This story is by Chris LaRoche and was part of our 2020 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Annie stood outside her childhood home with a profound sense of despair, staring in futility at the battered structure, knowing full well she would never have the means nor the strength to resurrect it or the life she once hoped to have. The hand of fate saw to that, she thought as she gathered her resolve. A daily hardship sown from the seeds of neglect.
She closed her eyes, picturing a white clapboard house with black shutters. Window boxes overflowing with pink and purple petunias. A gentle breeze playing with the sheer lace curtains in the open windows. Peach cobbler. She breathed deeply in through her nose. Mmmm, that’s better.
Voices rose in anger.
She shook her head, mocking her memory as she wiped it clean. All an illusion, she thought, sensing her reprieve was over.
Her brother, Michael, stormed out the front door, rolling passed her as she climbed the splintered wooden steps, his size twelve boots crushing rusted nail heads into a fine orange powder.
“Where’s dad?” she asked in a huff, sidestepping her brother as the screen door slammed shut. Paper-thin remnants of peeling white paint rained down onto the front stoop, collecting in the cracks of the worn-out rubber welcome mat fused to the concrete landing.
Michael turned in exasperation, his argument with their father spilling outside. “Mom’s still dead, dad!” he screamed through the torn metal mesh, his voice rising as the sound of the television grew louder and louder. “He’s impossible, Annie. I can’t do this anymore. I can’t keep coming over here.”
She stood on the second step, eye to eye with him. “This!” she growled through gritted teeth as she mashed two bags of groceries to her chest. “You moved on, Michael, he hasn’t. He’s stuck in time. He relives that moment every goddamn day. And I’m left cleaning up your mess while you hide behind your guilt.”
He scoffed as he adjusted a cardboard box tucked under his right arm. “Is that why you’re here?” he asked. “No one is that altruistic, except for maybe mom. Let’s be honest, Annie, in your sick and twisted way, you’re getting something out of this.”
She averted her eyes, stung by the truth of his words. She envisioned herself lying on the couch in her therapist’s office, balancing a box of tissues atop her chest. “And you think by removing yourself from his life,” she said, gesturing to the box of mementos, “that you can somehow preserve the past. Our heroes are often the ones who disappoint us the most.”
He examined the contents of the box for a moment, nostalgia glossing over his expression. He held up a goofy tie to his neck. “Where is your box, Annie?” he asked, immediately regretting his words as they slipped past his lips.
She laughed. Daddy’s little girl. More like a porcelain doll, never to be touched or played with, and often forgotten all together. “Whatever it is that you are looking for can’t be found at the bottom of a box.”
“Nor can it be found playing nurse to a man who doesn’t even remember your name,” he said as he glanced at the profile of their father, peeking out from behind the drawn curtains like a little boy spying on his parents.
She looked over at the picture window, the glass muddled and yellow from years of neglect. A layer of condensation spread the width of the window, mimicking a mountain range hidden behind a thin veneer of fog. She gave their father a sad smile. “It’s what mom would have wanted.”
“Those are some pretty big shoes to fill,” he said, watching the curtain flutter as their father disappeared, “I’m not sure that your tiny feet are up to the challenge.”
She lowered her head, succumbing to their battle. Exhaustion etched across her brow. “Run away, little brother, run away,” she said as she turned on her heel. “It’s what you do best.”
“He can’t give you what you want, Annie… not anymore.”
The divide between them continued to grow as anger and regret carved out deeper and deeper swaths. Her brother made his choice a long time ago, she thought as she slipped past the screen door, the groceries suddenly too heavy to bear.
Annie leaned over the back of the floral print couch, resting a hand on her father’s bony shoulder as she picked up the remote control. “Good morning, daddy,” she said as she turned off the television, giving him a quick peck on the cheek.
He rested his fingertips on his cheek as he stared down at his wedding photograph, past the tarnished silver frame, past the cracked glass, past the two people smiling at the camera, searching his mind for a moment in time.
“That was a happy day,” she said as she threw open the heavy curtains, letting the sun flood the room.
He let his fingers drift from his cheek as he looked up from the photograph.
Sensing a glint of recognition in his eyes, she sat down next to him and took his hand in hers. She told him of that glorious day, having heard the story so many times growing up. “You were so nervous,” she said with a playful laugh.
He listened, his expression fading as he lost interest half way through the story. A story that was no longer his own.
She leaned into his shoulder, fighting back the tears.
He fidgeted for a moment, shifting in his seat, the protective pad bunching up underneath him.
Ammonia wafted up between them, stinging the hairs in her nose and burning along the edges of her eyes.
“Let’s get you cleaned up,” she said, choking on the pungent odor as she helped her father to his feet. She offered him her elbow as they set off down the hallway, his shuffling steps permanently matted into the beige carpet, like a country road carved from the dirt.
He long since lost any embarrassment over his personal care as he shed his dirty clothes, standing buck naked in the middle of the bathroom.
She averted her eyes, carrying enough embarrassment for the both of them.
Steam enveloped the tiny bathroom as the ceiling fan struggled to keep up, whirring like a jet engine. She carved out her to-do list in the fogged up mirror, marring her tired reflection. Laundry. Make lunch. Walk with dad. Vacuum. Pay the bills. She stared at the list. “Not today,” she whispered, wiping away the last one.
She collected the laundry as he settled into his bedroom, listening to the radio. “Don’t you look handsome,” she said over Frank Sinatra singing, come fly with me, let’s fly, let’s fly away. She hummed along as she retreated to the basement. “Down to Acapulco Bay.”
She loved coming down here as a child, playing hide and seek with her brother or going on pretend adventures through treacherous lands in search of lost treasure. She laughed for a moment as the washing machine gyrated, reminding her of the scary monsters they fled from.
We were inseparable, she thought, rummaging through an old box, water stained and smelling of mildew. She gasped as a pair of black, lifeless eyes stared up at her, taunting her and her forgotten childhood. Picking up her doll, she shook it hard, her anger flowing through her hands. “I’m right here,” she screamed, fighting back the tears.
A loud bang shook her from her revelry. Dad was on the move. She knew his routine, trying to navigate through the house, opening and closing unfamiliar doors.
Hurling the doll across the room, it shattered in a dark and forgotten corner, a worthless treasure to be found by some other neglected child. She climbed the steep steps, her feet like molasses. She found him, his head buried in the refrigerator. “How about I make us some lunch,” she said as she reached around him, grabbing the bread, bologna, and mustard.
The old rotary phone rattled the wall, announcing its presence through a series of warbles, like a choking bird. The sound so foreign now, it made her jump.
He picked up the receiver, tangling himself in the long chord.
“I’ll take it, daddy,” she said, covering the headset as she untangled him, spinning him in place like a top.
He watched her as she made lunch and talked on the phone, enjoying her movements.
“No, just me,” she said into the receiver tucked into the crook of her neck. “How much?” She listened as the color drained from her face. “Sorry, no. Thank you for your time.” She hung up the phone, awash in self pity.
They sat in silence at the green formica table, their lunch untouched.
Alone but together.
“Annie, you look so much like your mother,” he said, laying his hand over hers. “You remind me of her in so many ways.”
She cried. His lucid moments always caught her off guard.