This story is by Gabrielle M Loeser and was part of our 2020 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
The sky is slate gray. I can feel the heaviness in the air. Everything is silent as if the clouds are absorbing sound. I sit in the car with the engine turned off. I can see my breath crystalizing before me. The leather steering wheel causes the tender flesh of my palms to ache with cold. But I welcome the pain.
The stump of that tree sits there rotting away. I can picture the termites festering inside eating everything. Just like the termites that sit inside me destroying everything. The house, whose front yard that rotting tree stump sits on, stands silently watching. The second-floor windows casting a judgmental stare over the street. I glance at my watch, 10:43 am. I have been sitting here for almost 45 minutes. I lean my head back while flashes of that night jump across my mind. A knock on the window pulls my thoughts back to the frigid car.
The windows have frosted over making it impossible to see outside. I turn the key; the engine coughs as it turns over. Bitter air rushes in as I open the window making my eyes water. The woman standing outside the window has hair as grey as the dirty snow covering the ground. “Can I help you? I couldn’t help but notice your car sittin’ out here for the last hour or so.” I blink my eyes as they adjust to the cold air. “You lost or somethin’?” Her accent is smooth like melted wax. My West Virginia accent faded years ago when I moved North to Vermont. “Are you okay? You need me to call someone?” I open my eyes realizing the woman is still talking.
“When did you cut the tree down?” I ask pointing to the decaying stump. The woman turns looking confused. She folds her arms over her chest rubbing her hands down her slender biceps. She is staring at me now with concern sewed on her brow.
“Oh my, must have been five or six years now since we got rid of that thing. You know it was really hurtin’ our garden in the back.” She points to a row of vibrant flower beds. Suddenly she turns back to me. “Why you askin’?”
“I’m sorry.” Is all I mutter as I put the car in drive with the windows still entirely frosted.
The frost on the windows thaws from the middle to the outer edges in thin veins. Creating a spider web across my vision. As the windshield clears I set my mind on the next stop. The three-story farmhouse on the corner of Berkshire and Bull Run Road. The house isn’t far from that cut-down tree I visited. Just a ten minute drive down the road.
I park the old station wagon at the end of the mile-long driveway using the walk to steady my breathing and thoughts. The fallen For Sale sign catches my eye. Buried in a layer of snow I carefully dig it out. With freezing hands, I pull the faded sign up and rest it against one of the trees lining the driveway.
I straighten and continue making my way down the dirt driveway. I tuck my hands under my armpits as bitter air pushes through naked tree limbs. One of those tree limbs has fallen across the driveway just before the house. I step over the limb, careful not to slip on the frozen puddles of mud on the other side.
My mother was excited to paint the house a cheery yellow when we first moved here. Now the yellow paint is cracking and peeling down the sides. The once pristine white front door is coated with a fine layer of dirt. A padlock bars my entrance as I place my bare hand over the chilled handle. I glance at my watch and it reads 11:16. I could only hope that they had received my message and would do as I asked.
Slowly I make my way around the wrap around porch to the back of the property. The red of the barn is a stark contrast to the pale yellow of the house. The frozen grass crunches under my shoes as I make my way to the barn. It was a wild guess, thinking that it would still be here after all these years. I could imagine my father having a fit one day after everyone had left and burned it along with everything else. The barn doors yell at me as I force them open. They dig into the dirt as if begging me not to go any further. Willing me not to see the horrors that laid beyond them.
When I finally shove the doors open it is just a barn. The old ford sits in the middle with a tarp only half-covering it. The one my father drove that night. Rust lingers on the back bumper. I throw the tarp off the hood revealing the pale blue coloring. My hands hesitate before they touch the cold metal that brings back memories.
My mother and father shouting.
Cassie nowhere to be found.
My mother scrambling to shove things in a duffle bag.
My mother scooping me up in her bruised arms.
Flying down the deserted roads.
Headlights blinding me from behind.
My mother, unable to see the road in the blinding lights, veering off to the left.
Metal screeching against that tree.
Rough hands pulling me out of the mangled car.
My mother begging for someone to help.
“You know it was him that night.” My hand flies off the metal slicing my finger as it goes. The sting in my finger is secondary to the person standing in front of me. Those blinding headlights cross my memory once more. It seems Cassie got my message after all.
“I haven’t seen you in 17 years and that’s what you want to say to me?” Anger coats my tongue making it sit heavily in my mouth.
“If you want me to apologize for leaving I won’t. I’m sorry for what happened that night, but not for leaving.” Her voice doesn’t waver a bit causing the anger to slither off my tongue.
“You left me! You left both of us, Cassie. You left mom and me alone! I was 8 years old! I couldn’t do anything to stop him when he came after her. I was helpless and… you left me.” That anger quickly melts away to sorrow. Sorrow for my lost mother, sorrow for my fractured childhood, even sorrow for my father.
Cassie examines each one of her fingernails. “Listen,” she says still looking at her nails, “I came because despite what you may think about me,” she looks at me pointing one of her perfectly painted nails at my chest, “I still remember this day. Every day for the past 17 years I’ve thought of her and what happened that night.” Her voice quivers this time.
“He killed her,” I whisper. The truth, finally, floating around that deserted barn. My head feels clear for the first time in 17 years. “Why did he do that, Cassie?”
Cassie’s face is dismal, her eyes brimming with tears. “I don’t know.” Is all she can say. Despite all the years that had passed neither of us would ever know why. Why our father seemed consumed with rage. Why our mother stayed for so long.
“Did you know they cut down the tree?” I ask Cassie but her eyes show no recognition. “The lady who lives in the house said it was ruining their garden.” I shake my head at the dusty ground. Cassie tentatively walks towards me.
“I’m sorry you were alone with him. I’m sorry we were alone all these years. I should have found you. It was my job as your older sister and I let you down. I know I did and I can’t change any of that now but I want us to be together today.” She rests a hand on my shoulder. Bittersweet memories roll through my mind now. Days Cassie and I spent building forts with walls thick enough to block out the screams of our parents. “Can we do that for her?” Cassie asks. Scarlet blood slowly trails down the tip of my finger. Sorrow lays heavily in my mouth leaving my tongue paralyzed. I nod my head yes and squeeze Cassie’s hand in my own. Smearing scarlet over her palm as the wind moves through the trees.