The car halts at the overgrown Honeysuckle bordering the house.
“Call it 75, fella,” he says, spinning around on his beads.
I hand him all the notes from my leather wallet, “please,” I say before he protests, “a tip.” I turn away and fumble for the handle.
“No, no fella! let me get that.” He slides out and hobbles to my door. I guess he was a prop, or perhaps a second row.
I feel my knees click-clunk as I close the passenger door and put on my chequered cap. A wind sings over the rolling hilltops, while a breeze bites my nose.
The driver glances up at our house. The broken sash windows, its empty doorway webbed by clematis. Then he peers down at me, furrowing his caterpillar eyebrows. “You, er, live here then fella?”
I try to reply, but what I want to say just becomes a rattling sigh.
“You want a hand?” he asks, frowning, “to the door?”
“It’s ok.” I pause and take four shallow breaths. “I’ll manage.”
He blinks his blue eyes, pursing his lips, then grins, “ok fella, you take care ok!”
I thank him and muster a wave as his Mercedes waddles down the potholed driveway, like a fat robot playing hopscotch.
I squint at our house. Mottled white paint, flakes beneath the English ivy. I think of when we first stood here, after leaving that awful place. How you squeezed my hand and twirled your golden braids, as strangers opened their arms. Passing by the iron gate, now hugged inside a bramble, I peer up at the oak tree opposite the house. Our tree. It has withered and is smaller than I remember. One leafless branch, like a crooked finger, reaches out to touch the sagging gutters, as if wanting to fix it.
To my right is the chestnut fencing that leads into a jungle of dry bracken. Three mortises are empty, only one weather-beaten and bug-eaten rail remains. I grasp it with one shaky hand, my other fiddles with tubes and a nasal cannula tucked inside my grey herringbone jacket. It is difficult, but it pops in. Twisting the regulator on the tank, strapped against my braces, I shuffle towards our tree. I hear the chattering blackbirds playing skip rope on the telephone wire. I hear your delicate voice counting, “one, two, three.”
As I pull myself further, my knees shake, and my chest tightens. I glance back and notice words painted in luminous pink underneath the puckered kitchen window sill. Words, or perhaps a language I cannot understand, but it reminds me of your chalk drawings on the patio, the many worlds washed away in the rain. I increase the regulator and carry on. I must get to our tree.
The chestnut rail tapers to a splinter, so I crouch and grab tuffets to pull myself up into the garden. I pant and wheeze, yet relish in earthy aromas from the mulched oak leaves spread around me. As I crawl towards our tree, I look at my soiled hands, speckled with amber and rusty flecks. And I smile.
Reaching for the knotted roots, I think of when you grasped my arms to join me in our Robin Hood home. As I reach the trunk and recline into our little nook, I wonder how both of us sat inside. The breeze returns from the valley below, and with it, seems to carry off my breath. As the hiss from my jacket fades, I pull away my tubes and let the tank tumble.
The sun rests on the ridge of the roof, glowing Father’s slate work that remains perfect, every tile in place, only tuffs of moss sprout on either side of the crumbling chimneys.
My bedroom window is the only one intact, though the black frames are furred. I chuckle at the argument we had for the biggest room when we no longer shared and how I always used that sixty-second age difference.
My chuckling turns to a cough as the frigid air grips my chest. With every muscle in my left arm, I pull a silver locket from my right jacket pocket. I twirl the chain through my fingers. It’s still gleaming, like the day we first saw it, when Arthur and Evelyn became Mother and Father. My trembling fingers drop the locket, and the clasp snaps open next to me. I see us, both grinning with missing teeth, and dressed in Sunday best. I try to reach it, though my arms and legs resist. But, I smile, you are next to me. We are under our tree again, like before. When we shared our stories and secrets and spent days playing games. We wondered at the stars and marvelled at the moon. And just like all those years ago, I look upon our house and smile.
I release a long breath, and as it passes my lips, two green tits flutter from your bedroom window and dance into the cerulean sky. My eyes close. I feel a quilted pressure on my chest and the ground beneath me softens. The knotted roots melt from my hands and the birds stop singing. Silence.
I feel your hand. It is soft, like years ago. You stroke my face and whisper, your voice, grown, and gentle.
“Peter, take my hand. We have so much to see.”
J. R. Xander lives with his family in a quiet, old mining village in Wales. When he isn't driving his wife and children mad, he reads and writes. His short stories cover a wide array of genres, including: everyday slices of life, magical realism, science fiction, horror, and anything dark, weird and wonderful in between.