This story is by Elisabeth Greve and was part of our 2020 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
It was equal parts infuriating and wonderful how everything continued normally as Haley’s life seemed to self-destruct.
Haley had been sitting on the porch of the small house for quite some time now. The humidity still clung to her rosy cheeks, even as the sun made its way behind the line of trees in the distance. The sound of the frogs croaking carried over from the nearby pond.
She watched several people walking along the street. An older couple strolled peacefully when the sun burned orange, their voices soft, they spoke of simple things. When the sky was a vibrant mixture of purple and pink a few teenagers gossiped and laughed as they zigzagged their way out of view. When darkness fell, a tall man could be made out from the dull light of the streetlamp. He recounted the events of his day to the phone at his ear.
The young woman sits cross-legged as she watches her limited view of the world from her place on the porch. Even though it felt like Haley’s life had imploded, her observations proved that the rest of the world continued on with indifference. The sun rose and set. The wind gently shook the trees and pushed her dark hair into her face. The people made their way in and out of her view, talking and laughing and existing. She watched it all in a trance, feeling separated from all these normal things. An outsider looking in. As though she were in a dream, but not the lucid kind where she had any part in changing it.
She had taken an extended leave from her day job to return to the house she had once called home. She departed the city in a hurry, leaving just enough time to break things off with her boyfriend. Haley hardly knew how to cope with the loss of her mother, and as a result the grief had uprooted her entire life. In the space of one phone call, all her carefully calculated plans dissolved and fell away.
Her sole new direction was found in her mother’s will which had transferred ownership of her small house to Haley.
Haley had moved out of her mother’s house at eighteen. Her independence had often come in direct conflict with her mother’s tendency to interfere. It was her mother’s opinions, expectations and criticisms that pushed her out the door. While she had seen her mother occasionally, she had not returned home.
Though she wouldn’t admit it, it was regret that was the fuel of her new plan.
She had packed her previous life into boxes. Which she then loaded into her car and hauled two hours to the house that owned the porch on which she now sat.
Two months had passed, yet the majority of her boxes had not been unpacked. She could hardly bare to pollute the space of her late mother with her own things. It didn’t feel right. Nothing really did.
Haley had retreated into herself. She spoke very little, occasionally muttering complaints directed to the house. And other times, though she didn’t care to admit it, she would whisper to a picture of her mother that she had folded up and placed in the pocket of her jeans.
While the pain was all-encompassing and sometimes suffocating, Haley was far too stubborn to fully succumb. Her life was ruled by lists and well-researched decisions. She focused on the affairs of the house, the things her mother left behind. She worked to maintain her composure, her time on the porch each evening helped do just that.
A red car passes by. A grey cat appears behind a bush before slinking back into the dark. Haley sits, now letting her legs hang over the edge.
It had been a beautiful day, not that she had noticed. Not that it would have mattered even if she did. The only thing that catches her attention is the lingering thickness of the air. It irritated her, resulting in an extended bout of porch sitting to try and calm her down.
Several times her thoughts threatened to wander to painful places, but each time she prevented it by placing focus on something new. The pattern of the wood she sat on. The mess of plants and shrubs she dangled her feet over.
At the funeral, Haley had attempted to figure out why she was left the house. It seemed odd since her older sister, Ramona, had always loved it more. She had pushed Ramona for information, but they ended up arguing and going separate ways in their own bouts of sadness fuelled rage. Too afraid to pick up the phone, Haley hadn’t reached out since. Not to her sister, or anyone else for that matter. She told herself she couldn’t be bothered. She drained the cellphone’s battery and then hid it away. Reassuring herself that she preferred the undisturbed peace. Failing to acknowledge that it had more to do with her tendency of allowing her sadness to turn her silent. The self-inflicted isolation allowed her to glide through the days in a fog, as she deprived herself from the true extent of her emotions.
As the distant sound of a dog barking echoes through the night, an invisible force lifts Haley to her feet. She begins moving, not towards the front door, but down the steps and out onto the street. She looks back to observe where she had sat for several hours, having the urge to resume her place before continuing down the road.
There was something comforting about the darkness that encircled her. The quiet that it caused felt familiar. There was nobody around to disturb her seemingly purposeless trek.
After a short walk down the road, Haley arrives at the place she felt pulled to. The stars that hang over her are reflected in the water of the pond. She hears the insects and the frogs as she takes in the familiar landscape. But horror and shock nearly knock her to the ground when she finds a splintered stump in place of the strong and thick willow tree that had made this place special. The moonlight illuminates the broken wood giving it a surreal quality. Her mother had loved that tree.
She could still remember when her mother first began bringing her and Ramona to this place. It was shortly after their father had left them that they had come across the willow tree that stood beside the pond. In those days they would sit under the canopy of leaves and share stories and laugh and forget about the problems they faced.
The broken remains twist Haley’s stomach into an uncomfortable knot. She stumbles backwards as the memories begin to surface.
Haley had always been fixated on her independence. Just as she left home at a young age, she was reluctant to make friends and had never really invested in her romantic relationships. She hardly ever allowed enough emotion to cry. But a strange memory surfaces among the whirlwind of flashing moments. Many years ago, Haley had wandered to the tree in hopes for a place where she could discard her handcrafted smile for a momentary reprieve. But as she approached, a figure came into view. Several steps closer revealed it was her mother, who was looking out at the water silently as tears streamed down her face. Haley had joined without a sound and they had sat under the tree, leaning on one another.
The recollection steals all the air from Haley’s lungs. Tears begin spilling relentlessly as she runs home with reckless abandon.
The image of her head placed on her mother’s shoulder burns into her mind. In the years after that day at the willow she had grown distant, until she had eventually left altogether. The wasted time seemed to surround her, as stubborn as the heat. She hadn’t realized until now how desperately she longed for something as simple as a hug or a conversation.
She glances at the porch just before tearing through the front door. In her emotion she fumbles as she searches through the papers and miscellaneous objects that fill the bottom desk drawer. From underneath them she extracts her phone and plugs it into the wall. As soon as the device switches on she is inundated by notifications.
Her mind still reeling, Haley realizes she feels just as broken as the willow. It’s midnight, but she dials the number anyway.
After the first ring Haley debates hanging up, but she hardly has time to second guess her decision further. The phone clicks as the other line responds.
“Hello?”, Haley probes, her voice shaky and unsure.
Ramona stifles a quiet laugh, “Well look who finally decided to answer the world’s record for most ignored calls,” she retorts sarcastically.
But after a long pause she adds softy, “She just wanted you to come home Hale, Momma would’ve been so happy”.
This is a powerful story. I was moved by Haley’s struggle and could relate to her so much. Great Job!
Amazing work! The flow of the story is very nice. Your writing is fluid and so enjoyable to read. I love the symbolism of the willow tree.