The house is still there.
It's different than I remember it. Hadn't it been yellow? Wasn't there a clapboard fence around the back yard? It's been 15 years. I guess I don't remember right.
Molly pulls a vape pen from her purse. She says she quit smoking two years ago, but I don't believe her. Her leather jacket smells faintly like Bert's Tavern on Main, and Molly's never been one to tell the whole truth.
“Wow,” she says in a tone that's somehow sincere and condescending at the same time. “How about that? Still standing.”
“Yep,” I say as I check the rear view mirror. Suddenly being parked on this street in this town at this time feels wrong. I don't want to be here anymore.
I pull out and we continue on in silence. Molly and I haven't been on the same side of the continent-let alone the same car-in years. Molly's been in London working as an executive assistant for some gallery or another. I settled into wife-and-motherhood in the suburbs a long time ago. Neither one of us ever cared for small talk.
I turn left at what used to be the only 7-11 in a 30 mile radius. It’s now a behemoth convenience store with at least 20 gas pump islands. I remember the last time I got a Slurpee at that 7-11; it was the night that Leo broke a window and stormed out of the house, so drunk that he couldn’t remember how to get home. The four of us must have driven up and down those back roads thirty times before finding him on the swings at the park, half asleep and babbling about Nikola Tesla. Thinking about it now makes my chest burn; I’ve been missing Leo a lot lately.
We’re in front of the motel within five minutes. It too-just like everything else- is different. Fifteen years ago I finished my last shift behind that front desk. They had been waiting in the parking lot; Jennie with a hip flask and Leo with a joint he’d probably bought off of one of his townie friends. That night we sat on the hood of Jennie’s old Ford Taurus and philosophized about the future until we were too high to make sense of anything anymore. That was the night I decided that I had outgrown this town, and I told them so. Neither believed me, of course. I never really believed me, either, until I was driving a packed car 200 miles away from here.
Sweet Kate, all long legs and tan, is already waiting for us under the awning. I haven’t seen her since the week before her second tour in Afghanistan.
“I’ll be fine,” she had said then. “It’s maintenance stuff. I won’t ever see combat.”
And while that was true, I know she’s seen something bad. She tries to hide it behind Instagram pictures of foreign sunsets and long, flowery letters about the wonders of the universe, but I always feel the trauma in her silences. I want to ask her about it, but I know better. Kate slides into the car and situates the small silver box on her lap. She stares out the window for just a minute, and I wonder if she remembers the diner across the street and all of the late nights we spent in the booth by the window, drinking chocolate brownie milkshakes and crying over boys.
“You look good, Molly,” Kate says as she pats the headrest in front of her. “Love the hair. It suits you.” She meets my eye in the mirror. “How’s the baby, AnnieBeth?”
I haven’t heard that nickname in ages, and I laugh despite myself. “She’s not so much a baby anymore, KatieBeth. She started peewee soccer this month.”
Kate smiles. “My girl.”
“We stopped at the house,” Molly says.
“Did you go in?”
“Of course not. Someone lives there now.”
“Is the tree still out front?”
“Yes. Still looks dead.”
“Did AnnieBeth ever tell you that she broke your Garfield mug and buried it under that tree?”
Molly looks at me in mock horror. “You evil, evil bitch. I loved that mug.”
The three of us explode into giggles until we can’t breathe, and then there’s nothing else to say. I turn onto old Route 49. The afternoon sun has turned the autumn trees into fire. Leo and I used to make this drive every Saturday in the fall back then. He loved to stop at the farm on Davis Lane and look at the unshorn sheep. Hey, Sheepies! Sheeeeepies! he’d call over and over again, until he’d sufficiently cracked himself up. That’s where he told me he loved me for the first time.
Now there’s a brand new modular home where the old farm house once stood, and the rickety old fence is now white washed and smooth.. I think I see Leo standing there, 22 years old, wearing his perfectly faded Led Zepplin T-shirt and a big, toothy grin. The image punches me right in the gut.
We wind up, up, up towards the fancy houses. Each of us always had a favorite. Molly used to tell us that when she was 40, she’d be rich enough to buy the brown Tudor at the top of the hill-the biggest one- and we could run the fruit stand on Shady Glen Path and all grow old together. Molly always dreamed about having a big life. Now she’s watching the road, her forehead pressed against the passenger side window, and I can see her faint smile as we pass the hill. Molly will be 40 next year. I’m sure she’s thinking about that house.
Kate draws a tiny breath from the back seat. We’re here. I park in the dirt patch along the road. Jennie is there, waiting, just like always. Jennie was always the mother; our leader. Always the first to arrive. Always prepared. Always warm and sure-footed and wise. Kate used to call her the Girl Scout. I know without even asking that Jennie has been here for a while. She’d come early to cry and scream and mourn by herself, because Jennie knows that she needs to be strong for us. For a second I am caught by surprise. I had forgotten just how much she resembles her brother.
I look down at the sun soaked valley below us. It’s going to be dusk soon. I had spent a million nights on this overlook, staring into this valley with these people, and even all these years later the peaks and shadows are comforting and familiar. This was Leo’s spot. This was our spot.
“Thanks for bringing it,” Jennie says as Kate hands her the silver box. “I just couldn’t-”
“I know. No prob,” Kate says.
Jennie opens the box. We each take a handful of the gravely ash. I’m surprised at how gritty it feels. I expect the complicated mess of emotions inside my nerves to burst to the surface, but nothing happens. Right now I am peaceful, more so than I’ve been in years.
“Leo, you were a shithead,” Jennie says as she throws her brother’s ashes into the wind. “You were a stubborn, reckless, wonderful shithead. Here’s to you, kiddo.”
We-mighty Molly, sweet Kate and I- toss our ashes, too, and watch as the wind carries our Leo to the valley. Off to an adventure far greater than our hometown.