The door swung open to let in a breath of fresh air and a man leading a woman by the hand. Somewhat self-consciously, by the way her lips twitched up in a smile that was only half-natural, the woman wore a makeshift blindfold. It threatened to slide from her eyes and past her nose, so her free hand pressed to the cheap pink fabric to hold it in place.

“-and just wait until you see the upstairs bathroom,” the man continued his gushing ramble as he stepped over the threshold. Dirt trailed from his worn tennis shoes and worked its way into the carpet. “And the-” he blushed and tripped over his tongue before sending a fleeting glance back to the woman he led, “-the, ah, the bedroom is just right for…”

Silence stretched between them after the man awkwardly cleared his throat.

“Sure, Dan,” the woman finally said. Her voice softened the initial silent rebuke carried by her words, and she made an effort to push her reluctant smile into something more visible. “It sounds great.”

Saved by the content of her reply, if not the tone, Dan managed a confident smile in return. His shoulders relaxed, and he let go of her hands. “Welcome to the new Walters household!” He punctuated the proclamation with impromptu jazz hands.

Belatedly, the woman pulled the blindfold away from her eyes and blinked around the room.

Sunlight streamed through two large windows facing the street and cast bright beams across the meager collection of furniture. A doorway on the far end of the space opened into a kitchen, and the woman stared for a long moment at the black and white tiles, just ever so crooked.

Dan’s hands had found refuge in his pockets as the woman slowly turned in a circle to gaze at the rest of the space. “Well, Mia?” he tentatively nudged, his earlier smile battling to return against the worry weighing his brow down into a furrow. “Is it- I know it’s not exactly what we expected, but…”

She shook her head at nothing in particular before turning her face to settle murky gaze on him. “It’s alright, I guess.”

His smile lost the battle and curved into a frown. “You don’t like it.”

Mia shook her head again, vehemently this time. “No! No. I just- no. I’m happy, Dan. Really. This is great, and I know it took ages for you to find-” She sucked in a breath, reaching for one of his hands with both of hers to clasp between them. “It’s very…” the woman trailed off as she struggled for the words. “…very familiar. That’s all.”

Dragged up from the pit of gloom to where it had been banished, Dan’s smile surged forth once more. “It is, isn’t it? Spitting image of our first place. You know, the one in Greentree?”

“Right. That was it.”

Unheeding Mia’s weakened smile, Dan surged on. “There’s plenty of stores nearby, and a park we can go with the dogs. And the downstairs guest room- you know, we had one just like it, but we can turn it into an office for you if you like.” He pulled away from her, striding across the living room to the kitchen, his voice trailing along as he did so. “There’s another freezer in the basement, along with a workshop where I can keep my tools- oh! I can get you that KitchenAid you’ve always wanted.”

Despite herself, Mia managed a small grin and chuckle. “That you’ve always wanted,” she corrected him, following at a more sedately pace. “I wouldn’t know heads nor tails what to do with one.”

“If you’d only let me just teach you.” The various empty cupboards and drawers hung open after Dan rattled through them. He stopped with one, producing a single bronze spoon before he brandished it triumphantly towards Mia in a duelist’s stance. “I don’t even know how you managed to survive before we lived together.”

“Nonstop cup noodles.”

“My point stands.”

Trailing in his wake, Mia began sliding drawers closed. “Did you even look at any other houses?”

“No, why?”

She didn’t respond. Dan sighed and turned to clump down the stairs, his gait picking up at the end of the little spiral leading into the basement. Mia continued to drift through the kitchen, gently shutting each cupboard door.

“Mia, come look down here!”

She squeezed her eyes shut, her hand stilling on the counter. “If it looks exactly like our Greentree house, why do I need to?”

The creak of the steps heralded Dan’s ascent, and he stopped just before reaching the top. Mia didn’t move, remaining still, with her head half-bowed and eyes fluttering beneath their lids. Her breath came in a short, breathy gasp before she let it seep out through her barely parted lips.

“Mia,” he said softly, stepping onto the chessboard tiles and approaching her. “What’s wrong with it? I thought it was perfect for us. For you.”

The lie raced for the tip of her tongue, launched by an urge to tell him that everything was okay. But she clamped her lips together, swallowing the words before they could smooth it over. That would have been too easy. Instead, the lie just turned into a chill in her heart and settled like a rock in her gut.

“Everything- wasn’t perfect, back then,” Mia finally said, the words coming out too quickly as if all she had to do was get through them. “Not for me. Not for you. And especially not for-” she couldn’t get that last word out, instead moving her hands to press over the curve of her belly. The ache of her heart stabbed at her chest with every beat.

“That’s why-“ Dan cut off the words with a little frustrated growl, his hand moving to rake through his hair. “I thought we could just start over. Start with a mix of new and old. We don’t have to be held back from it anymore! Don’t you want to move past… the past?”

She shook her head slowly. “I don’t want to forget her.”

“Oh,” he said.

That little sound sent a wave of grief-stricken memory to crash through the kitchen and swallow them both.

September 17, 2020 09:08

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