Insects hummed in the heat of the mid-day sun. Tall stalks of weeds barricaded the back door to the red-bricked house. Swatting at crickets and trampling the plants with her boots, Nat managed to traverse through the jungle of what used to be her old backyard, a place she hadn’t been to in 6 years.
Nat yanked on the screen door of the house, only to have it budge slightly. It had been jammed into the rail many years ago from a surprise when the neighbors dog got loose. They never ended up replacing it though.
Now years later, rust made it almost impossible to slide open. She jiggled and shoved the door until it finally gave way, nearly breaking it in the process. Her hands hurt, but she only shook them and pulled out a little silver key.
The back door clicked open for her as it had done so long ago, during a time when she felt she had a place to belong to, a time of happiness that she longed for and replayed like an old recording on the worst days.
Everything looked the same as it had 6 years ago, as if someone had taken a photo and framed it this way.
A layer of dust covered every inch of open surface, but other than that, this was her home. It kicked up into the air in clouds as Nat passed through, taking in the old familiarity of the rooms.
Memories of her and her family, her father and mother, her twin sisters who hadn’t even started kindergarten when they left, all sitting at a round oak table for breakfast each morning. Her parents would sip on cups of coffee and talk about their plans, and Nat and her sisters would devour bowls of sugary cereal as fast as they could, laughing when they got milk all over their faces.
On hot summer days they would all sit, eating slices of cool watermelon and drinking glasses of fresh lemonade through bendy straws, the sourness biting their cheeks.
Nat’s mom would make hot soup when it got cold out, and they would all sit inside bundled in warm sweaters and blankets, watching the snow outside, and waiting to go play in it the next day.
Wandering down the hall, Nat avoided looking at all the pictures still hanging on the wall and framed neatly on the table.
She climbed the stairs two at a time as she had always done. Everything upstairs felt darker, more solemn. Each door was closed off to the world, as if they had something to hide inside, something that they couldn't let loose.
Down at the end of the upstairs hallway was Nat’s old room. A little chalkboard still hung from the door with the words “KEEP OUT” written in big bold letters with a piece of blue chalk.
It had been her mom’s idea to hang it up all those years ago.
Hesitantly she reached out for the door handle, turning it slowly.
Nat looked around at the foreign room. She hadn’t been able to take much with when they left. Posters still stuck to the sky blue walls. Stuffed animals sat in a line on the edge of the twin bed in the corner of the room, sitting upright and watching in a way that made them look alive. Light streamed in through shafts of the blinds that hung over the window. Even a pile of old clothes sat in the corner, collecting dust.
She sat on the bed, the frame creaking from her weight. Her hand ran over the lace on the comforter. It was a Christmas present one year, that Nat and her mother had picked out together, her mother making her promise to act surprised when she opened it Christmas morning. Nat had laughed and nodded, willing to play along.
The bed had once felt so big to her. On the day they first got it, all she wanted to do was stay on the bed. She ate lunch and dinner there, refusing to come down to the table. Her father kept laughing at her as he told her to stop jumping on the thing.
She even remembered the way her feet used to dangle off the edge, the floor below seeming to stretch farther and farther away.
After they had moved away from this place, Nat had not allowed herself to think of all of the things left behind, for each memory that was once filled with joy was now tinged with sorrow, and deep down, a slow burning anger.
Now years later, she couldn’t help but still feel a lingering sorrow, but the anger had vanished. It had turned into a sort of understanding, that when she was younger she had not been able to understand the situation she was being thrust into.
At that time the world suddenly grew dark and it felt as if her life was being pulled into a storm, her own choices gripped away by an invisible hand.
The first two years it was the worst. Then slowly, very slowly, Nat had started to pick up the pieces of her that broke off and put them together one by one. She was fragile. A glass vase with a million cracks. If it wasn’t for the people by her side to help shape everything back together alongside her, she would probably still be stuck in a dark place.
It took her awhile to remember that there were others there, who were also hurting, yet they were there to hold her when things got bad, lift her up when she wasn’t strong enough to get up by herself. People that would sit and cry with her for a while, and then smile afterwards.
Pushing off the bed, she headed back downstairs.
This would probably be the last time that she ever stepped foot in this place. A family with young kids had finally decided to buy the place. They had probably secured it for a reasonable price considering how long it had been on the market.
It was a good thing too. It meant that Nat, and the rest of her family, could finally move one completely.
She walked into the living room, a room that used to hold memories of movie night every friday, the fragrance of hot butter and popcorn filling the room, devoured before any of the movies could ever begin.
On the mantle of the fireplace opposite of her were more pictures. This time Nat plucked one off and sat down, staring at the smiling faces in the photo. These people in the photo were gone, replaced by different versions, more accustomed to hardship, more caring because of it.
A tear fell upon the frame. Nat missed her mom It had been 5 years now without her.
In this very room is where she overheard her parents talking about it. The cancer. It had spread fast. She had heard the words “Only a couple months to live,” out of her mom’s mouth.
At the time it had all been so confusing, which turned into a terrified fear, that turned into anger at her mom for hiding the truth, and in some small way for being sick, even though it was out of her control.
There were moments of regret for words that had been said out of not being able to understand, for not being able to help in any way. Many nights had been spent in agony reflecting on this.
Sitting on the couch now, Nat only wished she could tell her mother once more how much she missed and loved her.
Clutching the photo tight, breathing in and out to calm herself, she sat there in silence for a long time, wanting to take in the emotions, the thoughts, capture every single moment.
A buzz came from the phone in her pocket, a message from her dad saying he was out front.
Nat took in a deep breath, unzipping the backpack at her feet and placing the picture inside.
With a sense of feeling truly calm for the first time in a long time, she walked out the back, sliding the silver key into the hole, turning sideways until it clicked closed.
She turned on her heels towards the parked car on the street, her dad waiting inside, and didn’t look back.