I exhale. The cigarette smoke swirls with the fog of my breath and billows in the wind toward what used to be my home.
“Home,” I whisper bitterly as I grind the butt of my last Marlboro under my mud-caked boot. You know what they say: A house doesn’t make a home. Too bad, too, because this is one hell of a house. A real Barbie Dream House. Three stories, not including a finished attic that served as a Mother’s office, a pool complete with a diving board and water slide, and even a pool house. And not just a regular old pool house, either. My parents’ pool house is so big, all three of us could have moved into it and still had plenty of privacy. Sometimes I wonder if my family’s emotional distance is a byproduct of so much physical distance in our disgustingly huge house. The only place I ever felt at home was in this little patch of woods at the back edge of the property. These woods never let me down. They’re sheltering me tonight the way they sheltered me on countless other nights like this one. Nights where the stars shiver in distance and even the barn owls give the mice a reprieve in favor of huddling against the cold.
For all its warmth and luxury, more nights than not, I preferred the wild extremes of the woods to the emotional extremes of my mother. I look up at the dark windows on the second and third floor. Right on time, lights flick on in the master suite and what used to be my room. The lights coming on at the same time means my suspicions are correct. Even though it’s been less than four months since I went missing, they refused to skip out on the annual winter ski trip to Aspen. Tears sting my eyes and my throat closes around a small wool ball. I knew they’d never cancel this yearly pilgrimage, but still, I was stupid enough to let myself cup the tiniest sliver of hope, like a wounded baby bird, in my hands. I let myself hold on to the possibility that maybe, just maybe, a missing daughter would be upsetting enough to postpone a ski trip in the hopes that I would do exactly what I actually am doing right now. Coming home for the holidays.
The wind whistles through the evergreens and I stride confidently to the empty house, pushing back my most secret and treasured fantasies along the way. Stupid, childish daydreams where Mother and Father stop talking as I came in through the back door. The house filled with the sounds of Miles Davis and the smell of homemade lasagna—never mind the fact that neither of my parents could ever cook anything more complicated than a box of Kraft Mac and Cheese. Mother would look up from the loaf of garlic bread she was cutting and gasp as she dropped her knife. Father, pouring a glass of deep red wine, would forget he was pouring and overfill the glass. Not even caring about the wasted wine and the stained floor, he’d set the glass down and run to me. He’d pick me up and swing me around the room like he never did when I was little. In the golden light of the kitchen, my parents would fill my belly with lasagna and my soul with love. Oxford, the black and white cat who’s older than me, would come in and wind around my legs, rubbing the scent of another world off of me and replacing it with his own.
Stupid fucking fantasies. I know better than that. I pull out the loose brick in the wall by the back door and retrieve the spare key. My gloveless hands are stiff and I nearly drop the key a couple of times. Inside, the house is warm. My parents never bothered turning down the thermostat when we went to Colorado.
Coming home to a cold house is just as bad as coming home to a dank cave. And are we barbarians? Mother liked what she liked and hell hath no fury like my mother scorned. Even though I knew it was environmentally responsible to turn down the thermostat, I learned not to argue with her. Something Father learned long, long before me.
The same golden light from my fantasy fills the kitchen and spills out into the hallway, but there is no jazz. No garlicky lasagna. Same as it ever was: Warm yet somehow cold. I key in the alarm code and nod when the disembodied voice informs me the alarm has been disarmed.
“Why the hell am I even here?” I ask the lifeless house. It feels exactly as I remember it. It’s heavy. Suffocating. I choose a coffee pod and stick it in the Keurig. As the mug fills, I find the Bailey’s from Father’s bar and splash just a bit into the coffee. I didn’t drink before I left home. I still don’t, really. But the cold of the night and my disappointment makes me crave something a little warmer than coffee alone. I wrap my hands around my mug and walk the living room.
Here is the couch I was never allowed to sit on, and the coffee table that was never allowed to hold snacks or drinks. I resist the urge to put my coffee on the table and jump up and down on the couch in my muddy boots…
Oh, shit. My boots are muddy! I look behind me and see chunks of mud and drops of water littering the floor. My heart hammers. My mouth goes dry. My lips tingle. I have to clean it up. I have to clean it before she gets home and sees. I have to--
“You have to do shit, Allie.” My voice startles me out of my panic. “You don’t live here anymore, remember?”
I take a deep breath, hold it for five seconds, and then release it slowly before continuing my tour of the living room. The same art on the same walls. The same books on the same shelves. Not one single picture of me in a high chair or learning to walk. Not a single picture of me on the first day of kindergarten or at my first jazz dance recital. Nothing, not one single thing, to show that I ever even existed. It’s not like they erased me from their world; I was never part of it to begin with. Mother believed family portraits were tacky, and that photos of your children scattered about your house was even tackier. Still, just like I had hoped they’d be home instead of on vacation, I also hoped that my absence has made their hearts grow fonder and they’d put up at least some reminders of me.
I look up at the ceiling and briefly wonder if I should sleep in my own room for the night, but the idea of spending even one more night in this house makes my skin prickle. I finish my coffee and set the mug right in the middle of the coffee table. I arm the alarm and slam the back door behind me without even a second glance.
You know what they say: You can’t go home again.