The engine was no more than a whisper as the clean black Camry glided over the pavement down the seldom-traveled street. Not that many people had lived here to begin with, if her traitorous memory served her correctly. She could feel the years in every bump the vehicle made as it encountered another crack or pothole in the worn cement. Risking a glance out the driver's window, she watched in silence as the trees and over-grown fields passed by, where weeds were almost done choking the life out of the grasses and the trees were almost finished with reclaiming the land that originally belonged to them. Looking back, she frowned as she realized that there were several large branches crossing her side of the road. Her fingers, almost completely succumbed to arthritis, remembered to hold the wheel tighter as she eased down on the brake.
Carolyn Anderson remembered not to shut her eyes as the memories began a brief assault in her mind, the car slowing down as she applied the brakes to avoid adding a second fatal collision to her résumé. She felt the all-too familiar squeeze in her chest as she fought to regain control of her breathing, forcing the car to a complete stop so that she could feebly fend off the attack. For a split second behind her eyelids, she saw her six-year old daughter turning to face her again, her mouth opening to ask the question that Carolyn would never hear. She forced herself to breathe, unworried about another driver wandering down the road; Nurse Aida did just tell her the other day that no one except short-cut hunters ever came down the road anymore, not after the infamous collision fifty-four years ago.
Fifty-four. She briefly wondered what happened to the more than half a century that separated her from the present to the last time she'd seen this suddenly very lonely neighborhood. Did everyone flee with her that night?
Resuming control of her mind and forcing the past away in its locker, Carolyn eased the car around the branches, sternly reminding herself that the branches were a recent addition to the desolate scene. The sun filtered weakly through the dead leaves of autumn, casting gold and red colors on the pavement as the car inched forward past the branches. She released the breath she hadn't realized she'd been holding as the vehicle slowly regained its former speed, her wool coat and skirt and thin blouse suddenly feeling constricting.
A house passed by on the left. Ivy clung to the dirty white paint, which was chipping off in flakes from years of neglect. The elegant carvings that once graced the front door were at crooked angles with huge chunks missing, as though someone had gouged it years ago. Carolyn vaguely recognized the brown rusted mailbox at the end of the long drive; it had lost its original color and painted numbers. In another lifetime, she remembered that the mailbox had changed color with the months because the twin children who used to live there always used it as their personal canvas, much to the dismay of their mother and the amusement of their father.
Carolyn turned to face the road. There were only three houses on this street, a good stretch of wood and property separating each one from its neighbors. The original intent was to grant the colonial lords privacy from each other, and the renewed intent being that a child could pretend that she was the only person alive in the vibrant green wood that surrounded the property. At the same time, the road provided plenty of opportunities for the families to get together with other townspeople, such as at the public beach on the massive lake, or the fire circle for public cookouts on the beach, or even the old station where Lorenzo, an old fireman, would shoot off his homemade fireworks for the Fourth of July.
To her right, the lake glittered faintly through the dying leaves, the depths now murky with time and concealment. The one-time source of amusement and summer memories for the children and adults who once lived here was now remaining still and lifeless, abandoned by the summer breeze. Carolyn could faintly see the second house on the long road through the branches; the wooden dock was no longer visible to the naked eye, but Carolyn didn't know if it was just locked away in storage or it had succumbed to the lake itself. Neglect was written in every crack in the darkened yellow paint of the house's side and in the missing shingles in the roof. A face came to Carolyn's mind, a vague memory of the grizzle-haired owner who used to live there with his wife and son. He had been fierce only in appearance and temper, but was complemented well with his tenderhearted wife and polite son. Carolyn could almost see the young boy playing in the front yard as the Camry made the gentle curve in the road and passed the yellow house, the smallest of the three on the street.
The closer she got to her former home, the more frequent the ghosts seemed to appear in the corporeal world. There was the mailman who would obligingly race the kids in his van while they were on their bikes. There was the mangy dog that forever fought the calico cat for that one spot in the grasses lining the beach because it was the warmest. Oh, and over by the remains of the lifeguard chair, she could see Maddy and Zack stretching to race yet again in the lake to 'officially' determine who was the fastest swimmer.
It did not take long for the trees to shield the beach from view, and soon she was surrounded on both sides. After what seemed like years traveling on the same road, she finally arrived to the last house. The actual mailbox was long gone, its post snapped in half by an invisible force. The gravel crunched underneath the car's tires as it began the slight ascent to the large house that was surrounded by large trees. Carolyn felt her throat close up when she finally saw the house at the center of the semi-circle drive; despite the curling paint, rusting fence and gate, and the long dead flowerbeds, the old house stood out like a lighthouse in the storm of her memories.
Silence fell when she turned off the engine and slowly unbuckled her seatbelt. Curiously devoid of the ghosts that had plagued her the entire way here, the old house seemed to be more lonely than threatening. Getting out of the car and leaning on it for support, she stared at the colors that the kaleidoscope of leaves and sun created on the house's face, and wished she could just pretend she was twenty-six again, preparing for her wedding on the expansive back lawn overlooking the crystalline water below the slight cliff side. Staring up at the three-story front brought back more whispers and memories than she cared for, and she sought to clamp them all back down.
But Carolyn was almost completely sure she saw movement in the second floor window
She swallowed, and then, despite her protesting joints and the cane she had brought for support, walked up to the rusted black gate. It was hanging at an angle, the rust having eaten away its other supports, and someone had attempted to tape it off altogether. Dingy yellow caution tape clung to her coat and skirt as she brushed past the gate and fence, her shoes and cane making muted taps against the worn brick path and nearly tangling with the weeds that had grown up in between the cracks. Upon reaching the aged front door, she cautiously pushed the front door forward, flinching when the rotted wood finally succumbed to time and fell to the ground with a thundering crash. A great cloud of dust billowed up, and Carolyn swallowed when she thought that the dust took the outline of her long-deceased husband.
There were only so many mind tricks she could take. There were only so many subtle accusations she could handle without losing her grip on reality.
Stepping over the fallen door, she entered the dusty foyer, with great sheets over unrecognizable furniture. The coffee tables and guest chairs remained in the gloom, great white mournful shapes that stood in silent testament to her old life, when she was still a happy mother to a vibrant six-year old.
Her head jerked at the sound of a child's giggle, a foreign sound to her. She strained her ears, and faintly heard the sound of little feet against the floorboards upstairs. Frowning, she debated whether to investigate the sounds or not, but when her heart leapt at hearing the giggles again, she made up her mind. Hesitantly, unsure of her step, she began to walk toward the grand staircase that still had an achingly familiar red albeit dulled carpet covering the middle section of the curved steps.
As Carolyn began the ascent to the second floor, she could feel the years beginning to disappear. The cracks in the banister seemed to disappear as the gold covering lost the dust and regained its shine once more. Her breath came easier and her step lighter as she continued up, the ever-constant pain in her knees fading away completely. The grime on the large windows behind the stairs disappeared as the sun entered the house unhindered. The cracks in the wall sealed themselves as the paint returned to its pristine condition, and her bare feet made no sound against the lush carpet as her heavy autumn clothes seemed to fade away into her favorite gauzy peach-colored summer dress. By the time she arrived to the second floor, the stone floor stretched before her, clean and unbroken with the pink veins of stone sparkling slightly in the sunlight.
The floor-length window directly across from her presented the sight of leafy green boughs just outside. Carolyn took a step forward, wanting so much to believe the sight before her was real. But once again, she heard the giggles and light footsteps down the hall to her left. "Hello?" she finally dared to call out, and the giggling ceased almost immediately, but then her now sharp ears picked up the sound of muffled giggles, as though the owner was waiting for her to discover the source of the sound.
"Hello?" she repeated as she ventured down the light blue hall, lined with several closed doors. The first open door, however, snagged her curiosity almost right away. She hesitated, and then carefully tapped it open. It swung into the room on silent hinges to show a child's bedroom, a girl's to be precise. Almost instantaneously, the owner's name came to Carolyn's lips, expelling itself in a shaky whisper.
She closed her eyes as her daughter's name hung in the air, spoken for the first time in fifty-four years. It remained suspended there, surrounded by the stuffed animals and books on the white shelves, and the sky blue bed with the turquoise glittery butterflies stitched into the quilt that Carolyn's mother had sewn for the child. Little Sophie, with her mother's green eyes and her father's distinctive dark hair had always been the precious treasure of Carolyn's side of the family.
Carolyn found herself leaning on the door as she stared into her daughter's old bedroom, the room that had Sophie's prized fluffy tan teddy-bear sitting untouched on the pillow as it remained frozen in time, wondering when its mistress would return. Its name had been Mr. Bear, Carolyn remembered. Carolyn stared at the bear before whispering, "Sophie is never coming back. And it's all my fault."
Was it her imagination, or did the bear seem to slump over slightly? Carolyn felt her heart twist as she walked slowly to the bed and then bent over to pick it up. Upon close examination, Carolyn could see where the nose had been worn to threads as a result of five years of unadulterated love. She lay it back on the bed again, this time placing it down as though it were sleeping.
"Momma…" the word came echoing down the hall, a word she had not heard from anyone in years. Heart thumping in her throat, she slowly left Sophie's room in time to see a corner of a pink skirt disappear down the stair. The little feet stopped, as though waiting for her to catch up. "Momma," the voice repeated, this time managing to sound a little annoyed at the delay.
As though in a dream, Carolyn found herself walking back to the stairs to find little six-year-old Sophie looking impatient at the top. The sun glowed extra bright through the bay windows behind Sophie as the mother and daughter looked at each other with their famous green eyes. Carolyn's heart twisted when she recognized the pink ballerina skirt and leotard, the last outfit Sophie ever wore.
For a brief few moments, Carolyn was transported back to the accident, as she was unable to hold the memories at bay any longer. It had been pouring rain when Carolyn was driving Sophie home from ballet class, the winds extra vicious that particular evening. Sophie had been talking about one of her classmates, Carolyn couldn't remember which, when Sophie asked her a question and she had missed it. Taking her eyes off the road, she turned to face her daughter, asking Sophie to repeat her words.
But Sophie never got the chance.
In those fatal six seconds, the tires had lost traction on the road. Distracted and disoriented, Carolyn had panicked in her vain attempts to either straighten or slow the car down. The trees that shielded the neighbors from each other proved to be Carolyn's undoing; not only did the trees wreck the car and snuff Sophie's life almost instantly, but the trees also knocked Carolyn out, delaying the call to the paramedics. No one had even realized there was a problem, not even Lance, her husband who was returning home from work in the darkness of the night and the storm. Carolyn's navy sedan was still sticking out in the road, and Lance ended up plowing straight into it. The force of the impact spun his vehicle around so that it went straight into the trees. The grizzle-haired neighbor, hearing the collision through the rain, called the paramedics before rushing to the scene.
Carolyn never knew how long she was unconscious, the doctors didn't tell her once she woke up in the hospital. One moment she was driving and then the next she was waking up in the white cold room. There was no memory of what happened in between. According to the doctors, she had suffered a concussion from the first hit, and then cuts and bruises from the splintered windshield as Lance's car collided with her sedan, pushing it farther into the tree.
"Momma, they're waiting downstairs," Sophie said, bringing her mother's attention back to the present. Her tone reminded Carolyn painfully of all the times that she had to remind her daughter more than once to complete a specific task.
"Sophie…" Carolyn's voice cracked as she knelt and pulled Sophie into a close hug, her daughter throwing her arms around Carolyn's neck as she did so. Long unshed tears began to creep down Carolyn's cheek as she breathed in her daughter's scent and felt the steadily beating heart against her own. "Oh, Sophie…" she began, but Sophie hugged her tighter.
"Let it free, Momma," she whispered into Carolyn's ear. Carolyn pulled away so she could face her daughter, and was about to question her words when Sophie wrapped three of Carolyn's fingers into her small hand. "Come on, they're waiting," she said, pulling on her mother's hand as she began to walk downstairs.
Despite Carolyn's questions about the identities of the people waiting downstairs, Sophie remained stubbornly silent until they came to the curve in the staircase. Carolyn felt her fingers slip from Sophie's grasp as she stopped in silence, staring down at the group of people that had somehow amassed while she was upstairs. The front door was wide open as were the red curtains, bathing the entire foyer in a pool of golden sunlight. She recognized the faces as those held dear even long after some of the owners had passed into the next world. Carolyn's heart twisted as she recognized her parents, sisters, her three nieces and two nephews, her neighbors and their children, Sophie's childhood friends, and even a few close college classmates. They were standing in a way that created a free path from the bottom of the stairs to a face she longed to touch once more.
Lance stopped talking with the person standing next to him and turned to smile up at her. The chatter ceased as she almost dreamily walked the rest of the way down the stairs to her husband, ignoring everyone as she ran to him. He caught her with a flourish as his brown eyes sparkled mischievously. "I miss you so much…" she managed to whisper before he swept her up into a kiss.
"And I you," he whispered back before kissing her deeply, his arms wrapping around her middle. She closed her eyes, and for the first time in fifty-four years, felt true peace in her heart. For the first time, all felt right with the world. There was no guilt, no fear, and no worry. There was only peace and healing.
Her hands tightened their grip around his middle, and then she cried out when all the warmth and life disappeared from her grip. She opened her eyes and almost cried with empty despair as the illusion began to slip away, leaving the decaying house and its ghosts in its wake.
No, not ghosts, she mentally amended. Her heart still mourned her daughter and husband, both taken away in moments of inattention. But there was a light feeling, a releasing of a burden that she hadn't felt before coming here. No, it was more like free spirits, she decided. Ghosts were still tied down to the corporeal world because of an unfinished task. Spirits were free because there was no longer any guilt or need for closure. Her thoughts continued to recall every last faded memory she had of her previous life as she retrieved her cane and walked slowly back to the car, her wool coat blowing with the autumn breeze. Even the road back to the nursing home seemed a blur as she drove without over-analyzing, as her fingers and mind remembered the path back to Rising Sun Nursing Care, which had served as her home for many years now.
Nurse Aida found Carolyn sitting by the window when she came to bring dinner and company. Carolyn was sitting in the armchair, a thick green quilt draped over her body as she wore a foreign small smile, gazing silently at two turquoise butterflies flittering outside the window.
A/N: Story was inspired by the song 'Memories' (Within Temptations). Title is 'Memory' in French.