catch up with Sam, already waiting in the car. As I closed the passenger door behind me, I looked at him and waited. He stared straight ahead, put the car into drive, and pulled away from the curb. The car made its dinging noise, alerting us that I hadn’t buckled my seatbelt yet.
I pulled the seatbelt across my body, clicked it into the buckle, then asked, “Well? Did you find what you were looking for?” No accusation or anger in my voice.
He reached into his coat pocket and withdrew a tattered, yellow envelope. He handed it over to me wordlessly. It was filled with cash. All hundreds. There were at least twenty, maybe even thirty. I was curious, but I didn’t want to start counting. I looked back at Sam, wondering if he would explain or remain silent for the rest of the drive.
“I don’t think she ever knew that I knew about it, but this was the money she used to buy drugs. The night Dad came to take us home with him, while she was downstairs screaming at him, I snuck into her bedroom and took it. I hid it inside the air vent in my room, hoping she’d never find it, hoping it would stop her from being a drug addict.” He paused, shrugged. “It was stupid, I was ten. But I thought I could help.”
“What should we do with it?” I asked.
He only pressed his lips together and shook his head.
These relics left behind by a woman who never wanted to be our mother. An envelope full of money, and a heart charm never worn.