It had been twenty-four years since she’d last seen the old house.
Mary Jane Kimball stepped carefully up the steps and onto the front porch, running a trembling hand over the victorian bannister. Despite the peeling paint, the little house was still beautiful, a time capsule of memories. The porch swing still creaked when the summer breezes blew, and the flowerbed still held gardenias, zinnias, and tiger lilies, though they had long since escaped into the yard.
The old woman adjusted her knitted red sweater and turned the brass knob.
The capsule opened, admitting her into its dusty secrets and passions long withered.
Mary Jane remembered living here as a young child, racing up and down the stairway by the den, and then tearing through kitchen and out into the yard as her brother chased after.
She remembered living here as a teenager, the days when she felt invincible, until reality would stretch out its hard and pull her back from whatever adventure she was on at the time. Then she would come back to this old house, with its blue paint and whitewashed railings, and back to the strong arms of her father, and the caring embrace of her mother.
She remembered living here in college. On the weekends and holidays, she would come back to this place like it was an oasis where she could refresh her soul.
She remembered getting married in the backyard, wedded under the protective branches of a massive pecan that had been there for longer than anyone could remember.
And she remembered the family cemetery, much farther into the woods, in a peaceful little clearing all alone, with no road or path leading to it
James Martin, and Holly Martin, read her parents’ crumbling headstones, the names almost eroded away by time and the elements. Another read Joseph Kimball. This grave had no grass over the piled earth, and the letters were sharply defined.
A final grave was set off to the side, much smaller than the rest. It was the freshest, and marked not with a headstone, but a stout wooden cross like those that marked military graves. The letters inscribed into the wood read Jenny Kimball.
Hot tears traced the creases of Mary Jane’s wrinkled face, dripping to the dusty floor like drops of her very soul, each seeping into the thick layer of must until no liquid remained. A painful shock ran through her chest.
But she wiped her eyes with a handkerchief from her pocket, and journeyed further into the past.
In the living room she ran her hands over couches that had been faded when she was a little girl, trailing clean streaks from her fingertips. The radio by the fireplace was still intact, though it didn’t turn on.
All the kitchen appliances were still in place, arranged on the small counter in a familiar way; the old mixer, blender, mandolin; the perpetual stack of pots and pans still waiting to be washed by the sink. A heavy wooden rolling pin perched precariously at the top of a stack of bowls, waiting for the barest nudge to fall over.
From the kitchen Mary Jane could look out big glass windows and over the backyard. Though the grass had overgrown long ago, she could still see the depressions where painted flagstones made a path leading to the very edge of the woods.
She remembered building that path; each sibling painting a new flagstone each year. When it was finally finished, she and Max and Eddy had skipped for joy, racing back and forth from the towering oaks and pecans to the back porch over and over again.
Mary Jane struggled up the slick wooden steps of the staircase in the den, clutching tightly to the bannister. At the top was a long hall with doors on either side.
She walked slowly down the carpeted hall, gently pushing each door open as she passed. And with every door she opened, Mary Jane remembered.
Playing dolls with her unwilling brothers, then yelling when they grinned devilishly and began dismembering the plastic Barbies and ponies. Drawing sweet comfort from her mother’s hug after tripping on the stairs and gaining a goose egg on her forehead. Baking cinnamon-oatmeal cookies for Thanksgiving and mistaking the salt for sugar. Spending all night cutting paper Christmas decorations and hanging them from the ceiling, only to have the cat somehow claw every one to shreds before dawn. Sparky always had been a naughty kitty…
The phantom memories only grew stronger.
Max screaming like a demon in the yard after falling from a tree, his leg twisted at an unnatural angle under his body; he’d never fully stopped limping. A teenage Mary Jane kicking at Eddy’s shins when he tried to come into her room to get help with his research paper. All three children peeking silently around the corner as their father punched the wall, leaving deep knuckle prints in the drywall as his sky blue eyes misted.
Finally Mary Jane came to the very last door on the right. She pushed it open with an unsteady hand, savoring the feel of the painted wood even as her heart rate spiked.
Inside the room, a twin bed occupied the entire right side of the small space, overflowing with pink ruffles likes waves on a cotton-candy ocean. On the left was a simple dresser and a bookshelf filled with well-worn spines in every color and size imaginable.
Warm light from the window above the bed illuminated a single phantom; herself, as an old woman sitting on the pink bed. Her red sweater contrasted sharply to her white hair and pale face, making her look like a ghost wearing a tomato skin. This translucent reflection of herself suddenly jerked, clutching at it’s chest as it went limp and fell sideways. Then as its eyelids fluttered shut and it disappeared, Mary Jane knew.
She crossed the room and sat down on the bed… and something clenched within her, constricting like a hot wire drawn tight around her heart. She felt her vision slipping away, receding as if she were backing away from the only window in a darkened room.
But with her final moment, her failing eyes swept over the room. She was here with her memories, phantoms of times long past and people long dead.
Mary Jane was home. And that was all that mattered.