Shalom stepped off the bus and gazed up and down the small stretch of her old hometown in Maine, which held only a convenience store, gas station, and bar. If it weren’t for the bar, there would be no bus stop this close to home, so she should consider herself lucky. But she still had four miles to go. Shalom glimpsed the telltale red truck peeking out in the lot behind the bar, bright against the gray sky, and her stomach knotted. The last time she saw it, her cottage had burned to ashes. Along with her mother.
Ben had been the one who stopped Shalom from running into the flames. Maybe she could’ve saved her mother. The rational part of her brain knew it had been too late, but casting blame was easier than holding the entire weight of guilt on her like a log in her backpack.
She shifted from foot to foot while considering her options. Ben had loved her mother. Each time he spoke to her, his faced betrayed his true feelings. He would drive Shalom without asking questions. Other neighbors would ask, “Did you come all this way from New York City alone? Where’s your guardian? Did you run away? Just what do you think you’ll do out there on the edge of the forest with your home gone?"
As she took a step towards the store across the street, drizzle prickled her nose and cheeks. Tendrils of chill had already wafted through the gaps inside her thin jacket. It would be a long way to walk in the rain.
Before she mustered courage to take the last few steps, Ben stepped out from the store. The bells on the wreath jingled as the door closed behind him. A beard covered most of his weathered face, just like she remembered. He glanced up at the dreary sky before he saw her. She waited for him to notice her, just a few feet away. His head came down and his eyes widened. He reached her in two strides.
“Shalom, you cut your hair. You look just like… your mother.”
She touched her the edge of her bob nervously and nodded.
Ben’s eyes sparked with questions. But he didn’t ask them, just like she knew he wouldn’t. Instead he exhaled in a whistle and said, “You want to go home, don’t you?”
She nodded again.
He turned towards his truck, and she followed.
After a year away, stepping into the truck was both familiar and foreign. She’d missed it.
They drove. The only sound was the squeak of the windshield wipers. The air thickened with questions unspoken. Any town gossip? How was Ben since the fire? Was he keeping an eye out on the land she'd inherit in six years?
The only hue besides gray was the crimson of the hood and the green still clinging to the wintry fields. Shalom covered this length of road thousands of times, many of them in the very truck she sat in when her mom’s beat up old car broke down. Did Ben ever start the car? Did it still run? If it didn’t, Shalom figured he tinkered with it until the car hummed to life again.
Ben's truck passed the familiar trees just where Shalom’s property began. She wished it were summer, so leaves would cover the skeleton-finger branches. If it had been a rainy day like this one on the day of the fire, perhaps her mother would’ve survived. Ben turned right. The truck lurched back and forth over the tiny dirt road leading to her house. The garage stood alone. As it loomed closer, its disrepair became starker. Had a year weathered it or was it the new perspective she had viewing it?
Before the fire consumed her mother, the tiny home had been their refuge.
Ben stopped in front of the garage. Shalom mumbled a thank you before jumping down. Her feet tread on sacred ground. Time and weather had taken most of the evidence of the home and fire away, but her mother's spirit still lingered like fog. Shalom crouched down and grasped a clump of mud, imagining herself as a little girl clasping her mother's hand.
She stood up and wiped her hands together to clean them. Ben's truck waited, idling. She stepped inside. He didn't say, "Where to?" He didn't have to. He put the truck in gear and drove away.
This story is dedicated to anyone who
has suffered a loss in December.
This is a picture prompt from The Mag.
Why don't you give one a try?