Crackles and pops from a grand fireplace sent cozy tingles though Cindy’s worn arms and down her aching back. The boxes, the furniture, and the TV sets had all been loaded into her brother’s truck, ready for the move to the new house. She’d spent all morning wiping both the kitchen and the upstairs bathroom clean, wearily passing by nearly empty bedrooms glowing with dust particle-filled sunlight. The beds remained, they needed something to sleep on, but all the rest—the non-essentials—had to go. She rubbed the chills from her arms, staring into the heart of the blazing fire. The entire family had ham sandwiches for dinner and settled down for the night. It gave her time to herself, more time than she wanted.
During her quiet time, Cindy’s mind cranked at high speed, thinking of the events of the past six months. As was the routine, she blamed herself for losing her job to the new bimbo-turned-assistant-who-thought-assistant-meant-boss, Claire Sullivan. The blonde bitch. Her lips pressed together as she seethed. That feeling of anger melted away like ice in front of the fire with the memory of her husband’s arms around her, calming and serene. She’d enjoyed his even breathing and warm skin along her back as he reminded her that the money from her job wouldn’t have been enough to make a difference—it would never have been enough to save the house, if it ever came to that.
She threw her head back and swallowed an entire tumbler of chilled Jack Daniel’s. Well, it’s come to that, she thought, fighting back painful tears. But her hopes were shattered, not even the heat from the alcohol distracted her from the image of her eldest son’s face. Dusty’s entire life had been spent within the mahogany walls of their family home. He opened the envelope and read the news for himself. They had the standard 30 days to clear out. The sunset she’d watched a few hours earlier marked the end of day 29.
Luckily, her sister Erica hustled a beautiful two-bedroom cottage in the center of town from her real-estate agent ex, but it wouldn’t be the same. The thin bone-white handrail beside the cottage’s pleasant brick steps tainted the memory of her beautiful wooden steps, built by the hands of her own husband and the place where Dusty got that nasty scar below his knee. Climbing the steps, after promising herself to give the new house a fair chance, she couldn’t bear to place her hand on the railing. For such a tiny thing, a speck of difference between the home she loved and the house before her, it sent sparks emotions through her body.
The rest of the house was filled with the same insignificant differences. She found a crooked shelf near a window that would never suffice to display her family photos; there was a bedroom full of creaking floorboards; and she’d even flushed the toilet, which she discovered had a dragging chain within the tank. Her husband, Jim, stood by her side through the entire ordeal, grinning at Erica to diffuse his wife’s neuroses, but when Cindy found a whittled out mouse hole at the base of the dining room table leg, he pulled her to the side and brought it to her attention that she was hunting for imperfections, for reasons to discount the entire house.
Jim had balls of iron to step up to her like that, especially after losing his job as well. The process of lapsing the mortgage payments had begun long before Cindy lost her income, and continued as the worker’s comp checks refused to stretch as far as they needed to. He’d been hurt on the job, not his fault as ruled by the big dogs, slipping through a puddle of stagnant water and skiing right into a metal table and a twisted, mauled back. The doctors reassured him that it would heal in time, but he’d be looking for another line of work. Construction wasn’t the best profession for a man with a bum back. Even though the Powers That Be had ruled it an on-the-job accident, Cindy knew the truth and it gave her the right to put Jim in the doghouse—the whole skiing incident had been a gag.
On the way to the emergency room, she ran many things over in her mind. At first, she found herself worried, then terrified, then hurt. She trusted him to take care of their family, to provide for them and keep them safe, which included keeping a roof over their heads. But that trust exploded into tiny embers of a once-roaring fire when she learned he’d busted his back over a stupid water cooler bet. He won the hundred dollars.
The empty tumbler glass nearly fell from Cindy’s grip as she heard shuffling above her. It was faint—a box being moved across the hardwood floor upstairs—but fainter than just one floor above, it came from the attic.
With a nervous hand, Cindy pushed the attic door open. Her family, including Jim, had retired to their empty bedrooms for their last night in the house, but there she found someone sitting on an old crate in the low light of a single hanging bulb.
“Hey Mom,” Dusty turned when he heard the old sticky hinge whine. “I didn’t mean to wake you up or anything.” He held a dusty rag in one hand, rubbing it along a ceramic figure he’d found in a random box.
Sighing as a tool of comfort and stepping into the nearly hollow attic, Cindy brought herself closer to her son. She surveyed Dusty for a moment, wearing his ratty high school senior class t-shirt, and realized her boy, grown up to nearly 19, appeared to be handling the move far better than herself. “You didn’t wake me,” she spoke in a whisper, cradling her empty tumbler. “I was downstairs in the living room.” She caught herself. “What used to be the living room.”
“It’s still a living room, Mom.”
“What are you doing with that old junk?” she ignored the obvious and crouched down beside him.
“Spit shining,” Dusty grinned as if it should have been apparent. “There’s a lot of great stuff up here.”
Cindy carefully took the ceramic figure from Dusty’s hands. It was a pale, washed out soldier. He had no weapons, only a hat and a uniform. “These were left over from the last family who lived here. Probably forced out like we were.”
As his mother started to sprout the beginnings of tears, Dusty grabbed another fragile ornament from the box in front of him. “To me, it just means that there was someone here before us, and there’ll be someone here after us. This house has probably seen some amazing days. Hell, we’ve had a lot of them here ourselves.” His thoughts aloud weren’t helping his mother’s sobbing. “But we soldier on, just like the last family. Things happen, and it helps me to think that getting through things like this, I don’t know,” he paused, “builds character or strength. Isn’t that what they say on TV?”
“This doesn’t feel like TV,” Cindy felt the roles reverse. She slipped into the place of a child being consoled by her son, acting far more adult than she could have imagined.
“But I think that’s what we should do,” he took the soldier back into his hands, running the rag over it once more. “I’m keeping this.”
Cindy watched Dusty walk toward the door of the attic as if he’d won a trophy, the little figurine a trinket of a battle he’d conquered in the 30 days since receiving the news. His confident steps and steadfast smile gave her a new perspective, and for a fraction of a second in time, she felt the power within herself to leave the past behind.
Calling on a tiny sliver of that newfound power, she flipped the switch on the attic light and shut the door.