Summer: Scene 1
Everything was green and orange when Vanessa LaRoche got out of her car. The two colors, freshly-mowed lawn and runny dusk sunlight, drifted in and out of each other. The light was a more physical thing than she was used to it being, a fog that could roll through the air, thickening and thinning back out, pushed around by her eyes focusing on one thing or another.
It’s just like a photo, she thought. The exposure’s all wrong, and the lens is dirty, but that’s what makes it worth looking at. She sighed, and blinked a few times, hoping it would go away. It was just another bad reminder, almost a taunt – why bother trying to make the mean, dirty, stupid world out there look beautiful, when you could have just given up and come back here? Why did you even try in the first place, Vanessa?
“Fuck,” she said, shaking her head, eyes still half-closed. She never swore, or at least couldn’t remember the last time she had – maybe a dozen times since she’d given birth to Dirk, and never since Joe had died. She didn’t want Dirk thinking it was alright, and she certainly didn’t want Phoebe to pick it up, assuming she hadn’t already; but they weren’t here yet. Her children were still making their way east on I-80, from what Phoebe had texted her a minute ago when Vanessa had pulled into town. So for now, she allowed herself the juvenile, and thus immensely satisfying, luxury of an f-bomb.
She leaned forward against the Corolla’s hood, the light turning it grape-snow-cone purple where it was normally factory blue, and, chin resting on her fist, looked up at the house.
Her folks had taken good care of the place, and she could see the top of the new expansion they’d put in the back of the old Ranch-style house. It was familiar, of course, but somehow not like a place she’d ever really been before – like something that she was recognizing from rough description. Oh, she might have said. This must be the place.
She could see the window into the room she’d had when she was a kid. I’ll see about getting that boarded up, she thought to herself, money signs already burning in her head like a migraine. Make a darkroom for Phoebe and me. Because the work wasn’t going to stop. Just because she wasn’t photographing the suicide notes left on the Bay Bridge, Death Valley at night, or old, crumbling raygun-gothic gas stations anymore, of course it wouldn’t stop – that really would be giving up. This was just a tactical retreat, and as long as she kept thinking of it that way… well, then one day, she’d get out of this place.
Vanessa reached into her pocket, pulling out the small brass key that her mom (Nana Joyce, to her kids) had sent her a week ago in the mail. She hadn’t put it on her keyring yet, so she pulled the little metal ouroboros open with her chipped, brittle nails, the metal and chitin clicking against each other until she managed to lift one end up enough to slip the key on. She held the now-heavier ring by the house key, feeling the pleasant weight on the other end, the weight of her old life – keys to her car, now-useless keys to the apartment in San Francisco and the cabin in Big Sur, emergency keys for Joe’s old Chevy Nova (though these days it was really Dirk’s), her P.O. box, her old office and darkroom, lockbox and gun locker (both of them sitting in the Corolla’s trunk); that, and all the junk, clutter and knickknacks she’d picked up from one place or another.
Then she flicked the keyring up, watched it spin a few times – liquid metal and plastic pushing that unnatural glow away in ripples and spirals – and caught the whole bundle with her other hand.
“Okay,” she said, clicking the lock for the Corolla. The car chirped contentedly behind her and she thought at least that makes one of us. She stepped onto the driveway, leaving the car on the curb so the the driveway would be clear for the U-HAUL guys tomorrow. The driveway was connected to the ranch’s front door by a stone pathway that Vanessa could far-too-easily see her father, Ray, putting in himself, osteoporosis be damned. Gray and adobe stone, turned into bronze and young copper in the light.
She slipped the key into the deadbolt, and turned it. The latch turned. She unlocked the knob, turned it, and felt everything freeze and go fuzzy.
The smell, old but well-cared-for shag carpet, oiled wood-panel walls, and cold brick, made her feel like she was like skidding on ice. She hadn’t been back here for almost twenty years – they’d always gone to see Nana and Papa at their place in the Sierra Nevadas, and her children had never seen the house, or the town, she’d actually grown up in. The last time she’d seen this entryway, heard that louder-than-she-was-used-to hum of old lights and gurgle of even-older plumbing, Dirk had been a half-formed idea between her and Joe, and Phoebe hadn’t even been on the drawing board yet. But standing here now, that long-ago time didn’t matter. Her whole adult life, as far as this place was concerned, didn’t matter at all, anymore. Or, maybe, never had.
The place seemed too small, and Vanessa had the stupid feeling that she’d bang her head on the ceiling if she stepped all the way inside. Of course she wouldn’t, and she didn’t, but she’d hesitated just enough that she had to laugh at herself as she walked into the living room.
Her parents had left most of their furniture, cookware, things like that, and there was even the big-screen TV, which Joe had bought them for a long-ago Christmas, was pushed back against one wall, an old VCR player hooked up to it. Papa Ray had made the switch to DVD easily enough, but apparently he’d only seen the need for the one player, and that was up in the mountains, where they were now, and where they would remain – the house was all hers, now. Vanessa settled down into the big blue corduroy chair, rubbing the little brass rivets on the armrests under her fingers. She rocked back, once, experimentally, and it creaked, a sound not unlock her Corolla locking.
She reached into her jacket and took out her phone, looking for the telltale green blinking light that would tell her she had a text or that she’d missed a call. Nothing – Dirk might have gotten lost, or hit slow traffic, but if something was really wrong, they’d have called. Maybe they had just stopped for dinner – Vanessa had told them they’d get something here, but if Dirk’s teenage metabolism demanded burgers, it would get burgers, and Phoebe, a notorious fry-snatcher, wouldn’t exactly try to talk him out of it.
For now, it seemed, she had the place to herself.
She closed her eyes, trying to cut off that weird, dreamlike light – even inside, it was strong. Again, she cursed, and let the curse turn into a string of them, and before too long, it had turned into a sob, punctuated now and then by a “fuck” or “fucker,” or, the neutron cluster bomb of f-bombs, “motherfucker.” Vanessa was sitting in the chair where she’d lost her virginity, where she’d realized that she was in love with a boy who was too smart, too brave, and too ambitious for anyone like her – and now, that boy, and the husband and father he’d become, was gone forever, taken in an earthquake. If Joe were still alive, she wouldn’t be here – and so, of course, she wished more than anything that he was with her, right now, sitting on the floor in front of her chair like he had so many times, his hands on one of her knees, his lips on the other, telling her it was going to be alright.
Vanessa pushed against her eyes and forehead with the heels of her hands, trying to put pressure on her sinuses before this stupid fit turned into one of her migraines. She was almost certain it already had, because she heard a strange “bong, bong, BONG-bong… bong, bong, bong, bong” melody, far away and underwater, it seemed. Then she heard it again, and another memory, or rather pieces of a thousand of them cut and pasted together to form a collage, came flooding back – it was the old doorbell. It sounded a third time.
She stood, snorting to keep her nose from running, wiping her eyes on the sleeve of her red 49ers jacket, and called “just a sec!” Her voice sounded muffled and bubbly – still too much snot in the old passages. Vanessa snorted again, laughing a little at the sound. She took a shaky breath, and went back to the door.
She opened it on a woman whose entire presence, from her fake-tan skin to her yellow housedress to her “gray, what gray?” dyed blonde hair, was rimmed with the light that Vanessa was very quickly getting sick of. Vanessa had to blink away at the light – it was coming straight from the west, and gave her visitor an unearthly halo, so that Vanessa couldn’t get a real look at her.
“Hey there, neighbor,” the voice said. There was something wrong about it. “Remember me?”
Vanessa LaRoche realized that she knew why the voice was wrong – she recognized it, and knew it shouldn’t sound that way. “…Annette?”
“Hey, Vanessa,” the woman said. Her smile was too wide, and her eyes were a little skittish. “So… you came back.”