Summer’s long days were sleeping earlier. Dad and I sat on the brick railing around Grandma’s porch. He was eating an ice cream sandwich and smelled like a mixture of red dirt and diesel. A soft thud, thud from my sneakers hitting the bricks repeatedly echoed the drone of the oilrig that pumped tirelessly behind the barns. I felt like I needed to say something to break the silence, but Dad didn’t seem to mind the stillness of the farm. The eerie quiet of the middle of nowhere made my mind jangle like rusty keys for broken lock:nothing to turn but never still.
“It’s too quiet here for you, Nora.”
Daddy’s gaze never left the horizon, but he knew I was listening. When my father spoke, you couldn’t help but listen. It happened so seldom that every booming word sounded like the voice of a nameless god.
Five years have passed since that waning summer night. I hadn’t been back. Not until now. As I passed the school where I was slated to teach the fall after my college graduation, my face warmed with a rush of blood. I tried to push the thoughts about how I abandoned my classroom less than an hour before teaching my first class to the back of my mind. A lot had happened since then.
When I pulled up outside my grandparents’ large brick house ten minutes later, the day I left started to fade like a long lost memory. Large, paned windows stared down at me with dark eyes, and the home’s outline glowed with the setting Oklahoma sun. No one was home.
Stepping out of my car, I ran my hands over my torso and hips, smoothing the travel wrinkles out of my tailored button-up shirt. Little clouds swirled around my feet, dusting my black riding boots and faded jeans. My hands instinctively found the correct key while my feet walked up the porch’s four cement steps to the front door. The storm door creaked a familiar welcome, and I inserted the heavy bronze key into the lock. But instead of swinging open expectantly, the door refused to budge. I jiggled the key back and forth and sighed. My keys no longer worked. Leaving them dangling from the door, I let the screen slam shut and pulled my cell phone out of my pocket.
After three rings, the phone was answered with my mother’s inquisitive “Hello?”
“Nora!” I could hear the smile of relief in her voice. “Where are you?”
“At Grandma’s. My key doesn’t…”
“Oh, I forgot to tell you. The old locks were sticking, so we changed them.”
A pause settled on the line. I felt a knot of emotion rising up my throat. It had been a long time since I was home.
I swallowed the tears and smiled. “I’ll be home in a few minutes. I just want to walk out and give Red a scratch on the ears.” My mother was silent for a moment. I understood. Red wasn’t there to scratch on the ears. “Or… I’ll just come home now. Where am I staying tonight?”
“With your sister at Grandma’s house. The house is full here. Or it will be later tonight. It’s empty right now.”
“The quiet before the storm.”
I glanced towards the sky, which was clear and darkening to a deep indigo. Though it was December, I didn’t even feel the need for the wool coat laying across my front passenger’s seat. I said, “See you in a few,” and hung up the phone. Standing there in the quiet, the lulling sound of an oilrig echoed between the old farm buildings. It was more muted than I remembered and coming from the southeast. It wasn’t the same one that was here when I left.
I thought about driving to my parents’ house, but it was just a walk down the rutted makeshift road between the wheat field and the hay row. I could see the orange light illuminating the night sky about a half-mile away. Grabbing my coat and wallet, I struck out into the night. The gate rested cockeyed on deep pits and ridges one of the pickups had left as it ventured out to feed the cattle. I stepped around the holes carefully and shimmied through the narrow opening in the gate. It was darker than I had realized. I turned back, second-guessing my decision to walk home, before realizing I had done this a million times as a child.
The night enveloped me like a homemade quilt. It was familiar. It smelled like my childhood. With all immediate light gone, I began to really notice the things I forgot about this place. A sky speckled with a million stars until it changed from black to a muted blue-grey. Thick heads of cattle lowed softly and snuffled as they settled in to wait for daylight. My ears perked at the yip-yip-yip echoing amongst the grassy knolls and barren ravines. A lonely howl from one coyote incited a symphony. Tiny hairs on the back of my arms stood on end and my flesh became stippled with goose bumps. I remembered walking this road with my dad, taking half-dozen steps for every one of his long strides. I didn’t want to be left in the dark, not with so many hungry, gaunt coyotes just waiting for easy prey. Dad said they were more afraid of me than I was of them, but that was hard to believe as a seven-year-old. My quick steps faltered, sending me tumbling to the hard ground, whimpering. Dad stopped, scooped me up, and gave me a piggyback ride the rest of the way home as he sang “Swing Low” in his rich baritone. Now, I hummed a few bars to myself, calming my nerves as I picked up my pace.
I was within a hundred yards of the gate to my parents’ property when I saw a darting canine coming toward me, full speed. My heart leapt into my throat before I realized it was just Bug, the collie. She danced around me, circling and barking until I stopped to pet her head. The sound of a door caused me to look up, and I could see my mother standing in the doorway, just a silhouette in the bright light emanating from inside.
Standing from a crouch, I waved, letting her know it was me. She raised her arm in welcome and walked outside to pull her delicates off of the clothesline.
By the time I got to the front gate, Mom had gone inside and was sitting in her recliner. Dad’s oversized chair sat empty, but it didn’t seem odd, as he rarely got home before nine or ten at night and it was barely seven-thirty.
Settling into his recliner, I thought about the last time I was home. Fresh out of college. Fresh out of ideas. For years I struggled to get beyond the stereotypes I ran into when people found out I grew up on a farm, and I couldn’t imagine surrendering myself to those labels like they were my fate. Just when I thought I had beat them, when I thought all of my fellow collegiate friends saw me as a determined Liberal Arts woman, I realized that roots aren’t that easy to cut off. Even if I could live without them, others couldn’t see me being able to. As I sat there, silently watching TV with my mom, I wondered how I had lived without them so long. While this place felt tight at twenty-three, it was welcoming and safe at twenty-eight. I looked over at my mom and smiled. She smiled back, her eyes weary. A couple months before, my sister had sent me a picture of the entire family. I had been surprised to see how old my parents looked and how big my nieces and nephews had become. Dozens of framed pictures littered the top of the piano, chronicling the years I was absent. One snapshot I had sent of me at the top of a peak in Vancouver was framed by gold filigree along with the rest. It was taken more than two years before.
Mom excused herself to the other room to finish laundry and make the beds. I offered to help, but she just shook her head and told me to rest. My sister was coming soon to pick me up after she returned from town. So, I went out on the front porch and curled up in the old porch swing. I rocked back and forth and let my mind drift back to the last time I left home. The road had calmed me, miles slipping like silk beneath the wheels. Classical music barely audible on the radio and tilled ground flanking either side of steamy asphalt. I drove with no intention to drive: away from the little town that I grew up in, away from my new job, but without anyplace else to go. One by one, I could feel The Fates snipping the strands that shaped the safety net they wove for me within my loving family, in this small town. One by one, the fence posts disappeared until they became a haze of brown flying by on either side.
The wind pushed past the dry honeysuckle vines and curled around my shoulders and arms. I hugged myself, staring absently into the dark. A low rumble of my sister’s pickup and the crunch of gravel broke me from my reverie. Mom poked her head out the door. “You want to eat before you go back over there?”
I shook my head and stood. “No, Liz will have something. Besides, I’m not hungry.”
Mom shivered and retreated to the warmth of the indoors. Stretching, my arms above my head, I watched my sister check two sleepy children in the backseat before closing the door quietly and walking up the front path. I waved one hand lazily while I finished my stretch.
Liz walked up the steps and poked me in the ribs. “Hey.”
“How was the trip?”
“Not bad. Long.” Liz sat down on the swing and rocked gently. I leaned down to touch my toes. The ride had left my joints stiff and sore. “Could have been worse,” I grunted as I placed my hands flat upon the cement porch.
“Yeah.” Liz paused, allowing the coyote howls and wind to dominate the conversation for a moment. “So, how far is it?”
“About ten hours.” Blood rushed from my head as I sat up. A wave of vertigo flooded my senses, causing me to stumble backwards into an empty terra cotta pot. It scooted back with a grainy clang and tottered for a second before finding a new resting place.
“Shut up.” I moved to the swing and sat down by my older sister. We pushed the floor beneath us. Swinging silently in the winter night. Two nearly identical faces. Two pairs of shoes, one pair scuffed sneakers and one square-toed black boots. “So, how’s life?”
“Good,” she replied. “We need to go soon… before the kids wake up.”
I nodded and stood. “Just let me go see if Mom needs anything before we go.” I could see in the front window from where I was standing. Mom was carrying a stack of fresh towels in from the utility room. I tapped on the window, causing her to look up, and mouthed “Want me to help?“ Shifting the towels to one arm, she motioned for me to go on. “I guess not.”
Liz stood and sauntered down the stairs ahead of me. “C’mon, Nor.”
I walked down the steps and around the side of the house. “I’ll open the gate so we can just drive through the pasture,” I threw over my shoulder.
The heavy truck door opened and shut, the engine roared to life and lights turned on. The gate was heavier than I remembered. My progress was slow. Within moments, the headlights of Liz’s truck flooded the ground around me and she tapped the horn twice. She leaned out the window as I put my weight into dragging the gate over the dusty ground. “Hurry up, wimp.” I paused my efforts long enough to flip her the bird, then resumed opening the gate. Once I got it open, Liz waved for me to get in the truck.
“What about the gate?” I hollered over the engine.
“Forget it! We’ll get it tomorrow!” As I climbed up into the truck, Liz explained. “No cattle out on the road. We don’t have all night.”
“Hey, that gate is big.” I examined the lines of ruddy rust on my palms and dusted them off on my jeans.
“No bigger than it was last time you saw it,” she retorted, giving me a lopsided grin and wink. “I think you’re just getting soft not living on the farm.”
“Well…” We both chuckled as we bumped over the rough dirt path. At the other end, Liz jumped out and ably dragged the other gate open. I slid over and drove through the opening she’d created. Pulling up to the porch, I shut off the engine. My niece and nephew slept in the back, the youngest snoring softly from his car seat. The oldest sleepily sat up, a red mark from where she had been leaning on the door branding her cheek.
“Hey,” I whispered.
“No… hey, we’re home.”
“Mommy?” she whimpered. I could tell she was about to start crying, so I hopped out of the truck. Liz opened the door just in time to hug her sleepy, sniffling six-year-old, Emma. The girl rubbed her eyes and looked at me before looking up at Liz.
“This is your Aunt Nora, sweetie.”
The girl’s pigtails were coming unbraided and her wide eyes signaled her confusion. “You remember Aunt Nora. We talk on the phone with her sometimes?” She blinked, eyes brimming with tears, and buried her face in Liz’s sweatshirt. Liz scooped the girl up and shoved the door shut with her hip. “Nora, can you get Eddie?”
I walked around to the other side and lifted the sleeping infant from the car seat. His little face immediately nuzzled into my neck and his snores resumed. I could feel the vibrations of his breath on my shoulder. Mimicking Liz, I pushed my hip into the door. It swung slowly, barely latching. Liz was standing at the front door. My keys still hung from the doorknob.
“These yours?” she inquired, nodding down at the keys.
“Yeah.” I leaned back into the pickup door a little harder, forcing it the rest of the way shut. “I forgot them earlier.” I walked up the steps and pulled them from the lock, freeing the way for the proper keys.
Once we had the kids in bed, Liz and I made Irish coffee and lit the fireplace. The clock in the hallway chimed nine o’clock. “Wow, that clock still works?”
“Now it does,” Liz responded as she threw a couple pinecones into the crackling hearth. “We had to get it fixed last year. Just stopped running one day. Can you believe it has been in this house since Daddy was a kid?”
I shook my head in disbelief and sipped my drink.
“So, how long are you staying?” Now she curled up in Grandma’s old recliner, tucking her feet under her and wrapping her hands around the blue–speckled mug. Her eyes I could feel searching my expression. And I stared into the flames, unsure how to answer.
I shrugged. I sighed. “Oh, I don’t know.”
“It has been five years, Nora. You didn’t even take anything with you.”
“Speaking of… are my clothes still here? And my stuff?” I sunk down further into the couch and returned her gaze, locking eyes with her for the first time that night.
“Yeah. They’re in the attic. I just threw them all in some of my empty moving boxes once I moved in here. I can’t believe you didn’t even come back for Grandma’s funeral.”
“I was in Vancouver, Liz. I didn’t even know when the funeral was until the day before.”
“Nevermind.” She sighed. “Forget it. I know you were far away. Everyone just really missed you. I mean, the way you just left like that. No word. No call. No nothing. Mom was in a panic. God, I still remember Daddy calling me and I could hear Mom crying in the background…” She trailed off, absently sipping the coffee.
“Sorry,” I offered. Truly I was, for that moment, at least. Then, I wasn’t. For the first time, I had felt truly free. Recklessly, I had ripped the ties that bound my entire life. Where I went, no one had known me. No one had been able to label me as anything but what I presented to them. My life had been whirlwind after I made the fateful decision to leave the high school teaching job I had accepted. I had moved for no reason other than to escape what I feared to be my predestined life. Further and further north over the first two years, finally landing in Vancouver for a while before moving back down the Rockies to Colorado for work. I had written home, telling of my triumphs and failures. I had even sent home extravagant gifts when my job afforded me a raise. But as far as anyone in my everyday life knew, I had no family-only a miasma of friends scattered about the world. I had not even dated after I realized that no one would ever compare to my father.
I snapped back to the present. “Oh… sorry, I was in my own world.”
“No doubt,” Liz muttered. “Anyhow, I was just saying that all of that is behind us. I… I mean, I just got to deal with all of it when you left. I think everyone was half scared IÕd take off too.”
It was almost too much to listen to how my actions had affected those I loved. And how they eventually just picked up the pieces and made it fine without me. I had missed so much. Grandma’s death. Eddie’s birth. So much. After a few months, life went back to normal. At first, I’d receive emails and phone calls from Liz or Mom, letting me know what was going on with the family. But then it was like they forgot to tell me. For me, it became easier and easier to forget I had a family. A couple times a year, I would open a card with a photograph or newspaper clipping to remind me of my old life, but soon it just felt like I was watching someone else’s family from afar.
“Maybe I’ll stay for awhile. I have some vacation days. I could call in.” My sister smiled. She looked relieved. “That would be nice, Nora. I know Mom would be happy.” Liz stood. “And on that note, I’m going to bed. Danny will be in later tonight, in case you hear the door open after you go to sleep.”
I nodded and gave her a little wave. Sleep sounded nice.
The next morning, I awoke in a panic. My eyes were open, but all I could see was white. I thrashed about, half-thinking I was blind. Rolling to my stomach, I was faced with the horrid visual realization that there were camouflage sheets on the bed, and I wasn’t, in fact, blind at all. I laughed bemusedly, and sat up on the bed. The smells of bacon and homemade biscuits wafted down the hall and into my room.
Stumbling down the hall in my flannel pants and tee shirt, I rubbed the sleep from my eyes and tried to ignore the hunger. Danny stood at the stove, frying bacon, while Liz spooned baby cereal into Eddie’s little pursed mouth.
“Morning,” I croaked, and moved to pour myself a cup of coffee.
“Morning, sleepyhead,” Danny chirped.
“How did you sleep?” Liz inquired.
“Like I was dead,” I sighed.
The three of us looked at each other, unsure how to respond to my comment. Danny pushed a plate with crisp bacon, a buttered slab of bread, and scrambled eggs into my free hand. I stared down into the steam and shuffled over to the table. “Milk?” he asked, raising a gallon sitting on the countertop.
“Nah, I’m okay with coffee for now.”
Liz pushed the salt and pepper down the table to me and smiled. “So you slept soundly at least.”
“Yeah.” I nodded as I peppered my eggs and took a bite.
The toaster oven dinged behind me, causing me to jump. It was Liz’s toast. She wiped Eddie’s mouth and removed the thick slice of bread from the toaster to a plate. Danny slid two eggs over easy onto the toast and dropped a couple pieces of bacon on the side. Just like Dad. Liz leaned up and kissed Danny’s cheek. “Thanks, honey.”
Breakfast was sprinkled with light conversation about the weather, the teams and the family with a bit of salty talk about the community thrown in for good measure. Turns out I was the only person from my senior class to not marry yet, and would soon be the only one without children. The valedictorian had finally married last spring and had a baby on the way. Danny cleared the table as we talked. Liz cleaned up Eddie, and served Emma a plate when she came in the kitchen about a half-hour later. It was nearly ten a.m. before we left the kitchen.
Liz looked at the clock. “We need to go soon. We’re supposed to be there by noon for lunch.” We all dispersed, rushing to get showers and get ready before Mom had a chance to call and tease us with her normal “Lazy bums!” tirade.
Standing at the dressing table in the spare bedroom, I twisted my hair up into a knot and pinned it into place. It was hard to believe, looking at my reflection, that I was the same girl who had left this place five years prior. Dad had been the only one who really understood that I couldn’t stay. Though Liz felt she’d had to deal with everything by herself, it was Dad who kept Mom from hunting me down and bringing me home that autumn. My tailored, pinstriped suit fell gracefully against my body. I couldn’t help but feel overdressed. No one would have on anything this expensive.
I jumped at Liz’s voice.
I smiled. “No worries.” She had on a simple dress that she’d probably gotten on clearance. It looked nice, but reaffirmed my suspicion that this suit was going to stand out like a sore thumb. “You look nice.” So much for blending in back home like I did in my everyday life.
“It’s noon. We’re late.”
“Oh.” I picked up my purse and brushed a stray hair out of my eyes. “Ready.”
“The kids and Danny are already in the truck. You want to ride in the front?”
“Nah, I’ll ride with the kids.”
The fellowship hall of the community church was abustle. The last time I had been inside here was for Dad’s sixtieth birthday party the summer before I left. I remembered my dad smiling politely at well wishers and chatting with other aging farmers about weather and the price of wheat. I had tried to stay out of everyone’s way, but I think I got more attention than Dad that day. Everyone wanted to congratulate me on my graduation, and by the end of the evening, I had a stack of presents from neighbors and family.
Now, everyone looked at me, shocked at my change.
I felt caught in a whirlwind of hugs and old stories, droning voices, hushed whispers and laughter. I was back in a small town. It had always moved so slowly while I was growing up, but that afternoon it felt like I spent the entire time catching up to them. Finally, everything ended.
It was nice outside for mid December. The air was still and cool without biting your nose and cheeks. I stood under the oak tree outside of the church watching two men do their work. Liz walked outside and gave me a “hang in there” smile. I reached for her hand and tears started streaming down our cheeks. Neither of us said anything for the longest time.
We just stood there watching the two men. One turned to us and asked, “Do you ladies want any of these flowers?” He walked over and handed us two yellow roses and several wheat stalks. I slipped my arm around Liz’s waist. As the mahogany casket began lowering, Liz trembled. I turned her away and began walking towards the front gate where the community huddled close, weaving a tight circle around our mother.
Standing on the outside, we observed the true family that had rooted us to this town. We heard their laughter and we shed their tears. It had been nearly two thousand days since I had stood here, and though I had never missed the home I’d left, now I didn’t know if I ever wanted to leave again.
About the Author
Nevada N. Scheffler, a graduate from Oklahoma State University’s English program, is no stranger to being the proverbial tumbleweed in the wind. After graduating college, she moved to the desert to teach ninth grade Humanities for a year before resigning to follow her life-long dream of writing full-time. Nevada has lived in Michigan for the past two years, and is working as a digital advertising copywriter to support her relentless writing habit.