The porch light is always on. Her father is always awake, waiting for her, no matter how many hours or days or years since she last returned. The freezer is full of her last visit's leftovers. She'll eat them this time, force them in between her teeth and down the needle-eye of her throat. Taste good? he asks. He's proud of his cooking. She nods. She wonders how he would react if she did anything else.
Her bedroom is as she left it, preserved, like something in dry ice. Except for the bedlinen. There is always a fresh set of covers on the huge duvet and overly-soft pillows, washed and ironed and still carrying her mother's unmistakable scent. They seem to soak up her emotions. She can feel them, trying to absorb everything imperfect and messy until she is separate, a body and a mind not talking to each other. Long experience has taught her how to cling on. The effort is exhausting, and despite the heavy material smothering her she feels cold.
Sometimes, the delicate threads of early-hours birdsong tumble around her like a waterfall. She has a sense of being lifted, carried on the sturdier call of the woodpigeon. She doesn't remember it when she wakes up — not the breeze, nor the deep breaths of dawn air — but she knows. Those are the only mornings she doesn't wake with a headache.
More often she hears a faint rumble, like the earth snoring in the distance. She knows it's her brother, his deep sighs twisting and floating their way to the surface under the old apple tree, where no grass ever grows anymore and no apples ever blossom. A ritual of protest and blame at all the ways she's left him over the years. First in the lake, when he slipped and couldn't swim, then in the ground where he couldn't breathe all over again. It's her punishment now to wake up clutching her throat and gasping for air.
(The narcissus grows still, by her parents' bedroom window. It never stops growing. Eternal spring. It's tall enough now to gaze in through the glass at her mother's face that gazes out, unblinking and unmoving. The pale yellow shimmers on hot days, edges hazy like water. Sometimes she wonders if her mother has drowned too, if her father is the only one of them truly left alive.)
I'm coming back tomorrow, she tells her boyfriend on the phone. It's too quiet here. Her father hugs her goodbye, his eyes shining, says he misses her and that he wishes she could stay. His warmth leaks into her. She senses it inside, all the way on the train, bubbling in her bloodstream and making her numb skin tingle with pain. I miss you too, she texts him. I'll be home again soon.
is a writer of short fiction, creative nonfiction and poetry. Her work appears regularly in online and print journals, and has been nominated for Best of the Net and the Pushcart Prize. She is Books Editor and Creative Writing Editor for Lucy Writers Platform and is working on two creative nonfiction projects: one a series of fragmentary 'essayettes' on the modernist writer Djuna Barnes, and another about grief, nature and place. Find her online at her website and on Twitter @BarnesElodie