On That Back Road


“They won’t understand the history,” he rasps over the line. “If something starts happening, they’re not going to understand it.”

“It’s not as though the house is filled with ghosts,” I answer.

“For anyone else.” His tone softens, pity easing into his words. “But for you, they’re in every doorway, every room, every corner. And you want to walk back in there on your own? Are you sure you don’t need me with you?”

“I’m sure. I don’t need a bodyguard scaring them away,” I joke, but it doesn’t bring any laughter forward—from either of us. He clears his throat, and I pick at my steering wheel. This is how our conversations always end up, silent and awkward. 

The crunch of tires on gravel turns my head to the rearview mirror. My clients are pulling up the road behind me. “I’ll talk to you later, okay?” I promise, even though it’s empty. 

“Right.” He sighs and ends the call first. He doesn’t want to hear me say “goodbye.” It feels too final to him, too concrete. He was an orphan, so it should have made sense to me. But I could never truly understand it before. Now, now I do. Now I know how final “goodbye” can feel. 

Putting on my best smile, I step out of my ‘90 Lincoln. Since I inherited it, I haven’t been able to drive anything else. “Hello!” I wave my clients down with an open hand and approach them with quick steps. I want this over with as soon as possible. 

“Hi! Oh my gosh, the accent. Honey, don’t you love it? It’s like we walked into a southern film,” the wife exclaims. She prances her way to me and smothers me in a tight embrace. “They say hugging’s really big down here, right?” We’re only an hour outside of the city, but apparently, this woman has decided we’re halfway across the continent. 

Just keep smiling. 

“There is certainly a slight tang out here,” I agree. “Some of this land has been in families for over five generations. They’ve taken on a language of their own.” Lying through my teeth, but not entirely. It makes it more glamorous, more picturesque. That’s what this couple wants, what all the city couples want when they search for a countryside home. 

“It’s not ideal,” the husband states, glancing around the ailing yard. Sure, my childhood home isn’t “ideal,” but does he have to say it with that tone of voice? So condescending. 

“You’ll find the interior has been updated recently,” I explain, opening the front gate for them to enter. “The kitchen was just refinished last year. And the plumbing was modernized several years ago.”

“Wonderful.” The wife dances past me, practically jogging to the front door. She has an excitement in her step that I’ve never been able to understand. A new house could never bring me joy the way it does for others. But neither could an old home. Taking in a deep breath, I follow after them, key in hand. I jimmy the key into the lock and press open the front door. 

“How antique!” The wife marches forward, spreading her arms out on either side. “The wooden stairs, the banister, even the window at the landing. It’s like I’m walking into one of my favorite period films!”

“It’s certainly well kept,” the husband agrees. He slides past her to investigate the paneling on the door frames, picking at it with a thumb.

We both see an old film, but in the wood of the stairs, I see my mother spinning in her prairie dress. And in the paneling of the door frame, I see my father chipping a line where my brother once stood on his toes. He’d complained my father was being biased, that he had given me several inches simply because I asked for them. But I was just taller. 

Blinking away the memories, I pocket the key and gesture towards the living room. “If you come this way, I can show you the open floor design of the living room into the dining room. It’s perfect for entertaining weekend guests.” They follow my pointed arm into the living room, where the ceilings are high and the room is aglow from several floor-to-ceiling windows. The dining room that’s attached is open, wide, and spacious. The wall that separates them is an arch, something my mother was very proud to install herself—with only a little help from my brother. The wood is still as beautiful as the day she stained it. 

“I love the design,” the husband admits. He steps through the arch into the dining room and peers through the window on the back wall. It opens to the backyard, where my father’s garden remains blooming and proud. I step to follow him but pause. 

The mirror my brother fashioned himself is still hanging in the dining room, reflecting the side of the husband’s head. But in the curl of his hair and his thick neck, I can see my brother. He’s grinning from ear to ear at the back window, gesturing at father in the garden. 

They fought again, but what does he do about it? He rummages through the roses. Ten scratches an arm just to hold a small bouquet to her at dinner. If I don’t end up like dad, I could hardly call myself a man, could I?

I swallow back the words burning in my throat. You’re already that man, and I’m sure she knows that.

“Roses,” the wife begins, “we’d have to have those removed, wouldn’t we? Wouldn’t want you falling ill.” She pats her husband on the shoulder. “Plus the smell is awful when they wilt. The ladies would abhor it if we ever had tea in the back.”

“Yes,” the husband agrees. 

I should be enraged by their plans, fuming with overwrought emotion. But I’m not. I’m just sad. The idea of those roses being torn loose after ten years in the same soil is heartbreaking. I have no right to question it though when I’m the one selling them away. Rubbing a finger under my eye, I sniffle and straighten my shoulders. 

“Through to the left, we have the kitchen. It’s not very big, but it should be enough for your needs. There’s plenty of counter space for party dishes, and a dishwasher was installed just a few months ago. But you’ll find the sink is still a sight to see.” I walk them into the kitchen. A weight hits my chest so hard I almost stumble back a few steps. Seeing that sink again, and the curtains above it, are enough to make me dizzy. 

You’re not marrying that girl. The way my father scolded my brother was horrible, dreadful. He’d lifted his fist with such disdain, I almost didn’t recognize him. But my brother accepted the pain with nothing more than a grimace. He was a brave boy, a kind boy, and a determined boy. 

I will marry her because I have no qualms with her family’s station. I have no qualms with her origins! He’d spoken the words with absolution and stood his ground. It was a stupid argument that stemmed from a stupid, old belief. My father was determined to keep my brother from marrying a poor girl, a foreign girl. That mentality really was from the period films. 

“Miss, are you alright?” the wife asks, resting a hand on my arm. “It’s quite warm today, maybe you should have some water.” She digs through her massive handbag and produces an unopened bottle for me. “He’s always running around dehydrated. I know the signs. Take a moment, I’m sure he and I can wander the halls quite well on our own.” Her smile is genuine, despite the drawl of her voice.

So I nod. I turn away from the sink, slumping my back to the counter. He was right to suggest coming with me, he always is. He knew seeing them again would be difficult for me because even thinking about them hurts. 

Get out of my house! Dad’s words echo through my mind anyway. Don’t you even think about coming back! He was so cruel. But he regretted them almost as soon as he’d spoken them. He chased my brother down the icy back roads in his little pickup. It wasn’t meant to be driven in the snow, the ice, the winter. Neither of their vehicles were. When my mother and I found them, it was too late. 

We both left this house. We couldn’t come back to the voices, to the sadness, to the memories. And she couldn’t come back to me. 

“Oh my, I love the decor here!” the wife’s loud exclamation travels down the hallway. At least they would love these empty halls. At least they would fill them with noise again, warmth. Maybe they would bring new life that would overlap the sorrow and the pain. And maybe their overwhelming energy could overshadow the darkness pooling in every corner. 

Knock! Knock!

I glance up from the water bottle in my hands and head for the front door. 

“Who’s that?” the wife wonders as I pass her in the hallway. 

“I’ll check,” I explain, offering a smile. 

“Just be careful. I don’t want you passing out,” she calls after me. I nod, though she can’t see me, and whip open the front door. Of course it’s him. But just seeing him brings tears to my eyes. 

“I’m sorry,” he apologizes through the screen door. “You told me not to come, but I know you need me.” He ruffles his hair with one hand and glares down at the wood of the porch. “You need me to tell you that you can’t sell it. It doesn’t matter how many horrible memories you’ve had here. If you sell it, you’re going to regret it. And if she comes back and it’s gone, you’ll both be devastated.”

“If I don’t sell it, it’ll just haunt me,” I counter. He nods. He’s always been a good man, since my fleeting middle-grade years and his high-grade years.

“You don’t have to listen to me. I’m just concerned,” he retorts. He lifts his hand to the screen door, along with his gaze. It pierces through me, then past me, where I’m sure he can see my clients shuffling around. He leans closer to me, his words forming as a hushed whisper, “What if they defile their graves? What if they demand to have them moved?”

I hadn’t thought of that. I haven’t thought of much since the idea of selling came to me. I just wanted the darkness in me to leave. Glancing over my shoulder, I walk my gaze up the stairs to the landing once more. Mother used to be so happy here. But I haven’t heard from her in so long, I can’t even imagine the sound of her voice. 

With a sigh, I push open the screen door and wrap my arms around him. “I can’t be here by myself. That’s why I can’t keep it.”

“You don’t have to be,” he insists. 

“Yes, I do.” I lean back from him, pat his shoulder, and grit my teeth through the forming tears. “Because I can’t ask that of you. I think this will be better for me. I’m sorry you came all this way for nothing.”

“No need to apologize.” He laughs under his breath. “You told me not to come, but I did anyway. Just like you told me not to be interested in you, but I am anyway. It’s not my decision to make, and I overstepped my boundaries thinking I had some say in it.”

“He’d be really happy knowing you care so much,” I state, disregarding his confession—his continued confession. He and my brother were once friends. They both looked out for me when we were younger. They both were my older brothers. “About his grave. About his house. About his family.”

“Still—” he begins, only to be interrupted by my clients. 

“—I am decided. One hundred percent,” the wife announces from behind me. “Is he also a prospective buyer? Well, I’ll just have to claim it now. I can pay in cash.” She digs through her massive purse as I stare down my childhood brother. He’s probably right. I probably will regret it someday, but that someday hasn’t happened yet. 

“There are two graves on the property,” he pipes up. “I just wanted to see to their safekeeping.”

“G-graves?” the wife stammers. “Honey, you didn’t say anything about graves!” She turns to her husband, shocked. It isn’t her husband’s fault; in fact, it’s mine. But I’m not going to step in and take the blame for him. I’m not that gracious of a soul. 

“If you want them moved elsewhere, I’ll be glad to pay for it.” The husband turns to my childhood brother as well. He furrows his brow, tightens his arms over his chest, and leans in for the awaited reply. 

“Yes,” I interject. It’s my decision to make as it is. “Yes, that would be kind of you.”

We finish the spoken agreements, mock up a written agreement, and the couple goes on their way. It leaves me alone with my childhood brother, who hasn’t said a word since they left. He’s just set up in my passenger’s seat, glaring at the house. 

“Thank you,” I finally mumble. “For mentioning their graves. F-for being here. For trying to talk me out of it. But I just hate being in there. I hate the resounding sound of my dad hitting him. I hate hearing their argument, again and again. The happy memories have just been muddied.”

“Not all of them,” he replies. “Not the time your brother was almost eaten by water striders. Or the time he lost a shoe in the river. He wasn’t very good with the water, was he?”

“No,” I agree, giggling. “No, he wasn’t.” I wipe the tears from my eyes and reach for his hand. “You’re right. Not every memory was muddied by that day. But the house was. It was ruined for me. That’s why I have to let it go. But thanks to you, I don’t have to let them go. I’ll hold onto them as long as my hands will let me.”

I’ll hold onto them for as long as they’ll let me.