Out of Place, Out of Time
Polly pulled onto a long drive leading to a large white frame house, which bore its century-plus existence with stately grace. A porch wrapped around the structure, furnished with a swing, scattered chairs, tubs of geraniums and hanging pots of ivy. Wind chimes tinkled in a light breeze. Nostalgia swept over Will like an illness. A girl was swinging on a tire hung from a maple tree whose silver-backed leaves glittered in the night. She wore an old-fashioned plaid dress, its bow coming loose in the back. For an instant, Will thought she was gazing through a time tunnel at her nine-year-old self. Then the vision jumped from the swing and ran toward her. “Aunt Will!” the child exclaimed, throwing herself into her arms. “Becky!” For the first time in centuries, it seemed, Will felt the delicious warmth of total, unfettered love. No questioning. No judgment. She squeezed Becky tightly, causing laughter to bubble out of her. Polly tousled her daughter’s strawberry blond curls as she passed, carrying Will’s luggage toward the house. Will scooped up the girl and followed. “You’re getting so big — I can hardly lift you,” she laughed. Becky rested her head in the crook of her neck. “Gran’s dying,” she whispered. Her breath was warm and sweet. Will stood outside the front door for a long moment, clutching Becky like a teddy bear, then took a deep breath as she crossed the threshold. She looked dispassionately at the assortment of antique furniture in the perpetually unused living room. It was arranged exactly as in her childhood. She felt no attachment to it and wondered whether the original owners had, or if from the very beginning those pieces were destined to live long and lonely lives, never getting to do the things ordinary chairs and tables got to do. She felt a sharp pinch on her cheek and caught a glimpse of her teenage self winking smartly at her before tearing up the stairs in a mad rush to her bedroom. Will felt a surge of longing. Mentally, she followed her jean jacketed and jelly-shod ghost up the staircase to a room she knew was no longer there. She saw the pale lemon-colored walls, the gauzy chiffon curtains, and her canopied bed, covered in a drift of violets. She saw the portable CD player that had provided the musical accompaniment to some of the most stunning realizations of her youth and once again heard Bonnie singing Total Eclipse of the Heart in the dark. Will wanted to stay in the room — pull out all the drawers and reach deep into the closet for all the bits of herself that had gotten broken or lost between then and now. But she had been standing still too long. Becky felt leaden in her arms — she had fallen asleep. Will carried her into the sitting room and deposited her onto an unfamiliar couch. The room the family used the most had changed the most, having been redecorated since Will’s last visit. Only the habits of the occupants were recognizable: soft yellow lamplight bathing stacks of library books, the always-on but rarely watched TV murmuring and blinking in a vain effort to attract attention. The sliding doors to what once had been a dining room but now was Mother’s bedroom cracked open, releasing a strong whiff of sweet incense. Cranberry light glowed from the interior. A sturdy woman with iron-gray curls and a grim set to her jaw emerged. Will felt her face split into a nervous smile. Stella returned it with a frankly disapproving glare, then quickly averted her eyes as though to take it back. “Good of you to come,” she said. “She’s been asking.” The truth struck Will like a blow. Her mother really was dying, and her presence at the homestead was largely coincidental. Her face burned at the thought, but no one seemed to notice. “I made a casserole,” Stella told Polly. “It’s in the oven. The one Becky likes, with hamburger and rice and chicken soup mix. She ate two helpings.” The woman’s matter-of-fact voice quivered a little. It occurred to Will that although Stella had been caring for Mother for almost fifteen years, she still seemed like a stranger. But I’m the one who’s afraid to walk through those doors, she thought. I’m the one who doesn’t know which room I’ll be sleeping in tonight. I’m the one who ran away from home and never really came back. Stella’s a member of the family now — I’m the one who doesn’t fit in. “Should I wait until morning to say hello?” she asked Polly. “Go in for a minute,” Polly replied. “She’ll rest better knowing you’re here.” Will slid the door open, quelling the impulse to race through the night as far away as she could get. Cora Roan’s room was a lavish affair, papered in red brocade, crowded with ornate, gilt-trimmed furniture. Silk scarves slung over lampshades accounted for the room’s crimson glow. The draperies tied back at the windows were a heavy velvet of dark olive green with a floral pattern embroidered in burgundy and gold threads. The windows were open, letting in the cool night air and a tinkling, tolling, clattering symphony of wind chimes. Photographs stared at Will from every wall — dead ancestors she had never known mingling with innumerable versions of herself, Polly, Becky and other familiar faces — including one man Will couldn’t bear to see. The room overflowed with New Age paraphernalia: crystals, beads, candles, incense holders, books on the occult, Tarot cards, star charts, runes. There were also mundane items that reminded Will with a twinge that her mother was an old, sick woman: boxes of tissues, prescription medications, ointments and lotions, eyeglasses, an open package of disposable underwear. Cora lay on the large four-poster. Her small frame seemed almost to disappear in the downy bedding. Her eyes were closed, and she looked weightless — like a corpse, Will thought. She was dressed in an impractical nightgown — creamy ivory satin trimmed in lace and pale blue ribbons. Her long, yellow-gray hair hung in loose waves, garlands of wildflowers adorning it. Her skin was translucent, almost unlined. “She told Becky about Ophelia a couple of days ago, and now, every day, she goes out and picks flowers for Gran’s hair,” Polly whispered. She grasped Will lightly by the arm and propelled her toward their mother’s bedside. She looked exquisite. Like a child, Will thought, a beautiful dead child. A radiance surrounded her, as though she were bathed in life energy that had been expelled from her body and had no other obvious place to go. Her pale blue eyes fluttered open. “Willabelle,” she said. Her voice was unexpectedly strong. Her dry lips parted in a smile. For the first time in years, the name didn’t sound foreign. The glass wall that stood between them for most of Will’s life dissolved in that instant, and she fought hard against an anguished uprising of tears and regret. The moment didn’t last. Cora’s eyes took on a shrewd expression. “You’ve come to claim your inheritance.” “No, Mother,” Will said. “I just came for a visit.” “Hah.” Batty, Will thought. How could I forget? Cora took a deep breath, as though she were about to launch into a well-prepared speech. “You’re tired,” Will said, pre-empting it. “We can talk in the morning.” She gave her a light kiss on the cheek and hurried out of the room. ________________________________________________________________________
This is Excerpt №7 of The Darkest Eyes by Mick Brady
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