My life never becoming what it was supposed to be, it would be easy to pick of the phone and dial her number. There’s a way I know she is, which is ready to receive anything. I know her number has never changed, and likely won’t. My last texts to her remain undeleted from her phone, because Rosie likes to remember where we were when we left off. She’s not like the others, who block my number, or submit to the fact I’ve blocked theirs. Rosie keeps our movie on pause. She keeps her finger shoved into the middle of a lot of books.
Like anything lost or abandoned, getting it back is a process that begins with hearing the song. It begins in stores and public places, teasing gently from the corners of my awareness until I’m see the pattern, but am unable to tell when it started, exactly. Owner of a Lonely Heart. It never bothered me before, or reminded me of anything in particular. There were definitely more emotional songs that I had to avoid for months and sometimes years after I left, but now it’s Owner of a Lonely Heart that spikes the adrenaline in my chest when I hear it, and tosses me careless down into a cage of memories from before I left home.
I decide to call her when it’s late. Sleep escapes from me in a sluggish pace, my thoughts fast enough you’d think I’d be able to catch it, but I’m not. The screen of my phone is bright in the dark of my room, and turns black when I put it to my ear, a final seal of a decision made. This is what relapse feels like.
“Hey,” she says after five rings, as if she expected me to call. Her voice is soft but I know she wasn’t sleeping. It took five rings for her to pick up because I know she was getting herself alone, wherever she was before my call.
“Hi,” I say to my ceiling. “It’s Jack.”
“I know,” she says. “How are you?”
“Really good,” I tell her, half lying, and half truthful. The fact is that by anyone else’s standards, I am really good, but I’m not really good. If I was happy, I wouldn’t be calling. Still, I feign my superiority to make sure she remembers I left her.
“That’s good,” she agrees with me. We settle into a short silence, during which she is wondering why I’ve called, and I know she won’t ever ask me, not directly, not anymore. She already knows this is about me missing her and everyone else, and she’s too polite to say so. Instead, she tries to lead me to admitting it.
“Is it late where you are?” she says, her voice a soft purr.
“Yeah,” I tell her. “You?”
“Almost midnight,” she says.
“Were you asleep?” I ask, even though I mean, was she with someone else. I hear her swallow something from a glass with ice.
“No,” she says, her voice lifting into a register higher and louder than what she reserves for secrets and late-night calls. “I was just getting something to drink.”
“It’s probably hot down there,” I guess, and I hear the shrug in her voice.
“It’s always hot here.”
If I’d chosen to call Evelyn, this is the part she’d say something like, “Did you call to ask me about the weather?” But that’s why I didn’t call Evelyn.
“Yeah, I was thinking about that the other day. How it was always hot.”
Rosie is quiet for a long pause, during which I can hear her breathing.
“I guess I was thinking about you a lot lately,” I admit. Her breathing doesn’t change at all, coming through the sterile connections made through space. Rosie’s breath, when it gets this late, always smells like Scotch tape and tastes like the plastic that coats the old curling telephone cords.
“Oh, yeah?” she asks, her voice quieting a little again. “What were you thinking?”
“I just missed you. Everyone,” I add when I hear her throat clear. I can tell she’s wondering how far I want to take this, tonight. If this is about phone sex or getting absolution or asking for her back.
“Clyde said you’d call,” she mentions, her tone almost shy. “Yesterday. He said you’d…”
She doesn’t finish her sentence, but her words sink into something that might be a laugh of derision, at herself. It comes up from her throat like the hiss of the brakes of a subway train.
“I guess you don’t really care what Clyde said,” she apologizes.
I’ve probably said that to her, and worse, before I left. I don’t laugh because I know she doesn’t really think it’s funny, and she doesn’t really think I don’t care, and Clyde might not have really told her I was going to call. I know none of it matters, because she’s giving me a chance to say
“I do care.”
But I asked her to never contact me again, and didn’t think about
“You don’t act like it,” she counters. It’s not confrontational, but still dismissive.
“Does anyone want me to come back?” I ask her, and her silence is long enough my stomach turns to knots.
“Of course,” she says. “You left a lot behind you.”
“Maybe I could come down for summer,” I offer, and I hear her hesitation.
“I’ll need to talk to Evelyn,” she says.
Of course. Nothing without the other, but what she’s promising is to sell me to Evelyn’s judgments to convince her to let me come back. There would be some who are ambivalent or unconcerned, but none voicing a flat refusal but Evelyn.
The dust from my car marks my arrival to anyone who happens to be casually glancing out, while I crawl down the drive and look for a place to park in the mess of cars. In the distance, I think I can hear a gunshot from the wetland that surrounds the house for miles, before dissipating north into rural townships and south into the gulf.
The porch sags in the center more than it did when I was last home, and the mosquito nets that encase it from the elements hang brownish and torn from the summer. The house from the outside looks abandoned, and taken over by teenagers who have found a way inside only to vandalize it and set fires to what was left inside when it was vacated after Katrina. The truth is, the house had merely nodded at Katrina, rolled up it’s petticoats, and slept through the storm.
The doorknob has something sticky coating it that comes away pink in my hands, and the hinges squeal when I try the door, as it’s so seldom used. The foyer is dim, the sun making its transition from one side of the house to the other in the midday. The air inside is oppressive, and scented with cigarettes and marijuana, resinous on the windows with a yellowish patina. I take off my jacket immediately, and cross the entry into the house to throw it into a coat closet I now see is gone. I touch the wall where it once was, and the drywall is seamless, and covered in wallpaper that has been plastered there since the 1960’s.
“Dean was hiding things in there,” I hear Rosie’s voice explain. “I guess he didn’t want anyone to see what he had in there, because one day the door was just like. Gone.”
I turn. She’s standing in the archway into the library, and I could have guessed she’d still be in her slip and no shoes. Her hair catches the glow from the windows, curling wild.
“Hey,” I say, my voice quiet like I’m inside a church. “Where is everybody?”
Her brown eyes slip from one end of the room to the other while she asks them, without speaking. Checking on them, the way they do for one another. When she answers me, it’s alphabetical, as always.
“Adam and Brad and Clyde are at work. Dean is at rehearsal. Evelyn is napping. Grady went for a ride. John is visiting some friends. Nick is in his room.”
I nod, recounting fast who she left out.
“Matthew?” I ask her, looking up at the sweep of the stairs.
“He doesn’t want to see you,” she says, her voice firm, but gentle.
The telepathy came easily enough to all of us, but having come and gone so much in the last few years, it would take some time before I was allowed back into the miasma of psychic chatter that we lovingly referred to as Gray Radio. This mental isolation tank accounted for the quiet when I came in.
Being comprised entirely of energy the way a human is has it’s benefits and drawbacks in the house, primarily when it comes to privacy. I can tell by her tone that Rosie means Matthew has shut himself off to me completely. No sight, no sound, no touch, no smell. He could be in the room right now and I wouldn’t know. We started calling it “blocking someone” a long time before chat rooms did.
I look back at her. She’s tucked her small feet together under her shoulders, and her hands are folded neatly in front of her. She’s a passive doll-form of herself that I think she uses to make herself seem small and unassuming. She’s afraid of my reaction, and rightly so. This isn’t the first time I’ve come back from a “normal” life to find that it’ll only take time to be allowed back into the extraordinary one.
“What about Joshua?” I ask her, and her eyes cut down to the floor.
“He left,” she says. “After you did. It was bad.”
“Did he-” I begin, but she interrupts me with a sentence that makes my heart beat in anger and fear.
“He took Julian with him.”
“Right,” I snap at her, and she takes a step back from me. “Sure, of course he’d leave because of me.”
Rosie’s eyes brim with tears, and she chokes on a sentence.
From behind her, Nick materializes, slow and black. His spider hair towers over hers, his face the pale and frozen beauty of a sleeping fairytale princess.
“He didn’t hardly remember your name come his departure, Pet,” Nick says, resting his hands on Rosie’s shoulders. “But you can go on and make about you whatever you like, yeah? That’s your prerogative and always has been. But you’d do right to not spit that bile at Rose.”
“This part never changes,” I accuse the two of them. “Finding out how awful things have been since I left, and what a mess I made and now have to atone for. I’m not doing it again.”
Nick’s expression remains unfazed as he withdraws a cigarette from behind his ear and lights it.
“Well done you,” he congratulates me, sarcasm in his voice. “I don’t think you should, personally. But I would tell you this: if you so dislike your consequences, I’d think about changing your actions were I you.”