A blue light blinks on the top corner of your phone. Has for two days and almost 2000 miles. Come home. But you haven't opened it, just previewed, kept it marked unread. That's about all you can do. You stop for gas. Drink a single bottle of water from the trunk. Eat a handful of crackers from a crushed packet you found under the seat. Keep going. If you turned around right now, you could make it home by Sunday morning. You could get coffee and the cherry cream cheese pastries from the French place downtown, like peace offerings. Pray you don't look as dead as you feel. But you wouldn't do that. No, because come home means come home. Not stop for pastries and coffee. You'd drop to your knees, apologies trapped behind teeth, and let your head hang. Shamed. Contrite. There wouldn't be words. No shouting. Nothing to make you feel worse. Just fingers combing through unwashed hair, unspeakably gentle until they aren't. Until they tug your head back and make you meet the eyes you can't bear to look into. You'd sob, your guilt deliberately and painstakingly torn from your skin. And you'd be okay for a while. But, the guilt always returns through the tips of the fingers and crawls its way through to the rest of the body. Feels like you're trapped in a loop. Maybe it'd be okay if it was just you, but it isn't. Because you get to fall apart knowing that there are hands that know how each piece fits together. You didn't start out with a plan to drive east coast to west. Didn't realize there even was a plan until Nevada. A day after, the Pacific greets you. The man at the front office of the first campground you find looks at you a little funny. He glances over the paperwork you filled out. "What brings you to Oregon?" You know he wants to ask why someone with Massachusetts plates is in Lincoln City, Oregon in the middle of January. He wants to ask what's wrong with you. Are you running from something? He gives you the keys to the cabin anyway. There are only five or six other occupied sites. None close to yours. But you paid a little more for the deluxe because it faced out toward the water, has a woodstove and linens. Too cold to shower. Not like you have anything clean to change into. Climb into the neatly made bed and fall asleep to the sound of waves. You buy clothes from souvenir shop discount racks the next day. Wood for the stove. A box full of dented canned goods. After a shower and a can of ravioli, you feel human again and you go out to sit on the sand. The return to human from whatever you were before has the unfortunate side effect of letting all the guilt back in. You think of the phone, of come home. Of the hands that wait to put you back together. Crying alone on the sand, looking out at the ocean seems like a cliché you don't want to live, so you go back inside, but you're stalling. You know you're stalling. The house looks the same. Maybe duller. With age or with the gray January skies, you have no clue. You park across the street. Don't get out of the car. Don't even unbuckle. Now would be the time for a Molotov cocktail if there ever was one. Then you could watch it burn to the ground. You never go in. You eat creamed corn from a can and fall asleep on the floor in front of the stove. Repeat the next day. And the next. Four days of sitting, watching, until you climb out of the car. The gate still creaks. But you can't tell if it is worse than it used to be. Close it behind you. Up the cement path. Take the three steps to the door and knock. Your mother is still beautiful. Her hair is still mostly brown, just starting to go gray, but there are more wrinkles now around her light brown eyes. She is mid-January pale. The last time you saw her, it was the last day of July and her skin glowed from both the sun and the coconut scented lotion she always wore. She hugged you and told you she loved you, but you didn't believe her. She hugs you now. Pulls you inside. Busies herself playing host and making you tea the way she remembers you like it. And you drop on the floral couch in the sitting room that you weren't allowed on as a child. It's nothing special. You remember being so disappointed when you were finally allowed on the special guest furniture. Stiff. Scratchy fabric. Even now. With the cup of tea pressed into your hands, she looks at you, expectant. If she wants an explanation of why you haven't called or why you haven't been home in nine years, five months, two weeks and a day, there isn't one she wants to hear. You want to ask why. You want to scream. To tell her she fucking knew. To ask why she didn't stop it. Why she chose him and not you or your sister. Why weren't you important enough? But none of it really matters now.
"Your sister called about her new job," says your mother. And you know all the information she gives you, filling you in on a life that you're still part of. It feels pathetic. Feels like your mother is trying to hold onto something that wasn't ever in her grasp to begin with. Because it was you who stayed two years longer than you had to so you could protect your sister. Because your body fit so well between his and hers. It kept her from breaking. And you? Well, you never minded the pain so much. Could take it. Can take it. Your left shoulder pops out too often, though. When it's too cold or too hot, your wrist aches. Sometimes it's a laugh to say you're a bit bionic without ever explaining why there are screws in your ankle. And your nose never did quite look the same again. "We went out for her birthday in December," you say, and she has the audacity to look hurt. She could have had you two. Her choice. Her loss. "I'm getting married," you say. And it was true before you left. May not be now. She asks, "When is the wedding?" You shrug. Haven't set a date yet. Just rolled over in bed one day and there was a ring and a promise of forever. You can’t forget the smile when you said yes. "I'll let you know when I know," you say. It's a lie. You know it. She knows it. Your mother talks and your tea gets cold. So many words come out, but she's saying absolutely nothing. She's filling time. Stalling the inevitable. You got that from her. She wants to keep you here, to force some sort of reconciliation. She pauses, goes silent, then still. And you can hear the rumbling of the truck. The engine cuts. She looks at you. "We deserved better," you say and stand. Leave the half full cup of tea on the counter and meet him at the gate. He looks smaller now. Maybe it's that he's gone all gray, that his body has started to sag. He's getting old. You want that to make it feel better. Want it to ease something inside you. Because now you're stronger. You could bruise your knuckles against his jaw happily. Been training for it since the moment you left. He's the weaker party now and you desperately want the inversion to fix what's broken. But it doesn't. You could hit him now. Want to, even. Could knock him down, break his fucking jaw. He is so close. When you look behind you, your mother is standing in the doorway, a dishtowel in her hands, demure, and it all feels too familiar. You and him squaring up while she watches. Never one to stand in the way of a father disciplining his errant children. Instead, you laugh. Right in his face, watch as he gets red, as his eyes screw up. He'd hit you if you weren't out here on the front lawn. If you were both younger, he might grab you by the hair and drag you in where he could hit you in the privacy of his own home. But you aren't. And it's why you met him here at the gate. Because never again will you stand under the same roof as him. "What's funny?" he finally manages. "A sad fucking joke of a human." You step to the side, let him through. Step out, close the gate. Never turn your back to him. Just because you aren't scared anymore doesn't mean you're fucking stupid. You look again at your mother, him, back at your mother. "We deserve better," you say. And then you leave. And you only get two streets over before you have to pull into a McDonald's parking lot and cry over your steering wheel. When you get back to the cabin, you eat a can of pork and beans. You lie on the floor. You cry intermittently. You wonder why you came here, what you hoped to accomplish. An explanation? An answer to why? Some small hint towards what it was that you did wrong. How could you have been better? But there is no explanation for breaking your kid's nose or hitting with the buckle-end of a belt until there’s blood. At least no explanation you want to hear. Grab your phone. Finally open the message. You type a lot. don't know how to fix this could burn the house down with them inside want to drive my car into the ocean and just stop existing I love you I miss you so sorry I left I have no right to ask if you'll stay, but please don't leave need you wish I wasn't so fucking broken and useless wish you didn't have to always be the one cleaning up after me. Delete them all. on my way
A.R. Hoffman is a writer, teacher, and student from near Seattle, Washington, but currently living in the deep south, who is set to graduate with a PhD in English: Creative Writing in December 2020. Her writing has been published previously in The Fredericksburg Literary and Art Review and she writes predominantly about themes of queerness, mental illness, and the uncanny.