'It's been so long…' he thought, wandering down the deserted street. Auburn eyes were downcast as Daniel neared his destination—a rundown house in the middle of the abandoned neighborhood. 'I don't want to do this.'
But it had to be done, and he was the only one left. With a troubled sigh, the young man walked up the steps and stood on the porch of his home, staring almost fearfully at the front door. His heart ached painfully in his chest, threatening to splinter into a thousand pieces as familiar faces passed his mind's eye. He ran a calloused hand through his hair and forced himself to pull the keys out of his pocket. The sound of the metal clashing resounded painfully throughout the street as the other houses watched in awe.
No one had stepped foot in the Vasser residence for over ten years.
Wordlessly, the eighteen year old opened the front door—it screeched in protest against his intrusion, and Daniel almost wished it would slam shut again, that the whole house would just crumble away forever… He coughed as dust rained down on him, welcoming him home. It was dark and musky in there, and the sun would not rise for another hour. He pulled out a flashlight from his backpack and switched it on; the rays swam through the darkness effortlessly, lighting his way. The world stood still for a split second before Daniel Vasser stepped inside his childhood home.
'This place… I can still remember…' Angrily, he rubbed at his eyes and convinced himself it was a delayed reaction to the dust. The door remained hanging open as he ventured forth, giving him one last chance to escape. However, Daniel was determined to clean the neglected home, and so he headed to the kitchen to start his task.
'I'd almost forgotten what this place looked like…' He thought, tying another trash bag closed and setting it off in a corner.
He'd been at it for hours when the sun finally began to set, shining through the open windows of his ancient home to give him some much-needed light. He was sweaty from the work, his dark hair sticking to his face and neck uncomfortably. He hadn't eaten at all that day, but he just couldn't find his appetite. He had managed to clean most of the house, to clear it of trash, dirt, and unwanted reminders of the past. Even with how long he'd already worked, though, there were still two rooms left, and Daniel was seriously considering just running away.
'I have to do it,' he said to himself. 'I've come this far. I need to finish it. Besides, what would my family think of me if I gave in to such cowardice? I can hear them rolling in their graves already…' He attempted a smile. Keyword: attempted.
With a heavy sigh and a broom in hand, Daniel purposefully made his way to the back of the house. Down the hall, third door on the left. His brother's room. He was about to knock on the door, but his fist stopped in midair. He let it drop lifelessly.
'Let's get this over with…'
His brother's room was impeccable, if you didn't count the dust and cobwebs lounging about. The dingy gray covers on his bed were still perfectly smooth, as though his older brother had just made it that morning. There were no clothes on the floor, no trash, just an old throw rug and years of dirt. There was a simple desk and chair in the far left corner, right beside the window where Ashton used to watch the stars late at night. Daniel could still remember coming to him after nightmares and looking up at the midnight sky in awe.
'That was then,' he told himself firmly, setting to work on sweeping the floor. 'This is now. He's dead. They're all… They're gone, and they are not coming back. No matter how much I…'
He sniffled, but it was only the dust. Allergies, you know. He swept the piles of filth off the floor, followed by the cobwebs on the walls. He glanced at the sheets on the bed. They needed to washing, he knew, but he didn't want to touch them. He didn't want to destroy their simple perfection, their flawlessly tucked edges and smooth surface. He sighed and went to dust off the desk and open the window to let in some fresh air.
The last part of Ashton's room to clean was his closet. The young intruder opened the sliding door and saw his older brother's clothes, hanging tributes to death and decay with their moth-eaten sleeves and musty cotton. All perfectly arranged, just the way Ashton liked it. Daniel ran a hand tenderly over the worn material of a coat before he shoved the clothes to the side. On the floor of the closet were a few pairs of worn shoes and a small, cardboard box.
'I don't want to go through their things…' Daniel thought, kneeling down and grasping the box in his hands. It was light. 'I don't want to know. These are his things. Who am I to touch them?' Even as he thought this, his fingers were prying open the lid. In the back of his mind, he clung to the fear—the hope, the heart wrenching hope—that Ashton would walk in and demand to know why his little brother was in his room.
It was a foolish wish, he knew, and he opened the box despite it. Inside were a few drawings Daniel had made him when he was a child, a few old CDs, and a raggedy old quilt with green rabbits sewn onto it. The white material was yellowing and wrinkled with age. The quilt looked mildly familiar, but he couldn't place where he'd seen it before.
'Rabbits?' he wondered. 'What would Ashton be doing with such a girly quilt?' Even as the thought crossed his mind, he was smiling slightly. 'You saved the weirdest things, brother.'
Without a second thought, Daniel gathered all of the clothes, the shoes, the box, and eventually even the pristine blankets together and stuffed them in a couple of plastic trash bags. He carried them out to the front yard and piled them haphazardly with all the other garbage he'd collected that day, absently hoping the garbage men wouldn't hate him in the morning. The sun was leaving quickly, and rain clouds were darkening the sky even more.
'I'd better get the last room tonight,' he thought unenthusiastically. He didn't want the job of going through his family's belongings to carry on into the next day. Grudgingly, he dragged himself back into the old house, ignoring the ghosts lingering around every corner and every shadow on the walls.
There was only one room left. The room in the back of the house, down the hallway that grew longer with every step. Second door on the right—his parents' room. His heart was a lead weight in his chest now, threatening to fall even further and pull him under the earth. With shaking hands, he twisted the rusted knob and pushed open the wooden door. There was a sudden chill lingering about the room; his parents' presence was almost palpable… If they hadn't been dead for the past decade, he would have thought they were just there, talking and laughing like always.
He could practically hear his mother's voice greeting him.
"Hello, Daniel," like always.
It took a moment for the teen to realize he wasn't breathing. He sighed and forced down the tears, his auburn eyes drowning in despair as he began the same routine. Sweep the floors, dust the cobwebs away, open the windows… His mother and father shared a dresser—they didn't have a closet—and in the corner by the door sat his mother's vanity table, once brilliant and glowing mahogany worn down by time. He vowed to polish it until it shined again.
Quickly, he pulled the covers from their bed and tossed their clothes into trash bags, hoping the chore would end itself so he could get out of the depressing house. As he was pulling more clothes from the dresser, he uncovered a large white book. He froze, brow furrowing in curiosity as he placed the pile on the floor. He grabbed the book from its hiding place and examined it slowly. The edges were frayed, and there was something black smudged on the cover. Carefully, hesitantly, he flipped back the cover and gasped at the smiling faces beneath.
It was a photo album.
Almost as though hypnotized, Daniel sat on the hard floor and held the book in his lap, eyes wide as he stared at the long-gone faces of his parents and brother. His mom, her beauty rivaling the moon and stars, smiling jovially at the camera. A much younger Daniel sat giggling in her lap, his older brother beside him with a look of contentment about his gray eyes. Finally, there was his father, kneeling behind them all and hugging the group from behind, a bright smile painted on his wrinkled face.
Daniel smiled softly as his eyes filled with tears. He rubbed at his eyes again before turning the page, wondering what he might see of his past. The book was filled with pictures, oh so many memories he had accidentally forgotten over time. Ashton and he playing together at the beach; his mother baking a cake for Daniel's fourth birthday; his father snoring away on the couch while Ashton and Daniel drew on him with markers; his brother's first day of high school; his parents' 14th anniversary party.
He stopped halfway through the book, a certain picture catching his eye. It was taken upside-down, which is exactly how his mother had pasted it in the book. At the bottom was the vast blue sky, trees dropping from the earth above to swim in its depths. In the background, his mother and father were flirting playfully, splashing water from a lake on each other. Closer to the camera were blurs: a finger inching over the lens, the corner of Ashton's face, and a white quilt with rabbits sewn into it.
"Mom, I wanna take a picture!" seven-year-old Daniel cried out, holding the camera in his small hands.
Ashton was beside him on the quilt. "Make sure you hold it steady."
"I know, I know," the child said, smiling. His mother and father were laughing in the background, unaware of the lens pointed at them.
"Oh, really?" Ashton asked. Daniel nodded, but suddenly strong fingers assaulted his sides. "Ya holding it steady now?" he teased, tickling his younger brother mercilessly. The little boy laughed hysterically, curling up and trying to crawl away whilst never letting go of the camera.
"Ah ha ha! A-Ashton, I –ha ha! – I c-can't hold it with y-you—!"
The laughter took over as Daniel accidentally hit the button on top of the camera, sprawled out upside down on the quilt and totally out of breath.
With a gasp, Daniel remembered where the quilt had come from. The memory of that day had assaulted him as mercilessly as his brother's tickling hands, but this time he was not laughing carelessly. His breaths came in quick, short gasps, and his heart was racing. His auburn eyes were wide as the tears he had been holding back for years finally brimmed over the edge, falling endlessly down his face and onto the photograph. He never would have imagined Ashton would save something so seemingly meaningless…
He bolted out of the room and down the hall, one thing, and one thing only on his mind—he had to get that quilt. He didn't stop to think why it suddenly meant so much; it didn't matter at that point. He needed something, anything familiar. He ran out of the house and onto the grass where he had left all the trash. It was dark by then, and the clouds were drizzling down their own tears onto the broken youth; but he didn't care as he tore into bag after bag, searching desperately for that reminder that the past exists. That his family had once lived.
"Where?" he cried. "Where is it?"
The trash piled up around him, making an unsightly mess of his yard. The rain poured down harder as he tore into another bag.
"The-there!" He grabbed the musty old quilt as if it was his mother, his father, and his brother all in one. He clutched it to his chest, sobs wracking his tired body as the tears flowed and mingled with the icy rain. With shuddering breaths, he screamed. All the pain, all the fear and sorrow, all the hatred, all the loneliness…he screamed it all out, unable to find any release or comfort.
"Why?" he sobbed, his throat raw. "W-why did you l-leave?" He buried his face in the familiar quilt and yelled. "Why did you a-all leave me he-here? Why? Why? I still need you! Pl-lease! Please! D-don't leave me here all alone!"
As the storm raged on and the quilt became soaked with rain and tears, Daniel's sobs and pleas went unheard. Nothing, not even time, could ever heal his wounds.