After four years

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Young Adult  |  House: Booksie Classic
A woman returns to the place her daughter was murdered. I don't actually like my writing style, but it was fun to write.

Submitted: July 01, 2008

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Submitted: July 01, 2008

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After four years, she had finally mustered enough courage to return. Now that she thought about it, courage didn’t quite cover it. It was more of a sense of duty, tainted with defiance and a fear of forgetting. Vaguely, she remembered swearing to herself that she would leave it all behind her, a thousand memories trailing in her wake. All the same, here she was- but where that was, she could never be sure.

 “Who wants cucumber sandwiches?” She broke the silence with a falsely cheerful air. A comfortable silence, she assured herself. No response. She glared at her husband, who was engrossed in navigating the old five-seater across an unusually high number of potholes. Couldn’t he at least try to make the car trip a little less tense? She was sure it hadn’t always been like this, when there hadn’t been an empty seat in the family car. Her teenager in the back seat groaned and audibly forced her Ipod’s volume up a few notches. "How much longer?" whined her youngest, jiggling up and down on the threadbare fake velvet. Sighing, she checked her watch for the umpteenth time. They should be arriving in an hour. Maybe later, if her husband kept this pace up. "Not long now."

 Two hours later, they arrived. It was a relief to stand on solid ground. "I swear I will never get in a car again." she muttered to no one in particular. A wintry breeze freed a few strands of hair from her conventional blue hair tie. She hunched her shoulders, wishing she had remembered how shivery it could get down here. "Fresh, isn't it?" she said, her voice cantabile. She really had a knack for lightening a situation. "No," her teenage daughter gave her a sidelong glance. "It's just cold."

 Nonplussed, she meandered around to the back of the car to help unpack the bags. There were four in total. One bag each, she had made sure of that. There was no point in over packing- they rarely used half of it and there was never enough space in the boot. She had taken special care to extract a life-sized soft toy Labrador from her son's overflowing suitcase. She hadn't had the heart or the willpower to prevent Jamie from packing his well loved scrap of blanket- she knew the importance of having something to remind you of the past. In her own bag a photograph lay wedged between an orange sweatshirt and her pyjamas, an old memory framed by lacquered wood. It had been taken at the same house she was now lugging her duffel bag towards, but it was not of her. The woman in the photograph was younger and happier, her face unlined by loss. Two girls stood beside her, faces tilted towards the sun, their laughter frozen by the camera. Their features were identical, but she had always been able to tell them apart. Fiona's birthmark at the nape of her neck, the hint of red in Rebecca's hair. A freckle here, a scar there. She had held a smug pride at being the only one able to pick the tiny differences between them, in a time when she took such things for granted. Such an art was useless now, but the small details were still snared in her mind.

 The house had changed. The garden was even worse than she remembered it being. It had always been unkempt (she had never had time for gardening) but now the scribble of horticultural disasters that graced the back yard was knotted with creepers. The house was no better groomed. She distinctly remembered it being white. And the roof had been tea green, once upon a time. At least the door had kept kept its colour, a lone shock of blue in the wrinkles of the old cottage. The whole place had a mournful, forsaken look about it; it was a droopy frown in the midst of the sugared neighbourhood. It had not taken abandonment well.

 A pandemonium and a squabble later, they had settled into the blur of routine. The clatter of plates glanced off the walls, drowned out by the grumble of a vacuum cleaner. "Where's Wilbur? I thought I'd packed him." a child squawked from upstairs. The apple tree whined against the glass of the window, which was flushed with light for the first time in four years. She watched a lone blackbird skitter towards the last of the sun as it stooped below the roofs, striping the town with shadows.

 The morning greeted them with a faintly familiar mingling of birdsong and butter yellow light. She had forgotten how good it felt to stand with frost at her feet and the syrupy warmth of sunlight thawing her skin. There was not a feather of white in the sky- the blue and the silence were broken only by a stippling of myna birds screaking at each other as they danced a frenzied spiral above the roofs. The welcoming perfection of it all made her want to either laugh, or scream at nature's obliviousness to heartbreak. She screamed. It was a pathetic excuse for a scream, cut short when she realised how melodramatic she was being. She clapped a hand over her mouth and counted to ten. Hopefully the apparent lack of commotion in the house meant she had not been heard. What was she coming to? She liked to think of herself as a strong, clear headed woman, who had settled into the formalities of adulthood well. And here she was, kicking up a fuss because the whole world had decided not to keel over and die just because part of her had. Pursing her lips, she strode back inside, venting her pent up emotions on an unfortunate garden gnome.

 Two hours later, her husband trundled down the stairs. He gratefully collapsed into the coffee that she had set down for him, the mist of his breath intermingling with the mocha-tinted steam. She glanced at him over the top of the newspaper as he gulped the lukewarm necessity down. "Sleep well?" He set the empty cup down on the table and leaned back in his chair. "Hardly. Froze my toes half off." He gave her a quizzical look. "What about you? Was that you in the garden at six o'clock in the morning? I thought I heard someone sneeze outside our window." She shrugged, keeping her eyes on the newspaper. 'FISH OIL PREVENTS HEART DISEASE' an article proclaimed. Fascinating. She would have to pick some up next time she whizzed by the chemist's. The kids would be pleased. Realising her husband was waiting for an answer, she replied "I was just seeing how the plants were going." This was half true. She had been visiting Fiona's apple tree, after all. "Hayfever. You know me." Her spouse grumbled something unintelligible and wandered off to deal with the wannabe dinosaur noises emitting from Jamie's room. "I thought we could go down to the lake, seeing as it's such a nice day." she called after him. He froze, his hand strangling the banister. The cobwebbed step paused in mid-squeak.  Ignoring his reaction, she babbled on. "It's about time we did something as a family, and the lake's is always so beautiful in autumn, what with all the trees and all. And Jamie always liked the ducks, didn't he? We used to have picnics down there. So much fun. Besides, we can't keep avoiding it, can we? Can we?" She paused to suck in a breath, and found herself holding it.  Jaime's squeaky roars continued in the background. Her husband seemed to be having trouble phrasing a reply. "I..." he cleared his throat. "That sounds like a good idea." He forced himself up the stairs and made his way to the bathroom with stiff control. She stared blankly after him. Then she wandered upstairs to deal with the dinosaur noises.

It really was a fantastic day for a picnic. A little cold, perhaps, but she had been through worse. She arranged their lunch on an old towel- such a shame she hadn't been able to find the picnic blanket- and listened to the distressed duck noises blending with the raucous giggles of a toddler. She noticed that there were only two figures feeding the ducks a little way off: one the sure, solid silhouette of her husband, and the other a waddling young boy. Where had that teenager gotten to? "Rebbecca?" she called. She scanned the lakeside, suddenly anxious. Not the lake. It was too ironic a possibility- an impossibility. Suddenly, there it was again, the plummeting, overwhelming calm that preceded tragedy. Vaguely, she sensed two blurs of colour framing her vision, two sets of worried brown eyes on her own. "Honey, what's wrong?" the ridiculous looking blur on the left asked her, an anxious edge to his voice. She tried to distinguish the second voice as it joined the other's confused muttering. Where had she heard that voice before? A flash of memory interrupted the abstract tranquillity in her mind: the hubbub of twin voices, two girls on the brink of womanhood. There was the voice again, older, seemingly perplexed. "Fiona?" she murmured. There she was, staring down at her, the sun picking out the red in her tousled hair. "Rebbecca." The sudden realisation knocked her back into reality. Her daughter was still staring at her, a frown furrowing her chin.

They sat in silence around the meagre picnic. She had forgotten to pack forks, so the chicken salad had become finger food. For the first time in four years, she wasn't hungry. The panic attack had sapped her appetite. "Jaime, stop picking out the chicken." She received a grumble as a reply. "Too bad. Lettuce is good for you. You too, Rebbecca. You're a growing girl." Her daughter's answer was equally unenthusiastic. She turned back to her toddler. His head was cocked to the side in concentration. She readied herself for a nonsensical question. "Mummy," he paused to rub his nose. "where did Fiona go?" The question sparked a sudden tightness in her chest. A duck quacked from the lake. Her husband was the first to speak up. "Your sister took a little trip a while ago." he began, excruciatingly slowly. "With her...friend. You remember him. Paul." Jaime's eyes glowed. "He was nice. He played Lego with me." His father was stone faced. "Paul..." he pushed the name out "was not nice." Jaime was unswayed. "Paul was nice. Will he come back?" An arrowhead of ducks puffed across sky, chasing summer. "He will not come back. And neither will she." the older man angrily wiped at his brow. Satisfied with his father's explanation, the toddler went back to wrinkling his nose at his salad. "Far out!" Rebbecca was suddenly on her feet, her face a mask of exasperation. "Fiona is dead. She was murdered on this very lake we're playing happy families at. Stop pretending it didn't happen." The teenager squelched off, scattering a hysterical family of geese. The man, woman and child were left in confounded muteness, as they watched Rebecca's muddied boots leaving hollows in the mud.

The three of them drifted back towards the house, taking a meandering route through the streets of the town. Suddenly, they found themselves at a familiar gate, with a cobbled path leading up to a cardinal red door. Jaime looked back at his parents, who were both standing, ash-faced, at the beginning of the white picket fence. He bounced on the balls of his feet, impatiently waiting for them to catch up. He yowled plaintively. It was getting cold and he wanted Blankey. His father's fists unclenched and he marched stiffly to his son's side. Together, they made their way up the street, footfalls thudding against the silence. The woman was alone, hand hovering over the latch of the gate. She stood there for a minute, watching the empty window. A moment later, she was on the doorstep.

 She didn't need to knock. A woman answered the door immediately, a smile poised on her weathered face. Her smile didn't fade when she saw her visitor, but a sliver of astonishment and recognition guttered in her eyes. She looked older, but that was only to be expected. Four years had left creases on her pale face, intersecting the upturned lines around her mouth and eyes that told of the laughter of the past. She was dressed in a shapeless dress with a memory of blue snared in its fabric. The dress was a poor substitute for the smartly cut outfits of earlier days, but it matched the dark crescents under her eyes and her unbrushed hair. She was eyeing her visitor's appearance with the same interest shared by the other woman. Her hesitant grin was mirrored on her old friend's face as they wordlessly calculated who was worse for wear. She laid a hand on her visitor's shoulder, grimacing as the other woman flinched under her soft touch. They both shared scars that would never heal. Removing her hand from her old friend's shoulder, she ushered her inside.

 She busied herself with preparing coffee for them both, keenly aware of the woman she had left sitting in the dining room with an apology and a myriad of unspoken questions. Setting the steaming cups down on the table with a clatter, she added a shower of sugar to each- just the way they both liked it. They sat listening to the susurration of the trees, lulled into silence by the coffee and each others' company. The silence folded in on itself and they slipped into conversation. They noted the good weather and the rising price of cheese. Then there was the subject of Jaime starting school in a year's time. Didn't children grow up so fast? There was an uneasy pause in conversation at this point. She had been freelancing as a journalist, working from home whenever she could. And, yes, she was enjoying it. She was glad to hear the other woman's business was back on its feet. So they were enjoying Auckland? She didn't realise the other woman was the city type. They agreed that urban lifestyles were overrated. Rebbecca was doing fine at school. They hadn't decided if they would stay. Yes, the trip down had been almost bearable...

 By sunset, they had caught up on the past four years of each others' lives. They had covered the rising cost of living, the education system, the weather, holidays, Jaime's desire for a dog, the new chick-flick from that overly popular author, what the world was coming to- gravitating towards a final point with steady sweeps, like a feather falling to earth. "How is Rebbecca dealing with losing her twin?" The question pierced her like an icicle, lodging in her chest and taking an eternity to melt. "She's doing better than I am." She cringed at the truth in her own words. Trying to keep her heart out of her voice, she fired a question of her own. "Have you visited Paul recently?" She doubted the tactfulness of her question when she saw the distress in the other woman's eyes and the hard line of her jaw. "My son has been moved to the prison in Invercargill. I haven't seen him since last Christmas." She sank lower in her chair, her voice a murmur. "I'm sorry. For what he did to her. I knew he was reclusive, but a killer? I swear, if I knew it would happen I would have... Was it something I did? Maybe if..." She trailed off, eyes shadowed with hopelessness. The rustling of the trees outside was slowing, making way for the soft finale of the night. "I should be going. Jaime can't go without his bedtime story." The other woman walked her friend to the door, bracing herself for the swaddling coldness outside. The visitor paused at the doorstep and turned to her friend. "It's not your fault, you know. We both have to move on." Her voice whispered a lullaby, but it hardly scratched the surface of her friend's remorse. The two women embraced, putting into the one hug what they could not and would not put into words. Then one of them turned, hunched her shoulders against the shadows and strode off down the twilit street.


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