The vast expanse of sky sprawls out above you, a breathtaking canvas of robin's egg blue sprinkled with fluffy amber-glazed clouds. The golden blaze of the sun hides behind the tall, lean form of Big Ben. There are two copies of London's finest at dusk. One stands before you, pitch-black silhouettes like the ones Jason and Anna used at their wedding. The other stretches out beneath your feet like spindly trees reaching, grasping for some distant object perpetually out of reach.
A gust of wind tickles the back of your neck. Your hair flails wildly, and you shrug, shifting your coat collar higher to keep out the chill. Hands remain balled in your pockets as you remove your weight from the fence behind you. The London weather is far from uncomfortable, but you make your way back to your car, away from the base of the Eye anyway. It's too picturesque.
Traffic is heavy, as it usually is during the late side of five o'clock on a weekday, but you don't turn on the radio in the car. You fear the unknown, the chance of something spiraling out of your control - again.
When you make it to the roundabout, a part of your mind debates staying in the rotation and driving in circles until someone honks at you, telling you to make up your mind and turn out. You drift around it once, momentarily considering taking the branch that will lead you to Anna at her and Jason's place across town or following the road that will let you catch Jason as he leaves his 9-5 job at the office. You take neither. The familiar street curves away from the city, toward home.
Out in the suburbs, the sky's blue takes on a burnished feel. Amber turns gold, and then you find yourself wishing for the bird eggs again. You can deal with remembering Macey running about the house, her wild curls flowing like a mane behind her, demanding that you help her take care of the warm little eggs she'd found in the wicker basket slung on her pale purple bike. It was the spring of her sixth year, and the bike was from Jason, who had promised to teach her how to ride it that summer. That hurts less. It's at least just a nine, rather than a ten.
The garage door crawls upward, its path labored and heavy. The chains creak out a welcome when you climb out of the driver's seat and shut the boot soundly after retrieving your belongings. Out on the driveway, you wait for the door to return to the ground, eyes trailed on the little rose tree planted by the corner of the house. Its burnt orange blossoms are striking against the dark green leaves.
You sigh and appraise the rest of the front garden. Leading down to the street is a low bramble of roses, the intensity of the petal shades fading to a pale pink-white as it nears the asphalt. It had been Macey's idea to plant them so. Jason and little Ian were the ones who had actually made it happen, the latter more so than the former, who was mostly there to make sure the tyke didn't get pricked by the thorns. Ian had inherited Jason's easygoing nature, Anna's patience. Though christened in your namesake, you always thought he bore the title better than you ever did, ever could, and ever would.
Out of habit, you pause at the door to straighten the already-righted Welcome mat. Your keys feel more like a ball and chain than a simple ring strung with a handful of jangling, metal ornaments. The lock clicks loudly. It sounds exhausted, relieved almost, though the scene that greets you inside reveals no sign of disturbance.
The air hangs heavy overhead, each dust particle suspended from the ceiling. You feel as if you have to bow your head to avoid hitting low-hanging objects, and you do so, even while knowing the ceiling is actually a good five feet too high to even brush the crown of your head.
It's second nature, the way your lift your shoulders to slide the coat off, return it to its hanger. You pause to untie your shoes and take care to align them perfectly parallel along the wood panels of the floor. The keys sigh a soft tinkle when you set them in the bowl. Your belongings line up along the far wall. You remind yourself to clear them up later; perhaps after a long, hot shower, you will be able to steel yourself up for the inevitable wave of a ten.
You make it through dinner, sat at the kitchen counter in old sweats that smell of bittersweet familiarity. The elbows of your sweater are almost worn clean through, and you know the hem of your pants have holes from being trodden on so many times, but it's because of these little things that you chose this exact set of clothes for this precise night.
The baking tray is still sitting upon the stovetop, where Macey was letting it air-dry after washing. An army of magnets - souvenirs from all the places you'd been together - surrounds heavy crayon drawings and faded pencil sketches. Photos are arranged haphazardly across the stainless steel surface, an obvious sign of Jason and Ian's last visit. Your habitual dishwashing routine has never been so unceremonious. The motions are slow. You know you should hurry through them, rather than linger. But you can't.
A warm glow fills the front room when you return, as promised, to put your belongings away. The light fixtures throw angled shadows onto everything in the room; you're spared from the sight of the large, framed photo on the opposite wall. Halfway through resorting your clean clothes and toiletries, your cell phone lights up on the coffee table nearby. It's a welcome distraction even though you don't bother to answer Jason's call. Lips hint at the ghost of a smile at his caller ID photo before you return the phone, face down, to the table. You'll check your voicemail tomorrow morning.
Somewhere in the deep, dark recesses of the house, a clock sings out its soft, melancholy chimes. You pause in the middle of zipping up your now-empty suitcase. Dong, dong, dong, dong, dong, dong, dong, dong, dong, dong...The last clang echoes slightly before the house returns to a still, waiting silence. It reminds you of that ten again.
You manage to keep your head down while hauling your belongings into the hallway behind you. As you stand upon the threshold between the two rooms, the new-old urge of self-destruction swells painfully. You slap the light switch off with more force than necessary and stump toward the laundry room, only going as far as tossing your bag of soiled clothes inside. You'll wash them in the morning.
Halfway up the stairs, you realize you left the kitchen lights on dim, the way Macey begged you to when she was three, back when she was still afraid of monsters lurking in the dark, and what if she was thirsty or hungry in the middle of the night? She told you to stop when she was ten, but you didn't. She pretended to be annoyed with you treating her like a little girl when she was seventeen, but you knew she didn't mean it. Still now, you don't double back to snap the lights off, even though they make your trip up the fourteen steps a near overwhelming wash of nostalgia.
You make it to the master bedroom before it hits you, deep in the gut. How could you have forgotten about that frame. That frame, sitting so innocently on your bedside table, illuminated by the lamp's golden glow. When she'd opened Jason's present after the wedding ceremony, the frame's simplicity had made it stick out like a sore thumb from the other gifts, but it was also for that exact reason that you loved it so much. That you both loved it so much
"Now you're beside me, and look how far we've come… So far, we are so close."
It's been seven years since you last sang. Your voice cracks on the final word of the line, partially from choked emotions, partially from disuse. From the smarting at your eyes, you know the main cause to be the prior reason. It always has been.
The worn carpet blurs. You find yourself back in the hallway, clutching the doorframe, gasping for breath.
Macey's door hangs open, offering a sad invitation to enter. The room is neater than it has been in years. Books stand at attention, the floor is clear of shopping bags from her last trip to the city, the bed is made with crisp corners. You pause, one hand resting on her duvet. Sat against her pillow are Jessie and Peeta, whose ochre shell has now faded to a pale tawny shade. You rearrange her hair, set his flipper a bit more comfortably, and then slip out of the room.
There's only one room upstairs whose door is shut. Macey wanted it open, but you insisted it to be the one kept closed. It was upon faulty reasoning that you sealed the doorway. She was everywhere in the house, upon every surface, in every nook and cranny. A closed door would do nothing to help you cope.
You open the door. Anna and Macey had been the ones to reorder the cozy office space, keeping it a beautifully painful balance between being tidy and being cluttered enough to pretend she had just been through. The surfaces are free of dust, undoubtedly Macey's doing. A painting of the secret bay beneath the Golden Gate adorns one side of the far window. On the opposite side hangs the same photo collage she'd started in college.
A crease folds your brow. You freeze. An envelope sits innocently at the center of the table. The penmanship is neater than hers. Your heart thuds again, almost relieved. Fingers tremble as they pick up the paper, pull out the tri-folded sheet.
If I know you well, and I'm sure I do, then it's probably September 20 at about 11 o'clock at night. You've just gotten home, pulled on some ragged old sweats, half-heartedly went through the motions of putting your stuff away, made a round to my room to say hello to Jess and Peeta, and now you're here, obviously.
I know you miss Mum, Dad. I know you do. I can see it in your eyes every day. That's why you're standing here right now, after years of swearing to avoid this room.
I'm not telling you to do anything. I just hope you won't stay alone like this. An empty house is worst way to nurse a hurting heart because you're always, always, surrounded by the reminders of those you need the most.
Aunt Anna and Uncle Jason have been asking for you. As have just about everyone else in the family. I told them to give you until tomorrow night to sort through everything. Then they'll start their insistent barraging. You know they're good at that.
Thank you for being the best daddy a girl could ever ask for. I miss you most, Dad.
I love you.
Her name becomes illegible. You carefully stow the letter back into its home, back out of the room, shut the door behind you after inaudibly turning out the light. Your feet find their way back to the bedroom, but your legs misjudge the distance. You fall back onto the bed with a startled choke.
The house is silent. The home is still. You can hear your own breathing, each long breath more strained than the last.
You thought you were ready for this, but Macey's letter had been the final nail in the coffin. You'd heard her reading the letter to you in her sweet voice, the voice that was so painfully like hershad been. When she finished her name, the second syllable fading on her lips, the ten hit.
"How much does it hurt, Mrs. Walker? … Grace, stay with us. How much? Give us a scale of one to ten."
"Hang on, Princess. It'll be okay. I'll be right here, I promise. I love you."
Something hot and wet hits your covered knee. The tears are steady, but soundless.
Empty space and deafening silence lock you prisoner in their grasp.
The picture frame is violently distorted, save from the two distinctive shades of curly hair – her auburn and your golden blond. You rub your eyes furiously with the heels of your palms and shudder a breath.
"Macey's starting college in a few days," you announce, eyes locked on the photo. "I just...got back from helping her move in." Your voice halts. "I'm so proud of her, you know? She's such an accomplished young lady, capable of so much, and so..." Your voice cracks. "...optimistic. You'd be proud of her. I'm sure you are, Princess."
Your voice bounces back off the opposite wall.
"I miss you, Grace. … I love you."