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The front porch sags and the paint is peeling, and years of traffic have worn holes in the carpet. But the foundation is solid. When the house creaks late at night, I like to think that it?s because the homely walls are straining to hold in all the memories that have seeped into the wood; this old house bears its scars with pride. There?s still a black ring left from the time we tried to bake a cake on the stovetop?from a recipe we made up?and set the pot down on the dining room table after we became concerned because our batter began to bubble. The purple stain in the hallway will never let me forget the year you got a chemistry set for your birthday and we mixed together all of the little packages to see what would happen.
Nothing could make me want to leave it. ?But you want to.
It?s a small house, but it?s been expanding lately. After Mom passed, the shock of silence?no tea kettle whistle, no clatter of dishes in the sink, no shuffle of slippers on the stairs?rang in my ears. But it was bearable because of the late nights huddled under the blankets with a flashlight, telling silly stories until we fell asleep to distract ourselves from the sickening ache of loneliness. When you began to drift away, it was like loosing an arm, but there was no one to grieve with me; you were technically still walking, after all.
You withdrew by degrees. Your words were the first to disappear, one by one as they were sucked down into the black hole in your throat; you spoke so rarely that I couldn?t remember how your voice sounded. You never kept secrets before. You?ve begun to recede into progressively smaller corners of the house, as if there is less and less of you each time you inhale. When I saw you outside your room last week, dragging your feet blinking in the sudden light, you looked lost, like a sneaker without a mate. You didn?t take your eyes off the floor as you passed, and I didn?t say anything at all. Sorry is only a word, a jumble of letters, a meaningless noise?it can?t mend broken bones.
Alone, meals are melancholy; the salt and pepper shakers are poor conversationalists. Lately I?ve taken to eating in front of the television set, and Oprah reruns keep me company late into the night. It also drowns out the soft, hiccupping sobs that I can?t quite keep to myself.
I stare up at the ceiling, the floor of your room, and wonder what you?re doing right now.
There are fifty-one paces, nineteen stair steps, from here to your door. On the bottom step, I?m struggling to think of nothing but numbers, counting off seconds and stairs in my head. If I let my mind stray for even an instant I?ll realize what a terrible idea this is and my strength will melt.
By the fifth step, I can?t trick myself out of the thought anymore; my heart speeds up, and my palm is slick against the wooden banister we used to slide down when we were only three and a half feet tall. What am I doing? This is stupid. I can?t help turning over possible scenarios in my mind?what I?ll say and what you won?t. I can?t clear your glassy-eyed expression from my thoughts.
The eleventh step creaks under the weight of my thoughts.
As the sole of my shoe bends against the thirteenth step, I try to recall the smile that would crinkle the corners of your eyes, the snorting laugh I would tease you for. I can almost hear it, and it gives just enough willpower to lift my foot and set it on step number fourteen.
At the top of the staircase, the hallway is dark. There is only the crack of light under your door, a million miles away. I don?t think the light switch has been touched for a long time; I?ve left you the space you have carved out for yourself, so careful not to make ripples in the water and call you back to me. It?s out of respect. Or cowardice. It?s not so far, but it feels like traveling to the depths of the ocean where the pressure of the shadows on the walls will crush me like a recycled Coke can. The closer I get, the more I fell like spinning and running until my legs fall out from under me, but I don?t. I have to take it one inch, one centimeter, one breath at a time.
I grind to a stop just in front of your door. It somehow looks foreboding and disapproving, but it?s just a door. My arms are hanging stiffly at my sides, an after-thought. I raise one shaking fist and I tap the wood so lightly that it makes no sound. I am afraid to knock louder. I want this, but I?m afraid of it. I swing my arm back again, prepared for a real knock this time, and stop short. You?re stirring behind the safety of your walls, just a whisper of sound, and I can?t?I can?t?
I twirl around and fly away, pounding out all fifty-one steps. I could almost swear that I hear a groan of rusted hinges pushing open, but when I spare a fleeting glance over my shoulder your door is shut and the light has been swallowed whole.