The countryside rolled by, the wheels of the train clicking over the tracks, the steady sound settling into his bones. Outside the fields were full of shoots just barely poking their leaves above the soil, but the trees were in the midst of their green summer glory. The irises were in full bloom, dots of purple, blue, pink and yellow in the hills. The scenery was a refreshing chance from the towering buildings and crowded streets of the cities, the old brick buildings with the narrow hallways of campus. Still, though he stared out the window, he didn't take any of it in. He was lost in thought.
It had been three years since he had been home, mostly because there was really no home for him to return to. His mother had died a few years back, two years before he had left for college, and his brother was overseas. After his mother had died an old friend of hers, Doctor Hayes, had taken him in so he could finish his schooling. It was with Doctor Hayes and his daughter Katie that he'd arranged to spend the summer.
When they arrived at the train station the elderly lady in the seat next to him poked him awake.
"This is your stop young man," she said. She smelled like old perfume and flowers.
When she saw the blank look on his face, she pointed up at his suitcase in the luggage rack above him, where the tags applied when he boarded the train were clearly visible.
His destination was marked in bright red.
"It says right there," she said in case he couldn't figure it out himself. "Gardot." She leaned back and smiled. "You don't wanna keep your pretty lass waiting any longer."
He stood stiffly, stretching out the kinks in his muscles from sleeping in the seat. Swinging his suitcase down he shuffled out into the aisle. His last sight of the old lady was her adjusting her flower embellished hat before winking at him.
Shaking his head he flashed his ticket stub as he exited on to the bustling platform.
He didn't bother fighting over a luggage cart, nor did he line up to collect luggage from the rear cars. He had only his suitcase.
It wasn't difficult to find a taxi service, but it was much more difficult to persuade one of their drivers, a young man called Bernie to drive him up into the mountains. When he finally agreed, the amount it had subtracted from his summer budget made him cringe. Still, isolated up in the mountains he wouldn't have need for other things.
The cab was by no means the most comfortable thing he'd ever ridden in; there was a hole in the back seat where the foam was poking through, the seat belt cut across him at a funny angle and rubbed against his throat and the windows wouldn't go down so the heat was stifling. He kept his suitcase on the seat beside him, preferring not to let it be out of his sight.
Bernie kept up a steady conversation, even if it was mostly one sided. Leon contributed when he had something to say, though that wasn't often. Before they reached the outskirts of town where the foothills began, he knew more about Bernie than he could ever want to. Bernie had been born and raised in Siede but had attended Northern University in Marott, just an hour from Gardot. He had a girlfriend named Jennifer and a dog named Robert. He had three sisters, all younger than him. He liked playing card games and ding word puzzles. His incessant chattering died down after a while when they left the sloping foothills and he had to focus more on his driving than keeping his passenger entertained.
The mountains were breathtaking, the slopes dotted with trees and irises in every color you could imagine. The fresh air coming through Bernie's window in the front seat smelled familiar, like home.
Home, if he had ever had one, was here.
They drove for about twenty minutes up into the mountains and Leon was glad that Bernie knew where he was going because he wasn't entirely sure he could have found his way anymore. It shamed him more than a bit to realize how much he'd forgotten in just three years.
Three long years.
Finally the old house came into view, three stories tall and built in a fashion that was long outdated. The paint was looking distinctly worn and the bushes were overgrown, but the shutters on the ground floor had been given a fresh coat of paint. Bernie pulled up in front of the house. Leon passed over the last ten dollar bill in his wallet and turned to face the house, not sparing a backwards glace for the departing cab.
Despite the newly painted shutters, the house had an air of distinct abandonment. As he walked up the porch steps to the front door he noticed that they squeaked and some of them were rotten.
He knocked on the door and waited. While he waited, he gazed around at the porch. The sagging front steps, the crack in the window to the right of the door, the peeling paint that revealed graying boards beneath. The tarnished doorknobs, the drawn, moth-eaten blue curtains. All of it familiar. The late afternoon sunlight filtered through the gathering clouds. It was going to rain soon.
He knocked again. After several minutes spent contemplating the spiders that had accumulated in the disused porch light he gave up the effort and retreated.
The back door was more difficult to reach than he remembered, though it could have been because he'd grown since he'd last been there, or because the bushes and weeds had expanded to overtake the vague path that had once been there. After a brief struggle with a twisted rhododendron he reached the back door. This at least showed signs of use, which was relief. There was a pair of worn brown boots on the ground outside, undoubtedly Katie's, and the grass was trampled. The screen door had a rent in once side and the door behind it was pockmarked and weather worn. The two windows were open and behind one faded brown curtains fluttered in the breeze. Behind the other curtains hung lopsided, one end of the hanging rod separated from the wall. Fresh firewood had been stacked beneath one window, over top of the remnants of the wood he himself had split years ago. Firewood was a necessity up here; you couldn't trust the power lines.
To his relief the back door was unlocked and it opened on squeaky hinges into a familiar kitchen. The table looked the same, cluttered with books and stacks of notes. The white cabinets showed signs of an attempt at repainting - half of them sported a fresh white coat of paint, none of them sported doorknobs. The counter tops were clean, with a fresh vase of flowers beneath the windowsill.
He let the screen door swing shut behind him, being careful not to let it slam. Chances were they were both asleep. Continuing through the kitchen he entered the living room, the walls papered in a peeling, faded print. Here the curtains were thrown open, revealing battered windows behind them. The first drops of rain from the coming storm had begun to splatter the glass.
There was an old wooden desk that had belonged to her mother along one wall. The surface was a mess of crumpled paper, envelopes and candle stubs. The twin armchairs had blankets draped over them to hide the worn spots; one had three dictionary sized books functioning as a leg. Katie lay on the sofa, one arm thrown over her face, a much used blue blanket draped over her sleeping form. At least, he assumed it was Katie - it had to be, though eh would have been hard pressed to recognize her out of her own home. How many years had he been gone? Three? She would have been just fifteen when he left.
He stood there for a moment. He didn't want to wake her, and didn't quite know what he would say if he did. The choice was taken out of his hands as thunder rumbled across the sky. She stretched, yawning and blinking sleep from her eyes. She sat up slowly and the blanket fell from her chest, yawning again.
Her eyes cast about the room for whatever had woken her until they landed on him. She gazed at him for a moment then fumbled for her glasses, which were on the coffee table. As he came into focus she tilted her head.
"Leon?" she mumbled, raking her hair back from her face. It was short, he noticed, not nearly as long as when he'd last seen her.
They both jumped as thunder shook the house to its bones.
After a long moment she rose, stifling a yawn with one hand.
"Do you need help with your things?" she asked, straightening her clothes, smoothing out the wrinkles.
He gestured to his suitcase with his free hand.
"This is all I brought."
She raised her eyebrows, folding the blanket over the back of the sofa.
"Just leave it here for now. We can clean out a room for you later. Now I need your help closing the shutters.
It turned out that only the windows on the ground floor were open, so it didn't take long to shut them. She spread towels on the sills of two of the windows that had cracks.
She turned to him then, shaking her hair out of her face.
"It's almost four - are you hungry?"
He wasn't really, but he said yes anyways.
Outside they could hear the rain falling - first a gentle patter on the windows, soon rising to a steady downpour. When lightning flashed, you could see the outlines of the shutters.
Katie turned on the lights in the kitchen, the bare yellow bulb casting a dim light that created long shadows. She rummaged around in the cupboards until she unearthed a half-eaten loaf of bread and a can of tomato soup. There were a few slices of cheese in the refrigerator as well.
Out of habit, she cut each grilled cheese into triangles.
While they waited out the storm they talked. She asked him what life was like at the university, what kind of classes he was taking, if the buildings were really thirty stories high. He learned that her brother, Eric, had enlisted in the military the year before, that she was hoping to go away to college in the fall, that her father had retired the previous summer.
The clock on the wall said it was nearly five -forty five by the time the rain let up. Katie opened the kitchen window and fresh air came flowing in. It smelled the way it always does after it rains, as though the whole world has been washed clean, leaving the earth bare.
The sky was still dark, heavy with clouds, making it seem as though it was seven or eight o'clock. Thunder rumbled in the distance, but the storm was over.
"It's going to be beautiful tomorrow," Katie murmured, a whisper on a breath of wind. She sighed, staring out the window. "It always is the day after a storm."