Every Inch Closer to Home

prose December 1, 2016

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The bus often rumbled and shook when it drove over the pebbles on the ground. Hana frequently bounced from her seat and the wind ruffled her neatly combed hair, like the willow trees that swayed whenever the breaths of the season touched their leaves. She touched the yellow window pane, and traced her way back to her hometown. Hana remembered everything: the wheat field that enclosed the town, the smell of old grass, and the occasional hot puff of wind that blew onto her face. It had already been nine years since she left her home, and she had always felt uncomfortable at the thought of home, but the previous Sunday when she spent the night indulging in cold pretzels and apple soda watching late night soap dramas, she came across a dusty box under her bed that she had not been opening since she moved into her new apartment- that was eight years ago. It just had to be that moment when her empty can rolled under her bed, and that box just had to be the first thing that her fingertips touched. The box was full of letters, letters from ten, twelve, fifteen years ago. Many, many letters with handprints, ink stains and teardrops. That particular unopened letter she slipped into her bag held such an old, compelling sentiment that she could not ignore.

Why she was returning, Hana did not know. Home now, was a nonexistent place. Even the very moment where she sat by the window and the bus started driving across the old town she doubted her decision and often questioned herself if she should alight and board the bus back to the city. She could barely forget the imprints of the memory on every footsteps made in the grounds of this town. Every inch she got closer to home, the letter in her bag felt heavier, and it made her anxious that she had to grip onto the handrails of the seat. And when the bus broke down and the driver told the passengers that they had to walk to their destinations, Hana might even have relieved a bit. It gave her more time to think- and more excuses to return to the city. It was a summer midday, and the hot air that rose from the ground made her sweat- though she wasn’t sure if those sweat was from her anxiety or simply the hotness of the weather. She hoped the latter. Hana took timid steps into the long path; the scent of the unripe wheat and grass filled her nose. At dusk the sun would melt into the wheat, with the golden light splashing onto every patch of the land. She remembered walking up the hill with Rosie, and watching the sunset every afternoon, and rolling down the hill after sharing a joke or two. Hana held her bag close to her; she felt like she could even touch the letter neatly folded between the pages of her diary. The letter that brought her home. The letter written by her sister before she died.

Frankly speaking, Hana was not aware of the presence of the letter until the very moment she spilled the box of old letters onto her floor, and only after the box was empty she found an unopened one among all the others. The words To Hana was vivid on the envelope. Below those words was another sentence; instead of the address, Rosie had written, from home, where everything is alive. Hana didn’t know what she meant, and she figured that she would never find out surrounded by murky waters of the sewer and tire-stained asphalt: so she decided to return home. Hana would see for herself, what remained alive, in the house that no one stayed. To Hana, the word home felt so distant that it felt as if her home did not exist in the first place. Home, she spoke. The word slipped from her lips into an awkward sound that dissipated into the air. Home, she repeated. The second time she could barely hear her voice. Hana stopped walking; she wondered if she should continue her journey. What was the point of returning to a place where everyone had left? Hana thought of turning around and catching a town bus back to the nearest subway station, and rewatching the fashion shows she had missed out the last night. And she thought of the letter. The unopened, unanswered letter. At least someone has to answer the letter. It was an unspoken rule within the household. All letters have to be answered. Dad first suggested it. They shared words on paper when they were either too embarrassing to be spoken aloud, or too harsh, like “your breath stinks, please brush your teeth in the morning.” It was just a game at first, but at one point, it became a ritual between the family, and they would always end off with “with all my heart”.

Hana stopped by the old road that leads to the empty grounds where the town fairs used to be held. If she walked left, she would reach the empty ground within a quick fifteen minutes. Probably ten if she quickened her pace. But Hana merely paused for a moment and stared at the grounds that appeared as a blurred smudge from a distance. There were days when the carnivals were in town, and on heart-soft whim, Dad would drive the three of them to the fair, and they would spend the sun-soaked afternoon wandering the fairgrounds- between stalls selling popcorns and hotdogs, and behind clowns that performed tricks with balloons. Hana would hold Rosie’s hand, though mostly being tugged by her to wherever her caprices guided her. Hana stood by the fences, and recalled the first time she had bought Rosie a caramel apple. She handed her little sister a candy apple with sticky brown caramel wrapped around the skin of the apple, and watched as Rosie carefully studied the apple. It’s sweet, she had suggested, and Rosie took a tentative nibble. Hana remembered laughing at the sight of Rosie’s eyes widening as she giggled with delight. They were both smiling at each other, one flushing with wild joy and one soft with many unsaid things, just close enough to infinity.  Hana wondered how they would have looked like from a distance as she continued walking toward the old home. That night Rosie had written to her that she would have brought home thousands of candy apples, and Hana wrote back she would have, too. Hana decided not to stop by,  because it would make her sad to see all the hustle silenced down to specks of dust and wasted dreams.

Hana was getting closer to her old home, and she often had to stop to reconsider her decisions. The town had begun to reveal itself to the returning dweller, and Hana was nauseous as she glimpsed at the red roof with fading colors on the highest ground of the town. The signpost read the town’s name in light paint that was barely visible with the time’s passage. Hana stood uncomfortable below the signpost. It creaked slightly when Hana leaned her arm against it. It felt like it was going to topple over in any second. It was pretty strong years ago, though. Dad had kissed them on their cheeks, at that very spot, with high hopes of finding a better opportunity in the city. He had a brand new hat and suit that matched the color of his tie. He was smartly gelled, shaved and brushed. Mom had wiped his shoes bits to bits the previous night, that it glistened under the sun as he took a step further away from the town. He said in a bright, hopeful tone that he would write them every day, and take them to the city as soon as possible. Hana was never sure when that ‘soon’ was, but she waited. Mom read his letters to them in their bed every day, and Rosie drew petunias, Mom’s lemon pound cakes and Hana’s mufflers- everything she could find. Dad said he missed home, and Rosie wanted to send him home. The letters stopped arriving; in the end, he did return, but simply as a news that travelled all the way to the small, old town.

Hana stepped into the town. The town was now a barren wasteland, with no life evident on the streets. Not even the rats that lived in the sewers peeked into the daylight. Hana disliked the silence that filled up every corner of the town. Just years ago Hana heard a cacophony of high and low-pitched voices rising from every visible parts of the streets. The silence in the town made Hana wince at the disparity it had caused. Only her footsteps echoed back to her. Only the streets and the shrubs that grew by the paths welcomed the time’s waters, and what stayed were the vestiges of unfulfilled yearnings. Hana passed by Mrs. Whittaker’s bakery, where Rosie saved her nickels in a jar to buy her favorite raspberry tarts. Hana remembered gardener Joe, whose wife Mary was a florist who lovingly handed Rosie a rose or a daisy. Rosie had taped a fallen petal onto the letter she wrote to Hana that day, and Hana was sure that letter was somewhere in the box, though the petal would have dried and withered. That day Mary had told Rosie about Provence’s lavender fields where waves of purple stretched till the horizon that even the sunlight looked purple. Rosie scribbled her letter in purple, and said she would ask Dad to take them all to see the purple sun, when he came back. Hana recalled not being able to write about the lavenders, because she knew Dad would never return, and there would be no one to take them to Provence. She only said someday they would get there. Soon, someday, one day. These words held meaningless promises of reunion that no one kept.

Hana walked past the houses that no one resided in anymore, and stood before the familiar red-roofed house with ivies invading every hole between the bricks on the wall. She hesitated for a good amount of time, nearly turning her footsteps twice. The letter in her bag held her back every time; it seemed to call her back home, a home that was no longer home. She walked, into the doorsteps that she had promised herself she would never return. She had watched the departure through the very doorstep she had just passed, and she had to frown to stop herself from crying. Hana walked through the hallways; the air reeked of old wood, and it felt stale, as if from another era. Hana imagined Rosie sitting by the fireplace, writing her letters with terrible, squiggly letters. She walked by the grandfather clock, which that stopped ticking ages ago, and climbed the spiral stairs slowly, pressing her foot onto each step she made. Somehow her heart felt fleeting and wandering- lost. She stopped before Mom’s room. Hana had expected her room to be locked, just like the day she left the house, but it was open. The doorknob felt hot in her palms. When she stepped into Mom’s room, a faint stench of alcohol brushed her nose. Alcohol bottles were strewn on the floor haphazardly. Hana took a step back and held her breath. The day Dad’s letters stopped arriving, Mom locked herself in her room, and refused to come out. She could never take it well, because she became utterly cold when Dad was mentioned, and Hana understood. It was never easy to let love hide from your sight. Hana prepared all the meals and left the trays outside her room, and only occasionally were they emptied. She slipped letters through the small space below the door, but the letters were always unanswered.

Hana sat on Mom’s bed, and dust rose into the mid air like snowflakes. Something rustled beneath her old bedsheet, and Hana uncovered some unwritten, some unfinished letters beneath it. Some simply had Dear Rosie or Dear Hana; some had two lines, and some had none. Some was just signed off, With all my heart. One, buried deep under the pillow, was dated back to days after Hana had left: it said sorry. She wondered what Mom had been thinking all those years, locking herself up in solitude, refusing to let anyone into her own space. Until the very last moments in her house, Hana didn’t get to see Mom. Did she leave the house in the end? Hana didn’t expect Mom to find her. Hana closed her eyes and took a deep breath; the faint stench of alcohol floated in the air. The day Rosie caught a bad cold, Hana had knocked onto Mom’s door, telling her that they needed to bring her to the doctor. It was the worst winter they had experienced in years, and the blizzard was devouring everything into its bleak white gulf. Hana was pretty sure Mom had heard it, because she heard rustling inside her room. Hana fed Rosie a spoonful of old cold syrup and a lemon drop, and told her bedtime stories until she fell asleep, cocooned in Hana’s embrace. In the morning Rosie’s fever worsened, and so did the blizzard. Nothing could be seen beyond the porch, and at least, Hana then thought, with Mom’s car, they could drive Rosie to Mr. Williams’s, the town doctor. The knocks turned into desperate bangs, and echoes that returned to Hana unanswered. Hana stood up and walked over to the door. She ran her fingers against the door, and imagined what Mom could have thought then, when Hana cried for help. Help, Mom, Hana whispered. Her voice escaped her throat as a thin whisper, still an unanswered echo.

Hana clutched the letters in one hand- she could only guess now what those letters meant to say, but she wished Mom had finished writing those letters and opened her door on that day, few years back. Hana held the doorknob and collapsed to the floor, just like the day she fell, on the other side of the door. She had screamed that she would wait for Mom to come out and take care of them. She cried all night that day, and she did check on Rosie once in awhile, but when she returned to Mom’s room, she fell asleep by her locked door. Hana was barely fourteen, and Mom was just very sad. That night the blizzard wrapped its hands around every household, breathing onto the roofs and engulfing all presence of warmth. And Rosie was very, very sick. Hana cried, recalling all her last moments in this lonely home. Winter put everyone into a long sleep, and it was as if Hana was the only one awake amid the cold snowstorm. As soon as the winter ended that year, Hana ran away from home, cursing that she would never return. Now she wasn’t sure if it was anyone’s fault, but even when she was away from home, she often thought of home. She thought of Dad staying home, in his humble pajamas instead of smart suit, and she thought of Mom opening her doors wide, and thought of herself and Rosie running into her embrace, with her arms enfolding around her mother’s waist. She thought of her sister running in the wheat field, her gold locks dancing in the air as the sun splashed its lights onto them. This, she thought as she held the old rusty doorknob and opened it, this is where it ends. Hana carefully unzipped her bag and opened her diary, gingerly slipping the envelope from the pages of her diary. She tore it slightly, and opened the envelope. A small, colored paper fell from the envelope.

Dorothy walked along the yellow bricks to find her home. If all the paths Hana walked were the yellow bricks, where was her home? Hana unfolded the colored paper that fell from the envelope. Inside was a drawing, carefully decorated and colored with crayons, of Mom, Dad, Rosie and Hana by their red-roofed house. They were all smiling and holding one another’s hands, looking very, very happy. On the back Rosie had written: Hana, this is a present for you! I hope everyone comes back soon and we’ll all be happy together. Home, home, where everything was alive. Hana held the drawing close to her chest. She could almost feel the slightest sentiment of warmth lingering on the paper. As Hana held the letter close to her; she tried to imagine Rosie speaking to her about their beautiful red-roofed home with Mom baking cakes and tarts every weekend and Dad reading them books. She reminisced them sitting by the fireplace with hot chocolate in their hands, speaking of all the small sparkling things that happened in their lives. She recalled all the letters they shared overnight, reading and reading them as the night deepened. All the days and nights where they spoke of hope. Hana thought about the day Dad left and when only his brand new silk hat returned, and when Mom started building her own solitary cave. Hana stood outside her door, speaking to the door that never answered back, Then she remembered the pile of letters in Mom’s room, her unwritten letters of apology. Hana could almost see the hesitant fingers hovering above the empty papers, chasing the time that had already passed by her, leaving ink blotches on the bed. The thousands of unspoken, untouched words that finally echoed back to Hana’s unanswered letters. For all these time Hana had been running away from home, chased by the ghost of the past. And when she finally turned around after years and years, the ghost was nowhere to be seen. Hana wished she had stopped halfway to turn around earlier.

Hana turned to the final station of her destination. She stood by the door that led to Rosie’s room and held her drawing close to her palms. The room smelled of old vanilla and lavender, two of Rosie’s favorites. The room was still and preserved, as if time hasn’t resided in that room since Rosie left Hana. It was exactly like the day Hana left, with Rosie’s box of crayons still by the corner of the room and her wooden horse on the other side, gently moving from side to side as wind blew. It felt as if Rosie was waiting for her the entire time, throughout the years that passed and Hana yet distant from home until the very moment Hana stepped into the doorsteps of her room. Hana stood in the middle of the room, and each step she took creaked from beneath the wooden floor. Hana took a deep breath as she held the drawing even closer to her palms. Rosie, Hana spoke. Her voice echoed in the room; a summer breeze tickled her cheeks, as if Rosie was answering to her calls. Hana closed her eyes as the breeze brushed against her eyelashes. I’ve finally come home.

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