I looked out of the train’s door to the snowy city, wondering if the feeling you get when you return to your hometown should have a special name to it. A word that would explain the sense of threat and nostalgia combined with a chance of decline and buried secrets bursting out. I lingered there, but the people pushing past me forced me to leave the train. Every part of me wanted to return to the warm car, but my sister had already spotted me. I could see her standing next to her SUV. She stayed put there all the way through as I walked up to her. She tied her hands around her overcoat as she watched me from head to toe. My stupid city boots and a light woolen jacket weren’t even close to what she wore. She wore a long winter jacket paired with insulated boots that came to mid-calf.
I held on to my backpack. It anchored me into this suffocating moment like a weight wrapped around my waist while pulling me down under. None of us said anything for a while. I could see she had been crying and a lot. Her face was all buffed up, and her eyes were red from all the rubbing.
“Sorry,” was all I could say, feeling instantly stupid about it.
“Get into the car,” she said. “It’s cold out here.” She opened the door for me and left me standing there as she circled around to the driver’s seat.
I tossed my backpack in on the backseat and sat next to my sister.
She ignited the engine, and the car blasted hot air almost instantly. I pushed my hands onto the opening where the hot air came out. My fingers had frozen just with the short walk from the train to the car park next to the tracks. Even in that tight space, the iced sea not too far from the train station made the town cold and harsh. The sea made summers colder too. But I didn’t mind that as a child. I loved the storms that rose from the sea and swept over our house. I loved climbing on the trees to feel the breeze in my hair, and when the rain came, I ran fast into the pink playhouse my father had built for my sister and me and listened to the rain there as it beat the roof.
My sister reversed the car, and I searched for anything sensible to say. My phone chimed, and I instantly reached for it. It was a work email letting me know what articles were available. I hadn’t told anyone at the office that my dad had died. I had reasoned that I didn’t have time for it. That I needed to just book the train tickets, and once I got here, I could call my boss. Stupid. But telling someone that my dad had died made it more real. And I hadn’t wanted to cry on the phone. I will send an email later.
I could feel my eyes swelling up from tears. I clenched my leg, riding the sensation away.
“Mom is waiting for us. She’s back at the house,” my sister said.
“That’s good,” I said, not truly meaning it. It felt wrong that my mother was there, at our family home. She and my father had separated when I was ten, and she had moved out. Not that it had stopped her from having a hold on my father. She couldn’t let him free. I hated her for it, and I had said at much as a teenager. She always yelled at me that I always took my father’s side and that I didn’t love her. After every such argument, I always stormed out and stayed out all night.
My father had never found anyone after her. She instead had. Horrible men after another.
“How are the kids?” I asked.
“They are as good as you would expect. Shocked. I slept next to Elias all night.”
“Yeah,” I said, fighting back the tears. I knew Elias loved his grandfather more than anything. It had been instant love when they had met. My father always made Elias calm down, even as a baby. He had trusted my father completely. And when my father was around him, he never drank. He gave his all to him.
“He’s too little to understand any of this.”
“That’s good, I guess.” That was all I could say. My stomach was tight and as if it was eating itself inside out.
My sister swallowed.
I let her have her moment even though I could sense she wanted me to say something. I had never been that good with emotions. It had always been easier to stuff them somewhere and ignore them. But even I knew I was being a dick about it now.
She turned the radio on, and we listened to pop songs as we rode. I watched the inner city with two-story buildings turning into country houses that stood in the middle of trees and empty fields. Here and there houses had their paint chipped. That was the sea for you. It robbed away the youth, the men, and the land, as my grandma had said. She was long gone now. She had been a horrible woman. She had beaten my mother and tormented her emotionally. The woman had even driven a divide between her own children, favoring one over the other and so on. But she had been strong. One of those independent women they praise nowadays. She had endured the war, working along with the men at the factories. She had bought and built a great house without a man for her and her three children. My grandfather had killed himself. He had never fully come back from the war. My grandma had survived all that and even been able to provide so well that she had taken her children on overseas holidays.
If I closed my eyes, I would be at my grandma’s place. I could see all the souvenirs neatly lined on the bookshelves. The little dolls with their regional dresses. In the background, there would be cards shuffled against each other as my grandma would start her foretelling. Upstairs the floors would creak, and I would think about all the ghosts my grandma told me lived there. I was always scared there, even when the house was still as a mausoleum. It was never alive. Not even when my sister and I visited. We always sat on the couch dressed in our best skirts and stockings and our hair tied back.
I watched people walking their dogs, searching for familiar faces, but all of them looked strange, as if someone had switched my childhood town with a model but gotten all the small details all wrong.
“Was the train full?” my sister asked.
I shook my head, still looking out of the window. It was something my father would ask. Every time we chatted, it was about the weather, the program he had seen on the TV, or something else as trivial. The only real subject he talked about was my sister and her kids and what they had been up to. It was never about what I had done or what was going on in my life. He couldn’t handle such things. I never understood why. But I never told him for fear that it made him drink more.
My heart stopped as we drove to my childhood street. I could already see our house from the end of the road just past the playground, where we used to play baseball, climb the roofs, and play on the swings. We passed houses of all the children I once knew and were now long gone. A few had even died, or so my sister had told me.
Before we got to our driveway, I took hold of my sister’s hand and squeezed it. I heard her sob loudly. I squeezed harder, and she responded. She freed her hand only when she had to shift the gear and turn to our driveway. My mother’s small red car was already parked there. The house had lights on even upstairs. I looked at the house with its chipped paint, then at the pink playhouse with snow covering it, and then at the path leading to the front door. There were tire tracks and footprints all over the place. Yesterday the yard had been full of police officers and emergency personnel. I imagined my sister hugging my father’s dead body in the body bag as she had told me. I let out a sob, and the tears rolled down my cheek.
He had been found at the restroom fully dressed in his boots still on. He had collapsed on the floor when getting there, or so I was told. The doctor who had come announce him dead had told it had been instant. That he hadn’t suffered. He had been last seen two days before he was found. My father’s brother found him after I called him to check if my father was okay or not.
I had known in that phone call he would find my father dead. I just had known. It had been unlike the other times I had called him. I felt sorry for sending my father’s brother there.
My sister shut the engine. “We don’t need to go in. We can wait here,” she said softly.
All our relatives had always said I was the strong one of us. But that wasn’t true. My sister could do things that I had no stomach for. She had instantly driven here and had waited with the police the paramedics to arrive to announce my father dead. She had been able to touch my father on his cheek and say her goodbyes. She had been able to stay in the house while the police took their pictures. She had been able to do all that. I wouldn’t have. She always did the right thing. I didn’t.
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