When she was twenty-eight, my mom nearly died of drowning. She broke from the surface of the water seconds away from death. A year and a half later, she went back to the same lake to kill herself.
When her corpse was found, she was almost unrecognizable. Her whole body was swollen and bleached, her skin a greenish-black color. She was breaking down, slowly, underwater, and I imagined bits of her scattered unevenly on the bed of the lake.
Were her memories stored there, too? The sound of my voice when I rattle off mathematical equations? The feel of dad’s hands on hers? The smell of cookies she baked every movie night? I guess I’ll never know, the way I never knew why she chose to leave.
Dad spiraled into the dark after that. He spent more time in his room than out of it. Sometimes he blocked the door with his study table so I wouldn’t be able to get in to bring him breakfast. When he’s out of his bedroom, the same one he used to share with mom, he stayed in front of the television, laughing at the static.
I was seven.
Forced to grow five years up in a month’s time, I took care of dad. I used our family savings tucked away in the hidden drawer to feed ourselves. And then they were gone. The money given by friends and neighbors extended to our daily needs. And then they were gone, too.
During the day, I went to school to study and sell chocolate chip cookies to my teachers and classmates. Everyone knew me as the motherless child, and so when I told them I baked the cookies myself following my mom’s recipe, they bought twice more than what they’d actually eat.
When I went home one afternoon, I found dad in the laundry room. His feet were six inches above the floor, and his throat was attached to the ceiling by a rope. It smelled like death in the room, but I stayed there, staring at dad, asking him questions.
I didn’t cry. I saw it coming, saw it happening after dad first stopped talking to me.
Somehow, I felt relieved. At least dad wasn’t hurting anymore. At least he didn’t have to feel the wide spaces the fragment of his broken heart created.
I was well and truly alone, but not for long.
Uncle Julian brought me to his home, to the Willows Cottage. It’s a beautifully secluded hilltop cottage surrounded by willow trees of all ages, situated on the outskirts of a bustling city and close to a riverside market town.
On my first day, I met his family. His wife, Aunt Sierra, was a pretty, lean woman who liked to cook. But most of the time, she liked to talk more than anything. Her voice had a melodic quality to it, and I never told her but I loved her nightly bedtime tales of fairies and pirates and rabbit holes. Their son, Jack, was a menace. He loved to thwack on the walls and bite on the tables. He left colored handprints everywhere, and we didn’t even know where the paint was coming from until we followed him to the basement shaft. But despite all that, he gave the best hugs. Uncle Julian, soft-spoken but stern Uncle Julian, was a warm blanket on a wintry dusk. He told me stories of mom when they were little, how they would get each other in trouble and how they escaped punishments from their strict father. Every bedtime, he kissed me goodnight.
When I turned eighteen, I had to leave the Willows Cottage and go to the city to study. I learned medicine. I learned math. I learned what the real world offered and I learned what romance felt like. I learned how thick darkness was and I learned how to play with it. I learned many things I haven’t learned before. Four and a half years later, I returned to the Willows Cottage a different person from when I left it.
They didn’t recognize me.
Aunt Sierra was the same. Warm. Colorful. A feast of familiarity and affection. Jack was the same, albeit more handsome and less chubby. He still gave the best hugs. Uncle Julian was the same. A father and a brother molded into one. A savior and a protector drawn as a lanky gardener with a fond liking to wool sweaters. I still knew them. I still loved them.
And they still loved me.
I had to go. I had to let go. I had to move on from the idyllic paradise that is the Willows Cottage. My fingers had been frozen when they welcomed me, about to fall off. But when I returned, I wasn’t that child anymore. My knees were far more secure than it had ever been, and my heart had been stabbed too many times.
I was my own person then. A survivor. A warrior of my own battles. And that was what Uncle Julian couldn’t see.
So I went away and never came back.
Standing before me is the Willows Cottage, a house that has seen many years of joy, tears, and everything in between. It’s still beautifully secluded, its willows both witnesses and guards against prying eyes and stray strangers. A home I haven’t gone back to in years. Under its careful watch, I feel exposed. So I present myself, a once member of its hold.
I’m wiser now, stronger and kinder and more resilient. Gone were the delusions of greatness and the need to impress. The rebellious years are now behind me, a past that is haunting as it is shameful. With a deep breath, I walk the familiar pathway to the cottage.
My heart aches as I open the door and see Aunt Sierra, crouched low with a watering can in one hand, pouring water to a set of floor plants that line the back wall.
With a gracefulness she shouldn’t possess in her age, she stands up and turns to me, her mouth agape and her eyes teary. Within seconds, I’m in her arms, once again enveloped in warmth.
“You’re here,” she says, her breaths shaky. “You’re really here.”
“Look who finally thought to visit us.”
I’ll know that voice anywhere, no matter how deep it became. I let Aunt Sierra go and head to the base of the staircase, where Jack is waiting, his lips splayed on a playful smirk, his arms open. I jump into him with a laugh. He still gives the best hugs.
When he pulls away, I ask the question that has been crawling its way up my throat since I entered the house.
“Where’s Uncle Julian?”
Jack jerks his chin to the door on the left. “He’s been waiting, Amelia.”
I nod, then I pad straight to the door.
“I prepared tea and biscuits,” Aunt Sierra calls from the kitchen. “It’ll be over in a minute.”
I push open the door and step into the garden, so heartbreakingly familiar yet painfully strange; a memento of how far I’ve gone and how much I’ve missed. The rose garden. The silver thymes in cracks and crevices. Roman chamomiles edging the fences. Berggarten sage offsets. Catmints. Anise hyssops. Garlic chives. Names I recall from hours spent here with Uncle Julian.
And in the middle of it all, seated at his favorite stone bench, was the man himself. It’s summer, so he hasn’t donned his wool sweater this time. But he’s still very discernible. Uncle Julian aged well.
I sit beside him.
“Uncle,” I say. My voice is little, a cord about to snap.
Uncle Julian looks at me. “How have you been, Amelia?” His tone, soft and tender and ever kind, punches a hole in my heart. Nights of holding me through my nightmares come back to me, as well as his lessons on each plant and tree I used to love. His voice is the one I remember when I’m down, and the one I tried to forget for the last eleven years.
“I’m—I’m fine, Uncle.”
“And the kids?”
The mentioning of my children brings a sad smile to my lips. “They’re good. Cathy is turning five next month, and Damien had just learned his alphabet.”
I look at Uncle Julian then. His wrinkled face is a comforting sight; his eyes are twin orbs of oceans, his smile an anchor.
“I haven’t met them.”
Slowly, I nod. “You haven’t.”
“And I wouldn’t be able to.”
Shame and guilt assaults me, so much so that I had to turn away. My eyes prickle with tears. My resolve to not cry is about to break, my wild emotions along with it. “No.”
Uncle Julian holds my hand, and I return his tight grip. “Amelia, it’s fine.”
“Uncle, we’re leaving. My husband’s job is in London, and we have to stay there for a long while,” I say. I swallow the thickness in my throat. It doesn’t go away. “We might not be back.”
“I understand,” says Uncle Julian. “Don’t worry about anything, Amelia. You’ve gotten so far.”
I stare into his eyes. “Uncle Julian,” I say. “Do you forgive me?”
Uncle Julian doesn’t answer. Instead, he smiles at me, the way he smiled back when I was little and I asked why cows aren’t green since they eat so much grass. “Do you forgive yourself?”
My answer is quick. “No.”
He rubs my back, a familiar gesture when I was sick. I try to apologize but he cuts me off. “The weight has been on your shoulders for far too long, Amelia. You have to let it go.”
“But if I do, that means forgetting you and Aunt Sierra and Jack.”
He shakes his head. “No, my child.”
“I can’t. I can’t. I’m so sorry.”
And then I cry. I let my resolve splinter and break and flow with the tide. I am awash with sorrow and grief so powerful that my sobs aren’t enough to convey the pain.
Suddenly, the warm hand on my back isn’t Uncle Julian’s, but my husband’s. He continues to attempt to soothe me, but it isn’t until several minutes when I stop crying.
I look around, my sight still blurred with unshed tears. Everything is in a sepia filter of grief, but it’s clear enough to wipe out my delusions. Delusions of an intact cottage, of hardwood floors and stonework pillars, of hanging pictures and potted plants, of home and joy and redemption.
Instead, I see the Willows Cottage for what it really is now. The walls had long since crumbled and in their place stood thick beams of wood, blackened from where the flames had licked at them. Splintered wood and glass littered the floor where the windows had broken and the metal base of the simple chandelier lay blackened and twisted on the ground. The charred remains of the once beautiful and almost regal Willows Cottage stands in the pale morning light like a skeleton, claimed by nature. Alone.
“Hey,” Trevor calls for my attention, his voice faint and mellow. “Let’s go?”
I nod, and together, we walk to the car in silence. Before we leave, I throw the Willows Cottage one last look. Trevor squeezes my hand, and we drive away from the house. I’m leaving my home for the third time, and I know that I will never be back. My lungs struggle for breath against ribs of stone.
“Are you sure about your decision to not sell the property?” Trevor asks as we near the market town.
I don’t tell him why, and he never asked. I don’t tell him that I wanted the burned skeleton of the Willows Cottage to stand for as long it can, to be immortal, along with everything it once stood for. I don’t tell him that it will be my ground, the emblem of my guilt. I don’t tell him what really happened the first time I visited the Willows Cottage after I graduated college.
Because my guilt runs deeper than leaving Uncle Julian and his family, deeper than the words I spewed at the man who saved me.
That night, I returned to the house. I was a new person. Changed by the city, ravaged, torn apart and glued back together wrong. My hair was a different color. My clothes were a shock. And my attitude was worse than any of my transformation.
They still accepted me. Aunt Sierra cooked me a delicious feast. Jack hugged me and told me stories of his high school. And Uncle Julian, though wary, loved me the same.
But he found my bag, stashed haphazardly across my room. He was meant to help me clean, but he instead saw the drugs. All kinds of drugs. Drugs that can wash out your pain. Drugs that can give instant happiness. Even drugs that can kill.
And we argued. We fought harder than we ever did. He tried to ask me what was wrong, that he could help me if I just let him do so. But I waved him away, screamed at him to back off and let me live my life. We were both crying, but for different reasons. Aunt Sierra was by the door. She tried to reach for me. Jack was in the kitchen. He didn’t speak, although he tried to, twice.
And late at night, I left, but not before setting the house on fire.
I set the Willows Cottage ablaze, trapping my family inside.
I walked away, their screams fading behind me, their memories turning to ashes.
And now I cry. Again. With Trevor beside me, whispering words in my hair, words I can barely hear through the flames in my mind.
I cry for Jack. He wanted to be a runner. But his lungs had filled with smoke. He couldn’t run fast enough.
I cry for Aunt Sierra. She was the greatest cook I’ve ever met. But she herself had burned trying to get out of the house.
I cry for Uncle Julian. He was the fire that lit up my world when it was left orbiting in the cold dark. But I just blew him away like a candle when I thought he wasn’t bright enough.
And I cry for myself.
“I’m sorry,” I whisper, hoping my voice could reach back to the past. “I’m so sorry.”