‘Homecoming’ by Kate Hanlon was published in 'Spiral Anthology' in 2020.
The cold has almost set my joints solid by the time Mum pulls up to the station. As soon as I see her silhouette, I think I might have liked to stay on the footpath a little while longer.
She doesn’t wave, and neither do I. My bag, hastily packed, scrapes the concrete as I hoist it into the boot. I take longer than I need, and then some. Time can be a physical thing when it wants to be—and mostly when you wish it wasn’t.
A veil of toasty warm air greets me as I open the passenger side door, but I hesitate. My mother flashes me a brief smile, and it hits me harder than I thought to see the resemblance of someone else in her heavily freckled cheeks. By the time I smile back, she has already set her stare back on the road.
I defrost my knuckles against the heater, if only to avoid the stillness as well as the silence. Her attention on the gearshift, the mirrors and the steering wheel is so loud I have to close my eyes.
‘Did you have to work yesterday?’ she asks when she turns onto the main road.
‘No, I called in.’
She nods. ‘How was the trip?’
‘Fine.’ A lie we both accept. What else is there to say? That I spent the entire journey here thinking—whilst simultaneously trying not to think—about these exact moments? What I’d say, what I wouldn’t. Wishing I was on another planet, or in a different life, where I couldn’t feel anything, and where I would never have to face this.
No amount of thinking can prepare you for a cut this deep.
‘How’s Cody?’ I ask, working to not wring my hands.
‘The same, really.’ She swallows. ‘You know what he’s like. It’s hard to tell.’
‘He’s…’ She struggles for the words. ‘He’ll be glad to have you home.’
I focus on the bulky, black ute in front of us, trying not to hear all the unspoken words.
‘What about you, Mum?’
‘Yeah.’ I persist through the tension in my throat. ‘How are you?’
We turn into our street.
‘I’ll be fine,’ she says dismissively, as if it were as simple as that. ‘Don’t you worry about me.’
Maybe the only choice of words that guarantees I’ll worry.
The crunch of gravel under the tyres as we steer into the driveway is achingly familiar. Every action takes an eternity as she lifts the handbrake, turns off the ignition, unbuckles her seatbelt. I wait until her hand is on the door handle before I move.
‘Don’t forget your bag,’ she says, as I follow her to the porch.
‘I’ll get it later.’
She doesn’t argue.
It hasn’t been long since I was last here, at the doorstep of my country-town family home. Only two months. For a birthday. A thirteenth.
The atmosphere was different then. Mum had been on time to pick me up, waving from the car. She had turned the radio on and we’d sung off-key. I’d made jokes and she’d laughed.
But not this time. It feels as though we will never laugh again.
She doesn’t call out as we enter the house. She doesn’t take off her shoes before we amble down the hall. Neither of us glance at the family photos on the walls.
‘I made your room up for you,’ she tells me over her shoulder.
‘Thanks,’ I reply, peering into Cody’s room as we pass. The curtains are drawn, and the lamp is off, veiling the room in darkness. There is only enough light from the hallway to see the piles of clothes lying on the floor. He’s not in there.
My old room is next on the right, blinds open, carpet vacuumed. Other than the ownership I still feel when I pass it, there is almost no trace of the eighteen years I spent there.
The adjacent bedroom door is closed.
Cody doesn’t lift his eyes from his computer screen as we enter the living room. He’s perched at the end of the dining table, where he always is, unopened VCE textbooks spread about him, chunky headphones covering his ears and his glasses reflecting the screen’s glow. My eyes prickle at the sight.
Mum walks to the back door and peers outside. ‘I’ll go tell him you’re here,’ she murmurs, face grim.
‘Don’t—’ I manage, but she’s already gone.
I shuffle to the window and watch her trail across frost-tipped grass towards my father. He’s wrapped in layers upon layers, breath clouding as he hammers relentlessly at a new arbour in the backyard.
I turn away before she reaches him. I can’t watch the way his shoulders will set or the way his expression will clear. I don’t want to see him steel himself or see how their dynamic has changed. And I won’t watch while he treks up to the house, contemplating consoling phrases, if he can bring himself to say anything at all.
It’s strange how something such a long time coming can be just as devastating as if there was no warning at all.
Unwittingly, I catch sight of the bureau opposite the dining table, cluttered with cards and bouquets of white lilies. Among the ‘With Sympathy’ and ‘Thinking of You’ cards, one ‘Get Well Soon’ sticks out like a sore thumb. It’s much older than the other cards, I know that, but there’s something cruel about seeing it there now.
I stand beside Cody and listen to the click of his mouse as he plays a video game I don’t recognise. I unconsciously lift my hand to tousle his hair and, instead of ducking away, he glances up at me. I give him a weak smile and he returns it.
When he turns back to the screen, just for a moment, he leans into my arm. Then he pulls away. I let him.
A flick of a tail by Cody’s foot catches my eye. I wipe my nose on my sleeve and crouch down. There, under the table, head cocked, is the cat. Her cat, his green eyes taking me in.
‘Hi,’ I whisper. ‘Did you miss me?’
He whips his tail and looks away. I surprise myself by laughing.
‘Come on,’ I chuckle. ‘We’re friends, aren’t we?’
He saunters out of range of my reaching hand and I laugh again.
I kiss at him, standing up. ‘Come here, kitty-kitty. Come on.’
Cody pulls his headphones down around his neck as he watches me stride over to the couch and pull the cat’s favourite blanket over my lap.
Suspended somewhere between sudden comprehension and deja vu, I freeze.
I see the shape of my legs under the plush pink throw where her thinner legs used to be. The smell of her still clinging to it, like she’d touched it only moments ago. Sitting in her place on the couch, the space on the other side of the armrest empty where the portable oxygen cylinder used to fit.
It catches me off guard and swallows me whole.
I’m lost to the pain of happy memories and ache for what will never be again. The wound inside me is too savage to ignore any longer. A huge, irretrievable part of me is missing, leaving me half a person. Helpless. Hollow.
A gentle pain in my thigh brings me back to the present. The cat’s claws are rhythmically kneading into the blanket as he asserts himself onto my lap. His purring vibrates down through me, warming my bones.
‘That’s a good boy,’ I coo, shaky fingers tracing down his back. He wastes no time settling in. With a hearty sigh, he relaxes against me. ‘Good boy.’
After a minute, cheeks streaked with tears, I curl over him and rest my face on his fur.
‘I miss her too.’
Kate Hanlon is a writer and proofreader who manages the administration of her hometown’s newsletter, The Riddell Roundup. Having studied screenwriting, writing and editing, she’s usually found reading everything from Austen to Marchetta or watching the latest releases at independent cinemas (when she’s not in lockdown, that is). Instagram: @kateshmanlon.