By Jesse Edwardson
I know they say you can't go home again
I just had to come back one last time
Ma'am I know you don't know me from Adam
But these handprints on the front steps are mine
The House That Built Me - Miranda Lambert
She was told by the insurance man to meet her at the house at three o'clock but she arrived at two. She needed time alone with all that she had lost.
The days first tear slid silently down her cheek as she walked up the driveway.
The house had been a dream come true for Tina. It was fairly old, built in 1940, but she had fallen in love with it at first sight. The previous owner had performed a lot of updates including a new heating and air conditioning system, a water softener and a deck on the back of the house that was great for entertaining friends. The interior had been extensively remodeled with new flooring, light fixtures and paint. It was “move-in” ready.
Moving day was amazing, extremely busy but still amazing. She had never owned anything before. She had rented plenty of apartments in her life up until now. But this time she owned it. It was all hers. She remembered unlocking the door and stepping into the front room carrying the first box into an empty house, empty and waiting for the new life it would hold. She knew she was Home.
Now, standing in the littered driveway, Home felt dead. The house was half destroyed by fire. The fire investigator had determined that an electrical short in the house’s old wiring had caused the fire. “Just one of those things as they say. It was no ones fault, these things just happen.” He had told her. She was probably supposed to take some kind of comfort in his words but she couldn't find any. It might be easier to handle if she could blame someone or something. If she could point her anger and sadness in some direction she could get rid of it faster. Instead, all she can do is wade around in all that emotion until it finally drains away. If it ever drains away.
The driveway runs up the right side of the house to the garage that is set back from the rear of the house. Between the two buildings was a breeze-way that offered a great shady spot in the summer and protection from snow in the winter. It now lays scattered in charred pieces on the concrete. A pathway was made through this debris by the fire-fighters. Tina walked through this trail to the back door and pushed it open.
The inside walls were impossibly black from all the smoke. She didn't step in all the way, the firemen warned her that the floors may not be stable and could collapse at any time so she only leaned in to take a look. Her tears were flowing freely now. She felt as if someone had died. Her heart hurt, her head throbbed and her knees felt weak.
Everywhere she looked was a memory. She could see the spot where her son's highchair stood when he sunk his face into his first birthday cake. She could hear all the laughter of that day ringing in her head. She could see the notes and pictures, now charred and black, still hanging on her refrigerator. The small table and chairs in the breakfast nook were there looking like something from a horror movie. The paint was hanging off the walls in giant sheets. It looked like peeled black blisters.
“Thank God we got out in time.” she said to herself in a low whisper. The night of the fire her son was spending the night at a friends house and she was sleeping when her boyfriend shook her awake. The fire traveled through the walls and burned from the inside out. The smoke detector never had a chance to go off. It had melted from the heat behind the wall. Brad had gotten up to use the bathroom and saw the flames flickering on the outside of the house through the window. He woke Tina up and they hurried out before the house was completely engulfed in flames.
Tina stepped back out of the door way and pulled the door shut. She turned around and saw a man and a woman standing in the driveway. The man was a little overweight with graying hair, the woman was a beautiful red head. She recognized them at once.
“Oh, Hi. I didn't see you there.” Tina said as she tried to wipe the tears off of her face.
“That's ok, I'm sure you've got a lot on your mind right now.” the man said as he gestured toward the burned shell of a house. “We shouldn't have snuck up on you like this.”
“Yeah, sorry. We just happened to be driving by and thought we'd stop and take a look at the house.” The woman said. She seemed a little shy and embarrassed for Tina. The couple were James and Lisa, the people Tina had bought the house from. The truth is, they felt drawn to the house as if some force had pulled them here. “We heard about the fire on the radio. We feel so bad for you. We know how special the house was to you, as special as it was to us while we lived here I guess.” In the days after hearing the news of the fire, James and Lisa could not stop thinking about the house that they use to call home. The couple had shed some tears themselves. James once told his wife that he feels as if a close family member had died.
“It's so sad, we feel as though we lost something right along with you. Just like you, this was our first home. Lots of memories lived within those walls,” James said with a slight crack in his voice.
“Thanks, yeah lots of memories,” Tina said while wiping a new tear off of her cheek.
Lisa stepped forward and put her arms around Tina and gave her a hug. Even though the two women hardly knew each other the hug felt natural and was something both of them needed. James stood by and tried not to let his own tears fall.
Just then, James heard footsteps behind him. He turned and couldn't believe what he saw. It was an elderly couple, a woman with gray hair done up in a tight bun and a narrow bird-like face walked carefully through the debris strewn driveway with an old hunched over man walking with a cane. James knew them although he hadn't seen them in over twenty years.
“Mr. and Mrs. Clark? Is it really you?” James said clearly surprised.
The two women turned their heads at the sound of James' voice and released each other from their embrace. Lisa recognized the name but had never met this couple in person. The couple were the people that James and Lisa had purchased the house from so many years ago.
“Yes, and you are John?” Mrs. Clark replied.
“Oh yes, James. I'm sorry. My old noodle isn't as quick as it used to be.” Mrs. Clark said.
“That's ok, How are you two?” James asked.
“We're fine, just fine,” Mr. Clark answered.
James was dumbstruck. He thought, what are the odds that we and the Clarks show up here at almost the same time. He stared at them in amazement.
“Tina, this is the couple we bought the house from. Mr. and Mrs. Clark.” James introduced them.
“I'm sorry if we are intruding but we felt compelled to come here today. Are you the owner young lady?” Mrs. Clark asked Tina.
“Yes ma'am. My name is Tina, I'm glad to meet you.” Tina said as she put out her hand to shake with Mrs. Clark.
“I'm very glad to meet you too,” she answered. “We are so sorry for your loss. Losing your home is something very heartbreaking.”
“Yes, it has been very hard to deal with.” Tina said.
“I'm sure. Your family is all safe I pray?”
“Yes, thank God. My son was at a friends house and my boy-friend woke up in time to get us out safely.” Tina said.
“That is good.” Mrs. Clark said with a smile.
“Young lady, you have lost a great deal here but I hope you know that you are very fortunate that a house and some things are all that you've lost.” Mr. Clark said with a kind smile.
“Yes, I know.” Tina said. She was touched by these people's kindness. She felt as though they were all a kind of family. They did all share a home together after all.
The small group stood in the driveway for a while. Talking, telling stories about their lives spent in the house. They laughed and shed a few tears together.
In a short time more visitors showed up. The people that the Clarks had bought the house from were there. A man who had rented the place before that came by. The couple who had rented the house to that man showed up shortly after him. Then, a man who was the son of the people that the owned the house before them came by. He had grown up in this house and told the ever growing group that he had felt something pulling him home. They all felt that pull.
Something was bringing them all home.
More stories were exchanged: baby's first steps, birthday parties, Superbowl parties, all the things that make a house a home. Someone’s Aunt had fallen down the steps to the basement. Apparently she had dropped a dollar on the landing and bent over to pick it up when she rolled down the stairs. She didn't get hurt, only embarrassed. Someone else told a tale about their kids making a huge mess with baby powder all over the floor of the nursery. Everyone laughed. The kids had played dumb, as if they had no idea how the powder had gotten all over everything. Tina felt her heart lighten with each story. She no longer felt alone with her loss.
The man who had grown up in the house told a story that his father passed down to him about the man who had built the place. His name was Willard Jenkins and he had built the house for his wife Ellenore. Mrs. Jenkins died before the house was finished and Willard had died shortly after it was finished. He had lived in the house alone for only six months or so. The rumor was that he died of a broken heart. He and his wife had dreamed of filling the house with children but of course that never happened.
Everyone in the group was quiet as he finished the story. They all looked at each other and felt a strong kinship. This place was all home to them. Other houses had come and gone in all of their lives but when they heard the word home it was this place that came to mind first.
Just then, Tina noticed a new arrival walking up the driveway. It was a man in his mid-twenties. He looked as if he had just stepped out of the 1940's. He was dressed in brown pants, a faded blue long sleeved work shirt. A brown fedora rested on his head. He reminded Tina of Harrison Ford in the Indiana Jones movies.
He approached the group, nodded to them and walked on. He went straight to the house. He appeared to be looking for something.
Tina thought, doubtfully, that maybe he was the insurance man finally showing up. “Sir, are you from the insurance company?” she called after him. He didn't answer he just continued looking at the corner of the house near the back door.
He began feeling around the burned and melted siding. His strong fingers found a gap in the corner piece. He pulled on it and it came away from the house with a cracking sound. He dropped the vinyl siding to the ground and peered at the exposed wooden siding beneath. His fingers traced something carved into the wood. He smiled to himself and looked thoughtful as a tear slid out of the corner of his eye. His hand lingered on the carving for a minute or so before he dropped it back to his side and faced the group. He walked directly to Tina.
By now she was sure that this man was not the insurance guy. He looked as though he had stepped out of the past and she felt as though he belonged to this “family” that was assembled in the littered driveway. Her own tears had started flowing again as he touched her chin and raised her eyes to his.
She looked into his kind face as he spoke. “Don't be sad, this home was filled with life and love that we all will carry forever.” Tina smiled and he smiled. He gently wiped away the next tears that escaped her eyes with the back of his hand. The man nodded to her and turned to face the group and nodded to them. He then started back down the driveway.
Everyone watched him as he walked away. They all wondered who he was, but at the same time they all knew who he was. As he reached the sidewalk he began to fade. At first the people standing around Tina could see through him and then they could only see his outline and then he was gone.
Where the man had disappeared a new visitor was marching up the driveway. In his suit and carrying a briefcase he was obviously the insurance man Tina had been waiting for.
Everyone looked at each other in amazed disbelief. Tina turned toward the house and walked to the corner that the man had pulled free. She saw, carved into the wood siding, a heart. It looked as though it had been made with a pocket knife. Carved inside the heart were the initials W.J. + E.J. Tina smiled as fresh tears filled her eyes.