My hand reached for the dust-covered photo album on the shelf. God, does he ever clean? The deep brown leather cracked with age and became rough. I wandered to the familiar old beige couch that belonged to my grandmother, Maggie. Now it smelled of mildew. The air was thick and stale despite a breeze drifting through the trees outside. I stopped myself from sniffing the book for fear of an allergy attack. Stupid, dust.
The cover was stiff as it opened and then I was met with a soft round face. The familiarity released a torrent of tears and a gasp. John. I didn’t know him at this time, but I did know him. And he knew me. Probably better than anyone else ever had. When will this get easier? I knew the answer to my own question. Never. I scoffed.
A tall, broad-shouldered man that could be mistaken for a lumberjack or a Norse god of some type walked through the doorway. The stress from my shoulders released. I didn't even realize that they had even been tense or that I had them pulled up to my ears.
"He let this place go," his warm and deep voice sounded. He looked at me. Saw my tears and immediately, as if in one deep swoop, grabbed me up. He didn't say anything. He didn't really need to. He knew what this place had meant to me. He knew the fierce anger that burned in me because of what Bob had done.
"Thank you for being here," my weak voice managed to get out.
"I couldn't let you have all the fun by yourself," Jesse continued, "who would reach and carry all the things?"
And I laughed. It had been years since I had laughed in this house. My mind flashed back to Thanksgiving 2008. I was at the height of embarrassing fashion and questionable choices, just the ripe age of 14. The memory was in the same room with the same couch. Laughter filled the air as John, my grandfather, told his familiar jokes. You know the kind, the ones that are repeated every year that we gladly acted like we had heard for the first time. His wife of well over 50 years, Maggie, was cooking the most amazing and moist turkey you would ever eat. Her side dishes rivaled Julia Child. The savory smells crawled through every room letting the crowd know that soon, so soon, the food would be done. Our stomachs ached from laughter and hunger. We were happy then.
"Everything is different", I whispered to Jesse. "If John never died, this wouldn't be this way. I would have my family."
The tears that had flowed and stopped now came rushing with an even stronger intensity. My heart felt like it was being torn again from my chest.
"You can't stop someone from dying. Your family made their choices. But you made choices too."
I readjust in his arms to look him in the eyes.
"Are you saying my choices are the same?"
"No! I mean...you made choices, too, but you choose differently. You chose to care for people. They chose to care for themselves."
I sigh and nod in agreement. I didn't think this would be this draining so instead of continuing the conversation that would turn into an emotionally-driven argument, I take a deep breath and push myself up off the couch and out of his arms.
"This house isn't going to clean itself. Or sell itself for that matter."
I shut the album, afraid that it would bring back too many memories that would distract me from the task at hand. Distraction and I were best friends. It really didn't take that much. The day was spent packing up boxes and stuffing them with figurines, books, and craft supplies. The house belonged to my grandparents. The very ones who crafted that album I hold so dear. John died from heart failure caused by the common cold. I can still hear the Doctor's words in my mind "too weak." I was a whirlwind. He was the strongest man I knew. How dare you call him weak. But, he also carried the weight of my entire family. That would wear a person down until they were too frail to continue. Maggie is still alive but lost. John's death caused dementia to accelerate, but after she forgot her love entirely, it slowed. She sits in a wheelchair every day staring out the same window in the same clothes. I'm not allowed to see her.
Bob is my dad, father, whatever you want to call him. I don't call him anything. It's been six months since we texted. Long story short, I asked him to be in my life and, well, he wanted nothing to do with it. I know what you're thinking. I sound ridiculous. Cleaning up a house for an absent father. I'm not doing it for him. I'm doing it for John. That's at least what I've been telling myself.
Time flies by as I clean up the past while ignoring it all at the same time."That should be it!" I yell down the stairs to Jesse.
No one answers in response.
"Jesse!" I yell.
Panic sets in. And I race down the stairs. No one is on the first floor. I frantically search the rooms scanning for any sign of Jesse. He's not there either. Suddenly a clank comes from the basement. Every scary movie or story I have read is screaming at me now, "don't go in the basement!" I had always had recurring nightmares about the basement when I was a child. In my dreams, these dark midnight-soaked wolves would walk on hind legs out of the basement, into my bedroom, and would stand over me. They never hurt me. They would just whisper. It was loud enough where I could hear the sounds, but too soft to recognize the words that they had formed let alone understand their meaning. I shake my head back into reality. Jesse. I need to find Jesse.
I start the descent into the basement. One foot in front of the other.
"Jesse?" I sternly asked into the darkness. A single bulb hanging from the ceiling only lit a small amount of the large unfinished room. A chill swept over me.
"I'm right here," he says, "don't come closer."
"Why didn't you answer me? I was worried."
He makes his way closer to me as if to usher me out of the basement.
"Let's get out of this dingy place." I gladly go as his arm around me sends me towards the stairs and then into the golden afternoon light. I look up at his face and am instantly worried. All the color had left his cheeks. His eyes are urgent and alert. He reads my face like a book.
"We need to call the police."
I silently wait for some kind of explanation.
"I found something while I was down there. I don't want you to see it or go looking for it."
He knows me too well. I don't try to argue. Maybe it's because I know he has my best interest at heart. Maybe it's because I'm emotionally exhausted from the day. Or maybe it's because I already know what's down there. As a child, I may have seen it before.