I wished I could say it was good to be home. But the small, rural town of Chestnut, California was not home, and it hadn't been for a long time. The large, two-story house surrounded by a perfectly white picket fence had once brought me comfort, but had become more like a wooden prison in the years I was gone. The optimist in me wished the circumstances were better, but the realist had known for a long time that this exact scenario was the only one that saw me returning.
As it turned out, eight years didn't just change people, but places too. I almost hadn't recognized my hometown when I took the exit off the freeway. For one, we had been upgraded from one exit to two, although they were less than a mile apart from each other. There was a new shopping center, some newer neighborhoods with shinier homes, and bigger gates. They passed in a blur around me as I drove down the familiar streets across town.
Some things hadn't changed, though. The faded, cracking pale yellow of my childhood home. The aging grass, spotted with brown, begging for water in the midst of a long drought. The curious, judgmental faces of our neighbors, worn with age, but just as sharp. There was no garage, which meant parking my beat-up Toyota Camry along the old, cracked sidewalk. Just like in high school.
Only our family van was notably absent.
My fingers hovered over the iron latch on the gate, twitching with hesitation. It hadn't occurred to me how difficult this was going to be. I mean, I guess some vague part of me knew, somewhere deep in the back of my mind. But that wasn't the same as actually feeling it. Something about standing in front of the home that had forsaken me, and knowing that when I went inside it was going to be empty, stung in a way I hadn't accounted for.
“Do you have business at the Dawson residence, young man?” A sweet voice, rough with age, startled me enough to make me jump.
I turned to look into the old, tired eyes of Mrs. Hastings, our neighbor from across the street. Eight years separated the her I used to know and the her that stood before me, and I could see them defined in the wrinkles by her eyes, her cracked, faded lips, and the white peeking through her once rich brunette hair. She was shorter than me, only coming up to my chest, but that didn't dull the intimidating aura burning around her. Maybe it was because she was the first person I had actually spoken to in town since my return, or maybe it was because of the wild memories of her yelling at five-year-old me to stay off her lawn. She held a faded purple leash in her hands, attached to what could only be described as a dying rat in a dog costume.
I cleared my throat. “Oh, uh, yes. Yeah, I do.”
She narrowed her deep brown eyes at me, her features crinkling up with suspicion. “I’m afraid they won't be home.” The rat dog sniffed at my shoes, and she tugged on the leash roughly to pull it back.
I frowned. Of course, they weren't home. They never would be. I knew that, and she had to know that, too. I pulled the keys from my pocket, letting them jangle in the space between us. It was a relief to know that my parents had neglected to change the locks even once in the eight years I was away, although it had taken some digging to find my copy. “I’m here for the house.”
Her expression softened. “Oh! You know, I did hear something about someone coming to do some renovations. I'm Kathrine Hastings, the neighbor across the street. Did their daughter hire you?” Mrs. Hastings held out her hand, her wrinkled fingers waiting to meet mine.
I don't know why it hadn't clicked before, but she clearly didn't recognize me. I suppose I couldn't blame her. The last time she saw me I was a wisp of a person, practically a size 0, with ashy brown hair past my collar bones that my parents had the bright idea of defacing with chunky highlights circa 2007, and a love/hate relationship with bright red lipstick. Compare that to the man standing in front of her, who was tall, thick, goes-to-the-gym-and-lifts-occasionally muscular, with short brown hair and a full beard? Yeah. It's no wonder she didn't recognize me.
And here I thought inheriting my father's crooked nose and mother's eye freckle would give me away.
As much as I would have loved to reintroduce myself to her, tell her the truth, and say it was so good to see her again, my eyes caught sight of the “GOD HATES FAGS” bumper sticker decorating the back of her husband’s pickup truck, and I thought better of it. Instead, I held out my hand, gave her a firm, manly shake, and said, “Yes, I'm Liam, the contractor. It's nice to meet you, Mrs. Hastings.” I reached down to the lowest, huskiest part of my range to respond. The more cis I could sound, the better, and thankfully seven years of Testosterone had my back. It wasn't exactly a lie, I was there to fix up the house so I could get it on the market, but she didn't need to know I hired myself for the job. Better for me if I could get in and out without a spectacle.
“Oh, please, call me Kathy.” She retracted her hand and adjusted her white cardigan, which had begun to slip down her shoulder. “Will you be staying in the house during the renovations?”
“That's the plan. Cheaper than a hotel, and no one's using it.” I shoved my hands in the pockets of my jeans, sweating under the dry heat of early summer. Or maybe it was the nerves, coupled with the fear of getting caught. It was only a matter of time before she looked into my eyes, recognized the deep, forest green, and called the town mob to gather their pitchforks.
Alright, so maybe that was dramatic. But it wasn't like me disappearing in the middle of the night after graduation with nothing but a single bag of my most precious belongings was my most graceful exit. I knew it had become a town scandal, and I knew I had hurt my parents.
But they hurt me first.
“Well, I do hope you enjoy your stay in Chestnut! I won't keep you, I'm sure you will want to settle in and start working away. If you need anything, I am that house right there.” She pointed a long, bony finger at the little white cottage across the street that was so familiar to me, but felt like it was from an old dream more than a memory. With that said, she tugged at the leach again, dragging the thing I still wasn't convinced as a dog back to her home. She waved, smiled a fake smile dripping with social obligation, and disappeared behind the wine-colored door.
Which left me to disappear behind mine.
It took a few deep breaths before I worked up the courage to unlock the latch on the gate and push through the fence. The cobblestone path up to the stark white steps that led to the front porch felt like it was a mile-long hike, but I got through it. The wood cracked beneath my work boots, screaming because it hadn't been tended to in years, and I was almost afraid the whole thing would give, but it held. A brown, rectangular welcome mat sat outside the door--the same one we had for literally my entire childhood. It was almost as uninviting and outdated as the cold silver metal of the door handle, despite the cheery “Welcome” written out in that cliched cursive font.
The door creaked as I pushed it open, revealing a grey, lifeless hallway. Almost on autopilot, I pulled off my shoes and set them on the wooden shoe rack to my left. The cold of the hardwood floor seeped through my socks and tickled the nerves in my toes. My eyes traveled across the dim entryway, lit only by the light spilling in from the windows.
I saw the familiar paintings decorating the white walls, keepsakes from my grandmother, their colors dulled and their frames covered in dust. I saw the dining room to my right, with that same mahogany table all set up like they were about to serve Christmas dinner. I saw the stairs leading up to the second floor, where my childhood bedroom sat waiting for my return.
“Mom. Dad. I'm home,” I called into the vast emptiness, my voice rough with an admittedly complicated grief. I knew I would never get a reply.
I knew the dead couldn't speak.
But that didn't stop me from wanting an answer.