I turned my car onto the side street that led to my childhood home. Unease settled into the back of my throat, and I didn’t know if I could get a coherent word out. I pulled into the driveway and slammed the door, hoping the noise in the otherwise quiet afternoon would draw someone out of the house. But nobody ran down the sidewalk with outstretched arms ready to welcome back the prodigal child. I wasn’t surprised.
A disturbing thought crossed my mind as I stepped away from the car. What if strangers lived there now? I pulled the packet of letters from my purse and looked at the date on the last one. It had been sent over a year and a half ago. As I unfolded the letter, the accompanying obituary fell to the driveway. My sister’s handwriting spelled out the tragic loss of our beloved mother and pleaded for me to come home—at least for a visit. I eased the letter back into the envelope and picked up the newspaper clipping. What would she say when I told her I had come back for good?
The street remained quiet. I sighed. It didn’t make sense to put it off any longer. When I knocked on the front door, the house sounded hollow. First I checked over my shoulder to make sure no one was watching, then I leaned to peer in the front window. The cozy afghan I had curled up with as a child still lay folded over the back of the same old brown couch, but other subtle differences testified to the passage of time. There were different pictures on the walls, and the furniture wasn’t where I remembered it.
The doorknob didn’t yield to my hand, so I walked around the side of the house and into the backyard. The iron garden frog sat exactly where it belonged, the key to the house still in its mouth.
I let myself in the back door and pocketed the key. The house looked like home, but still I felt like an intruder. As I walked through the rooms, the familiarity comforted me, while the changes threw me off balance. At the back of the house I found the only room with a closed door—my old bedroom. I opened it quietly, almost reverently, as if expecting to see the ghost of my youth on the other side.
The posters of my teenage idols no longer plastered the walls, but the old pink quilt on the canopied twin bed made me feel like I had never left. A picture of me with my arm linked through Spencer’s sat on the night table, a reminder of when we first started dating. I shook the nostalgia from my head. Things might look the same, but my twenty-sixth birthday had just passed, and the years since I had slept in this room stretched behind me in best-forgotten paths. I threw my bag on the floor beside the bed, shut the door, and went back to the kitchen.
A pad of paper sat in its customary place next to the phone. I wrote a quick note to my sister, asking her to call me on my cell phone. After I reread the note, I crumpled it up and started again. The second note just let her know I was in town and didn’t include my phone number, because I didn’t want our first conversation in ten years to happen over the phone. I hoped she still liked surprises as much as she had when we were kids. A bowl of apples on the table made my mouth water, and I helped myself to one. Then I locked the door behind me and went back to my car, where I sat with my hands on the steering wheel, trying to decide what to do with the afternoon. Wherever my sister was, it seemed likely she wouldn’t be home until the end of the workday, and I had no desire to sit in the house by myself with only my memories for company.
As I finished the apple, my rumbling stomach reminded me I hadn’t eaten anything else since breakfast. It wouldn’t hurt to pick up some groceries and get familiar with the town again. I reached to start the car, then stopped. Only a few blocks separated the house from Main Street. I grabbed a jacket from the passenger seat, locked the car doors, and began to walk.
A few familiar faces caught my attention, but no one seemed to recognize me. Nearing the grocery store, I noticed the cafe where I’d first met Spencer. The faded paint was the only obvious change. It reminded me of those first carefree days of falling in love. But some things are better forgotten, and I quickly looked away from the building.
Across the street, a small bookstore caught my eye. A library would be a better choice, considering my jobless status, but I could still enjoy browsing. I pushed open the heavy door to the old building and carefully avoided my reflection in the glass. My appearance wouldn’t turn any heads, and I didn’t need any reminder of the tired circles under my eyes. A brass bell tinkled as I entered a reader’s heaven. The shelves bowed under the weight of the many volumes, and the familiar smell of new books filled the air.
Behind the counter sat an older woman who didn’t seem to notice my entrance. Her nose almost touched the book she held open in her hands, and she gasped as she turned the page. On the front cover, a good-looking man held a damsel who I could only assume was somehow in distress.
The woman sighed. I rolled my eyes and began looking for something to read. The shelf in front of me displayed children’s books of all sizes, shapes, and colors. On the second shelf, a familiar title caught my eye. I felt the impulse to run, but I resisted and dropped to my knees. I took the book from its place and opened the pages. The colorful pictures matched the images I remembered. The words played over and over in my head as I shut my eyes and recalled the many times I had read the story to Annie.
“Is there something wrong?”
The masculine voice startled me from my thoughts. I scrambled to my feet, avoiding the man’s eyes. The wetness of tears cooled my burning cheeks, and I stole a look at him. He studied the book I held as if he couldn’t understand how a child’s story could be so sad. I wasn’t about to explain it to him, but I caught a faint trace of sympathy in his expression before I held out the book to him and ducked my head.
He took the book and placed it in the correct spot on the shelf. “I’d rather my customers didn’t cry.” A brief smile followed his kindly spoken words.
“Sorry,” I whispered, caught up in his green eyes.
Our brief interaction caught the attention of the woman behind the till. She put her book down on the counter. “Can I help you?” She climbed down from her stool and hurried over to us, then gave the man a gentle push and handed me a tissue. He chuckled at her and without a backward glance, turned and walked toward the back of the store.
I smiled and used the tissue to wipe away my tears. “Sorry.”
“Stop apologizing. Nothing to be sorry for. Everyone needs a good cry sometimes.” The woman straightened an already-perfect display. “Are you looking for anything specific?”
“Not really. Do you have any suggestions?”
The woman clapped her hands together. “Boy, do I ever.” She hurried back to the counter, grabbed her face-down book, and pushed it into my hands.
“I don’t believe in romance.”
She didn’t respond right away, but took the book back and hugged it to her like an injured child.
The shelf next to me held a display of books about the local area. I grabbed one titled Flora and Fauna of Southern Alberta. “I’ll just take this one.”
The woman ran a hand through her silver hair and shook her head. Something in her blue eyes made me uncomfortable. I looked at the floor to avoid her gaze and gasped in surprise as she took the book from me and placed it back on the shelf.
“You don’t really want that.”
Her statement caught me off guard and I stepped back. “I’m sorry to take up your time,” I said. A quick escape seemed like the best option, but she had other plans.
“Are you new in town?”
The question came in such friendly tones that I found myself answering her, thoughts of leaving pushed momentarily aside.
“I lived here as a teenager, but I left a long time ago. I’m thinking of moving back.”
The woman grabbed my hand and shook it until my elbow hurt. “Oh, welcome home, dear. I don’t remember you, of course. I must have come to town after you moved, but welcome home anyway. I’m Sandra.”
Her friendliness made me a bit uneasy, so I slipped my hand from her grasp and put it in my pocket. “I need to get going.”
Sandra’s thin shoulders sagged. “It was nice meeting you.”
I turned to go. Before opening the door, I looked back at her. “You wouldn’t know of anyone in town who is hiring, would you?”
The blue eyes began to sparkle again. “Come here early tomorrow morning. My son’s been looking for a new employee, and you might be just the thing.”
I smiled at her and nodded. “Tomorrow, then.”
When I left the store, my heart felt lighter. Sandra might be fun to work with once I got used to her, and if I could resist buying too many books, it might be a good job. I made a quick stop at the grocery store to buy the ingredients I needed to make a nice meal for my sister. Soon, with a heavy brown bag balanced on each hip, I headed home.
As I rounded the corner, I saw a young woman sitting on the front step of my childhood home. My little sister! She stood and watched me come toward her. Natalie looked like the girl I once knew, but she also reminded me of our mother, the way she tilted her head to one side as she studied me and chewed on her bottom lip. The girlish long hair I remembered had been cut into a trendy style, and the tresses bounced as she walked toward me, the blond highlights catching the late-afternoon sun.
We stood and stared at each other. She looked me up and down, then furrowed her brow. I knew she had noticed how skinny I had become, and how my waist-length hair hung dull and lifeless down my back. Again, I wished I could make the dark circles under my eyes fade, but they seemed to be a permanent feature these days.
The words I planned on greeting Natalie with suddenly didn’t seem right. What do you say to a sister you haven’t seen in almost a decade? Tears streamed down my face. I reached up to wipe them away, but my hand faltered as I noticed her cheeks glistening too.
“Oh, Elaina.” She threw her arms around me. “You’re home.”
It was the welcome I needed. Moments later we sat at the kitchen table. “I can’t believe you showed up after so long without any warning.” Natalie kept repeating the phrase, but the words held no sting, since her expression made it clear she was happy to have me home.
I smiled, then steered her to safer topics. “What do you do now?” As a girl, Natalie had always wanted to be the center of attention, and I hoped this was still true. My turn would come, but I wanted to put off any discussion about my life for as long as possible.
She kept true to my memories of her and told me about the grade-four class she taught at the local elementary school. Her movements were animated as she spoke about her career. She seemed content and happy.
When the topic of school grew old, I changed the subject. “What else is going on in your life?”
Natalie laughed and shook her head. “Well, I’m not dating anyone, if that’s what you’re asking. But I’m always looking for Mr. Right.”
It wasn’t what I was asking, but I welcomed the information. I didn’t want to share her for a while.
“By the way, how’s Spencer?”
Her question hit me like a slap in the face, and my breath caught in my throat. I wanted to tell her everything, but the thoughts wouldn’t form into coherent sentences. “He’s dead,” I finally whispered. I stood quickly, causing my chair to fall backward to the floor. The statement hung between us as Natalie struggled to find the right response. When the sympathy on her face became too much to bear, I turned and ran down the hallway to my old bedroom, leaving Natalie sitting speechless at the table.