By Aimee Brooks
I was laying on my cold and crinkly blowup mattress when the phone rang. I moved carefully to avoid spilling the noodles that I made in the microwave earlier, rolling over to my other side where the consistent hum pulsed through my bed’s empty membrane.
His name flashed across the glowing screen. No. I couldn’t do it. I did not have the energy to deal with this right now. I would say time, but I had all the time in the world.
Every weekend Hazel went back to the city to see her kids, leaving me alone in our childhood house that we were remodeling together. She told me not to do any work while she was gone.
“We all need to rest sometimes,” she would remind me before she left— the same kind of compassion I knew she would not extend to herself.
I would raise my overgrown eyebrows at her. As childish as it was, I still hated it when she told me what to do. I was almost a 30-year-old woman for crying out loud. And besides, I knew the real reason she didn’t want me to work. Her overbearing was almost enough to stop me.
“I thought of us as little girls playing dolls in front of the wooden kitchen cabinets…”
So while she was gone, I tore down walls, laid floors, and painted the bedrooms, the sorts of things that you don’t need two sets of hands for. It was better to hear the roaring thunder of crashing walls than to hear the phantom clock ticking in my mind.
Nostalgia is a strange thing. More than a pang in your chest, it disintegrates your bones and puts an ache in your teeth. I tried to not let myself sink in. I don’t know what it would look like to give in to that cruel lover.
It was strange to be back in that beautiful house. She was ever changing these days but held shape to my memories of the place. Looking back was a kind of mirage. It was hard to tell what things had been there in my youth and what had been changed by the three owners since.
But there she stood, tall and shapely, a grand affair back in the day. A huge porch, two stories, enough space for work and play. I thought of us as little girls playing dolls in front of the wooden kitchen cabinets, jumping off the step into the sunken living room floor, now a sign of its time, running barefoot, shag carpet worming its way between our toes.
We never thought we would get a chance to set foot in her again—us living about 5 hours away and Mom and Dad in Florida. It was fitting that it came at this point in our life. So much had changed and we had given up almost everything to pursue a dream that had only begun a few years back.
“I had begun to believe that she might be the real Misty in the next of her nine lives.”
At the beginning of it all, Hazel had spent the last few days before her divorce wallowing in self-pity in a pile of soggy blankets in my shoebox apartment. She had sent her three small children to stay with our parents for a few weeks, hoping they would go to the beach and forget all about mommy and daddy’s separation. Despite the mutual end, it was so much more brutal than either of us could have imagined. Second thoughts and words, crueler than lashes pushed back and forth between them.
She would disappear on me. The strong sister. The one who had it all sniveling back to her now ex-husband begging for him to take her back. I would plead for her to stay every time she left to see him one last time, to make love or hate or whatever it was.
“You wanted this,” I would say to her.
“And I still do.”
But the bond, the animal magnetism, the evolutionary desire to love and be loved was too much for her human nature to bear. Without fail, until the last of the papers were processed, she still believed that her love was stronger.
In the house, there was a kitten that looked exactly like the one that we had as kids— a cinnamon tabby with golden stripes, round green eyes. Hazel made her live on the porch while she was there, claiming that she didn’t like cats inside and that our old cat never set foot inside a day in her life. I would plead that she was all alone in the cold, but Hazel would never concede.
The kitten lived on the front porch where we fed her table scraps, but when she was gone I would let the little kitten in. She would explore the house, nimble on her tiny feet, hunting blinds strings and slinking past whatever construction equipment we had hauled in that week.
“Misty?” I would whisper to her sometimes hoping that she would recognize me. I had begun to believe that she might be the real Misty in the next of her nine lives. She would look at me with those huge orbs of eyes and blink knowingly in response. I took it as a sign and called her by her name.
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When I would try to tell Hazel, she would deem me ridiculous. She had gotten more rigid since the split. A coping mechanism, I would tell myself, hoping that I believed it. It was different too, to work with her. She had been somewhat like that when we were kids, but now, spending almost all day every day with her, she found herself too good to believe in fairytales, too strict for fun, too driven to spend a second on herself. Like my Misty, she was another ghost from my past reincarnated into a completely different being.
The house had many mirrors on the walls. The ones that I couldn’t justify shattering in the overhaul, I ran past quickly hoping to never catch a glimpse of myself. I tended to avoid reflective surfaces those days. I didn’t need any more reminders that I was a phantom myself.
My hair was still growing back, the bags under my eyes becoming less dark, nevertheless, not returning to their original state. My ribcage still looked a little too skeletal when I wasn’t wearing my self-imposed uniform of men’s work overalls. I wasn’t the woman I used to be.
But I was different than before in other ways as well. The muscles in my arms and back became more defined from the hard labor, my skin a bit more bronzed, a greater sense of purpose in my head.
I was fine. I was doing fine. I don’t know why I did the things I did. Sabotages and mutinies on my own ship, abandoning love and letting it sink. Why couldn’t I just answer the phone?
But I couldn’t, so I ran.
“Do you want me here?”
It didn’t start that way. After Hazel’s split, I left behind my few things and we flipped her house to put on the market. It hadn’t needed much to update it, so we were able to turn a pretty good profit. Then we laid all the tile in her second home that she bought all on her own and built on the bedroom for her little boy. We learned a lot in that time. We were young and knew nothing of building up and tearing down in the physical sense.
After those first two, we met a crossroad. It was an easy choice with lots of immediate consequences. Hazel had to say goodbye to a class full of kindergarteners halfway through the school year. Looking back I think teaching was a strange choice for her to begin with. She must have had those children military ready by winter break.
I had less of a shift. I kept working, but took far fewer freelance jobs and was finally forced to leave my couch and create some sort of a routine. Maybe I wasn’t cut out for the stay at home life either. I had never been able to create any sort of structure. I didn’t even own a desk. It had been nice though when I was sick. I could work from my hospital room with no need to explain anything to anyone, not fear of anyone seeing me in my weakness. Now I could work with Hazel all day and avoid the rest of my problems at night by working some more. A golden setup. I was tired, but I felt good, the kind of exhaustion that comes from your body going to battle with herself.
Back in the city, the weekends were on the same schedule, but at the house, just me and Misty, we were left to sit with our thoughts and talk to our house. “Do you want me here?” I would ask sometimes. I wondered if she remembered me from when I was little. I wondered if she liked me tearing her apart, gutting her out, and giving her new polished insides.
I walked around barefoot like when I was small, my toes turning blue from the cold wooden floor. We would probably take that out soon too and replace it with some more modern vinyl. I could feel each scratch through the souls of my feet and wondered if they had all been here before. Surely we couldn’t have been that destructive. Surely we couldn’t have made scars that deep.
“I never asked for this.”
Our childhood was everything good and holy and pure in this world — running through sprinklers in the backyard, believing in the tooth fairy, bedtime stories every night, an eternal summer. Now that we were there for such a short period, it felt like we were wronging the place, not doing justice to her glory days.
I sometimes thought about the families that lived there after us. Did they have children? Did they spit cherry pits off the front porch and make blanket forts? Did they ride the bus home from school and proudly wear their first pair of bright yellow rain boots even when it was dry outside, and name the earthworms that crawled out of the garden? Did they fall in love? Did they break someone’s heart?
I couldn’t do it, couldn’t answer. I couldn’t let someone in. How could I do it when all I would give in return was heartache and loss? The house didn’t ask for me, but there I was. He asked, and I was forced to protect him from this ticking time bomb.
When she went up on the market, 5 long hours from modern civilization, I knew I had to take this opportunity to leave. What better excuse than the distance. Who knew how long this project would take.
I knew he watered my plants in the window box of my apartment. Sometimes he would send me a picture of them, the vines that my little yellow flowers grew on in the spring. I never asked for this. I figured they would die in the first freeze anyway, yet they lived on.
And so did I. Through the cold months, the hard labor, my ghost curled around my feet. Through the ache in my jaw that I woke up in the morning, the time with my sister in our childhood home, and the stillness and longing on the weekends in my loneliness. I tore down walls, and I rebuilt them so that one day, I might pick up the phone and make a call.
Aimee Brooks is a writer, artist, and lover of snacks living in the Wild West (aka Texas). She currently works for a college mentorship program but has hopes of going back to school sometime soon to pursue an MFA in creative writing. When she is not working, writing, or creating art, she spends her time playing with her cat (even though he is kind of evil)
listening to podcasts, and fighting the patriarchy.