The road between Nanaimo and Uclulet is long and winding. It snakes around stunning lakes and curves under ancient trees. It clings to breasts of craggy mountains and stretches over bowels of deep green gullies. The way is occasionally barred by rockslides and often slick with steady island rain.
Today though, as Natalie returns home, the pavement is dry and a few brave rays of the late summer sun peek through the Pacific Rim’s constant coastal mist in tentative greeting.
Her tiny rented Prius put-putts patiently behind a rust-spotted Westfalia van sporting sandy surfboards. At the Tofino turn-off, it scoots northwest and she turns southeast.
The little fishing village blessed by tourism shows only apathy at her reluctant return. The streets are quiet. The faces on the sidewalks slide blurrily by. She takes the long way, getting lost amongst the new cedar mansions, imposing resort hotels, and cozy cliff-side bed & breakfasts.
“Ukee has sure grown,” Ben muses from the passenger seat while reaching over to massage the back of her neck. “Look there, though!” He points ahead at a boulder on the road’s shoulder, on the back of which, years ago, they had chalked their initials in crude scrapes. She slows, trying to memorize his brilliant face as the car drifts closer to the rock that marks the path to -
A horn blares behind her, and the phantom fingers disappear from her skin. She salutes the tailgater with her middle finger and flies by the rock without stopping.
Around the next block, she rolls up to the curb in front of a modest blue house, paint faded, windows shuttered, porch sagging. In the car, she lays her temple against the steering wheel and looks at her childhood home. A stranger’s home now.
With a small sigh, she puts the car back in drive and pulls forward to park in front of the house next door, one that she knows better than the back of her hand. Dodie’s old beater pick-up sits in the crumbling driveway, as if it hasn’t moved an inch since the day she left.
A decade. A lifetime. A blink.
The sun seems to have given up, and the sky has re-solidified into a stubborn slate to match her mood. Natalie steps out of the car into a fine mist, peppered with the brine of Pacific salt.
She takes a moment and gazes up at the home that once housed her heart, longing for Ben to burst onto the porch on a screech of the screen’s hinges.
He flings himself with lean grace over the railing and Dodie’s well-tended flowerbed, gathers her up into his warm arms, swings her around, and she finally says -
The door does bang open, startling Natalie out of her wistful reverie. A bent and creaky old man hobbles over the step to glare down at the trespasser on his grass.
She’s taken aback by the torture time has inflicted upon Ben’s grandfather. He stoops low. His shoulders hunch and rise to reside at his ears. He raises a trembling, clawed hand to shade milky eyes against the grey day. His mouth bobs open and closed. She can’t tell if this is a tremor borne of age, if he’s struggling to find her in the cobwebbed shelves of his memory, or if he’s too furious for words.
After what feels like an awful eternity, Dodie says, “Well then. You’d better come in.”
Natalie treads slowly across the lawn, past the patch of blooming weeds, and up the crooked steps. Dodie shuffles back inside while she lingers at the threshold.
Ben leaps up the stairs behind her, grabs her hand and tugs her to into his lap on Dodie’s old rocking chair. His dark eyes gleam from behind strands of wayward black curls that tumble across his forehead. “It’s good to be home with you” he says, burying his face in the crook of her neck. She replies into his hair, “I love you so much. I need you to –"
“Well missy?” Dodie hollers from inside before she can finish conversing with her ghost. “You’re lettin’ in the damp.”
“Sorry,” Natalie mumbles.
She hangs her jacket on the hook in the hall and follows Dodie’s painstaking arthritic journey to the tiny kitchen. He putters around, breathing heavily, setting the wobbly table with tiny cups and a plate of crackers. He finally falls into a chair just as the kettle screams, and Natalie jumps up to pour the tea.
They sip and nibble in silence while he watches her closely through his cataracts. Ben stares down at them from the wall, his timeless dimpled grin presiding over their quiet reunion.
“Hey pops,” Ben bounds into the kitchen. He lightly bops his grandfather’s shoulder and presses a kiss to Natalie’s cheek. She reaches out to grasp his sleeve and –
The clattering of cup on saucer jerks her back to her senses. Dodie folds his stiff arms across his chest.
“You came back.”
She flinches as a sudden torrent of rain splatters with a violent smear across the window. “I suppose I just want to…find some closure.”
Dodie gives her his best scowl. For a moment, she thinks he’s going to tell her to get out, but instead he grumbles, “You can stay in his room. As long as you like. Maybe you’ll get lucky and I’ll finally die too while you’re here.”
Though she knows she deserves them, the sharp words burrow into her soul and burn in her blood. “I’m sorry, Dodie. I don’t plan to stay. I just…I just wanted to see that you were alright.”
“Hmph.” He’s clearly unimpressed with her concern and uninterested in continuing their conversation, so she clears up and, with his 'might-as-well' permission, heads upstairs.
She perches gently on the edge of Ben’s sagging twin bed at the center of a perfectly preserved time capsule.
There’s the alarm clock on the bedside table, face cracked.
There’s his guitar leaning in the corner, caked in dust.
There’s his hoodie hanging on the back of the door, stained red.
A glance out the window solicits a shudder, the eye of her old bedroom staring accusingly back.
Ben pulls on a freshly laundered sweater and throws her his most charming smile. She’s wrapped up in his duvet, in his beautiful scent, hair askew, grumbling about going out in the rain. He leaps back onto the bed and showers her face in sloppy kisses. “We’ll be quick, I promise.” She shakes her head and snuggles deeper into the bed. “I know you have to go,” she says softly, “I but I want to–"
Her doomed daydream is shattered by a blast of wind that rattles the bones of the old house, howling through the cracks and corners, nooks and crannies, as if through the pipes of a mournful organ.
Reality eclipses imagination every time, and she cannot conjure closure with a fantasy.
Dodie is silent as she takes her leave, her farewell nothing but a hesitant hand on his shoulder before heading out into the swelling storm.
She drives slowly back to the boulder, windshield wipers singing a thumping song of Dead – Gone – Dead – Gone – Dead – Gone.
Stepping out of the car, she's drenched in mere moments and runs shaking fingers over their faded initials—the epitaph on their gravestone—here at last for an honest goodbye.