Friday, July 31, 2009

Daily Story 107: Native Soil

The house is almost empty, cleaned out by neighbors and relatives like vultures. The only things left are a few pieces of damaged furniture - most of it worthless except as a reminder of my childhood. Since there's very few parts of that that I want to remember anymore I'm tempted to leave it all, but I know that I can't do that. There's a particular memory I need to salvage, and I know right where it is.

I walk through the creaking rooms until I reach the tiny bedroom in the back of the house, barely large enough for a bed and the giant armoire that my grandfather made some time in the distant past. The armoire is cracked from water damage and probably would be thrown out by a thrift shop at this point, but it's the place where Meg used to hide. She'd run outside and climb back in through the window, then sit in the armoire for hours until my parents stopped looking for her and passed out on the floor. I would knock once to let her know it was safe, and she'd knock twice to tell me she was okay. I can't stop thinking of that night she didn't knock back.

I should have been here before now. I couldn't come when they were alive, couldn't look them in the face without killing them, but I should have come back the second they were in the ground. I'm worried that she'll be mad at me. Still, there's no point in putting this off any longer so I knock on the armoire. There's just silence, and I can feel tears starting to well up before Meg finally knocks back. The warped wooden doors slowly swing open and she's there, still in her nightgown with the roses around the hem. Still five years old, now and forever. She's got her knees tucked up against her chin and she's not looking at me.
"Hey, Meg. I... I've come to take you back to New York with me."
She looks up then, and her eyes are watering.
"I don't want to! You could live here, in your old room, and we could play like we used to!"

I stalk back into the hallway, thumping the wall in frustration, and when I look up she's already in the living room without having walked past me. I tried this once before, I asked her to come with me when I left twelve years ago. She would have done anything for me when she was alive, but somehow the idea of leaving this house was met with complete resistance.
She's still avoiding me, pacing around and tracing imaginary lines in the dust. "Aunt Greta was here, you know. She took everything out of mom and dad's room. All the jewelry mom said I couldn't touch. I was going to play dress up when they were gone."
"Meg, if you come with me I'll buy you all kinds of jewelry. As much as you want."
"But I want mom's jewelry. You can't get me that, and anyway now that Aunt Greta touched it it'll smell funny. Her whole house smells bad, remember?"
I do. It wasn't just the stale nicotine or the mothballs, it was something about the way they mixed with her awful perfume. I smile in spite of myself and I'm just about to remind Meg of our hilariously awful Uncle Brian when I hear a deep rumble from the lot next door. That wipes the smile off of my face.

I walk outside, and point to the bulldozers that are flattening the last of our old neighbor's house. Meg looks up from the rope swing and shrugs.
"Listen to me, Meg. Those things are tearing down this house next, no matter what I do. You can't stay here. Please, please come with me. I love you."
Meg looks at me and for just a second her eyes look ancient, like she's not just eight or even twenty but a thousand years old. She walks to the end of the driveway and leans on the air, presses against nothing like a mime performing in the park. She's crying now, tears that vanish before they reach the ground.
"I can't leave here. I'm part of the house."

An hour later the house disappears in my rearview, lurking bulldozers and all, and I pull over to the side of the road. I climb out of the pickup with my legs feeling like jelly and my eyes raw from crying, and walk around to the back to look down that road for the last time. Holding my breath and squeezing my eyes shut, I reach into the bed of the truck to knock on the armoire... and two quiet knocks answer back.