In the wooded neighborhood Mirror Valley, forests wove between several lovely homes, and the old house with the red door was finally sold to the Swinford-Hark family. At 10am, Nathan Swinford navigated up the driveway for the first time, ready to start a new chapter with his family. He adjusted the rearview mirror, and chanced a smile at the kids: Daniel, a recent graduate from the fourth grade, and Laney, a professional teenager currently sighing at her surroundings.
“There it is,” he murmured, and his co-pilot laid her hand over his. Nathan beamed at his wife Abby, but the world knew her better as Abigail Swinford-Hark. According to her fans, she was a brilliant writer, and according to the press, she was the whole reason children were reading again, but she was always Abby. When she had a shot or two she always insisted (loudly) that children had always been reading in the first place. When she burped, he insisted she was louder than he ever could be. When she cried, he held her, and his heart soared when she laughed. In his wallet, he had an old photo he snapped of Abby on a beach in North Carolina. She was in a white and beaded two-piece. He could hear her laughter echo in the picture whenever he looked at it, looked at her holding back her long locks of red hair as the wind blew over her shoulders.
These days she covered up a bit more, and he could not remember the last time she wore that two-piece. Her red hair was cut short and worn in a small knot behind her head. She was a little skinnier now, and her smile was cautious, backed by a nervous energy Nathan still found himself unaccustomed to, especially since he was still on that beach; miles away in the sand and surf.
Abby’s voice brought him back as she echoed: “There it is,” and smiled.
Nathan readjusted from his time-travel, and plucked her hand up to his lips for a quick kiss. “Welcome home,” he grinned, and hopped out of the car to check in with the movers that had pulled up to the front yard’s curb. Everyone seemed to agree on the parking arrangement, and moments later the Swinford-Harks went up their porch and to the red door as the movers opened up their truck to unload.
“Who wants the honors?” Abby asked as she held up a pair of keys dangling on an otherwise naked key ring.
Daniel took advantage of the hypnotic hold Laney’s phone had over her, and lunged for the keys. “I got it!” Daniel shrilled. Laney only rolled her eyes and went back to thumbing through her phone.
The door swung open on an empty house gaping and starving for furniture, family, and memories. Daniel whooshed over the threshold, and the tight grip he had on the shiny key betrayed a mind racing with the promise of a better room than his sister. Maybe Laney looked distracted on her phone, but she was actually scrolling through the house’s floorplan so she could make a bee-line to her new room. She knew the master bedroom with the widow’s walk was off limits, but there was another corner room with a bay window just up the stairs. Laney was already marching up the stairs while Daniel whooped at how AWESOME the house was, and how excited he was to finally see his new room.
“I’d get on that,” Nathan remarked, and slanted his eyes to the stairs. Daniel saw Laney disappearing to the next floor. He balked and shot after her. Nathan chuckled, and glanced over his shoulder only to find Abby standing unsure on the threshold. “Hey,” he gently called as he went to her. “You okay?” He carefully took her hands and rubbed his thumbs over her white knuckles, blanched from inner tensions and misgivings. “Oh, watch out — “
The movers came through just as Abby swept over the threshold and nestled into his arms. Nathan nodded them forward, and they completed their first of many laps with the Hark’s belongings. His attention returned to Abby and the sullen face she had laid in his chest.
“Come on,” he said softly, “you can talk about it. It’s okay.”
“I know I should be happy, but I’m just… I don’t know,” she shook her head.
“It’s a big step, I know.” He ducked his head a little so he could catch her gaze and measure it kindly. His words were careful footsteps on a floor that not only creaked, but shattered at the wrong step. “But it’s a step in the right direction. You’re doing great.”
Her expression melted into a doleful hope that shined through glassy eyes, and warbled at the back of her throat. “You think so?”
“I know it doesn’t feel like it,” he rubbed his hands up and down her forearms, beneath her sleeves he could feel where skin became wrapped bandage, and then became skin again. She was going to say something, but the movers were heading back out, and she did not want them to hear her or see her — as she would say — ‘like this’.
“I feel so stupid,” she shook her head and pulled away once they were gone. “It’s a perfect day — “
“You’re not stupid,” his own patience was thinning, but he fought to be there for her as she fought against everything around her while a stronger, internal voice took the wheel. Her control snapped when the loud steps of the movers came back up the stairs.
“I can’t do this,” she muttered, and was snatched away by the changing tide.
“Abby,” he called as she darted to the porch, but buttoned his supplication in favor of not alerting the movers to any family matters. His back thumped against the wall, and he washed his hands over his face. He was frustrated, and although Abby would probably mistake that for anger in her direction, Nathan shined that discomfort inward. Maybe if he had said something a little different, or maybe if he had not touched her, maybe if he had given her space, or maybe if he had never asked in the first place or maybe and maybe and more maybes followed. He wanted nothing more than to get them back to their original place, get them back to that beach, long red hair, aloe on sunburns, the kids willingly playing again.
As if on cue: “DAD! LANEY WON’T GIVE ME HER ROOM!”