Sara kept driving east, passing through most of the state where she was born. The one she hadn’t visited in five years.
The highways took her past the two state universities she’d considered attending, which she would always associate with Larry Bird and Bob Knight, dating back to when she was a little girl hitting jump shots through the cheap hoop her father nailed to the side of his toolshed.
To her right sat the national forest where her parents had taken her camping as a child, where she learned to make s’mores and how to find true north without a compass. To her left lay the circle city with the state capitol where she’d interned back-to-back summers in college, and the blues clubs where she spent most of those summer weekends. She drove past what she used to call “the land of farms and pharma,” with cornfields and soyfields near the highway, and both pill factories and meth labs farther inland.
As she drove east of Bloomington, the road gradually narrowed from three lanes to one, giving Sara ample time to contemplate her own mistakes as she tried to avoid getting too close to the car in front of her and its dribbling payload of livestock feed.
When the drive ended with a shot down Route Forty-Six, she was back home again in Gnaw Bone.
Her hometown had been a running joke when Sara was in college. With a name like Gnaw Bone, it could hardly have been otherwise. That was especially true because the small town was one of the biggest in a county full of small towns, so that its unusual moniker showed up on numerous highway distance signs and made itself known to anyone driving to Ohio or beyond.
Sara learned her lesson quickly, and had since done her best to avoid telling people exactly where was from, preferring euphemisms like “Brown County” or “Southern Indiana.” Her part of the county was a very different place than what those terms suggested, one where traveling only a few miles from the council seat was venturing more than a few years back in time. When she was in high school, the building shut down every year on the first day of hunting season. It seemed as if half of the boys in her class would spend that day in the woods, stalking whitetails or goofing off while encamped in blinds, and the other half spent it smoking methamphetamine in Chuck Gray’s basement or one of the abandoned farmhouses around town.
She used those annual traditions as case studies every time her mother asked her why she never dated in high school, when Sara would explain she wanted to go see the world and do something with her life, and how she didn’t want to take even a slight chance of anything forcing her to remain in Gnaw Bone any longer than necessary.
Now here she was, stuck in Gnaw Bone for a few days. The worst part was she couldn’t even complain to her parents about it, as claiming her inheritance was the sole reason for Sara’s return visit.
June and Harry were supposed to live a lot longer, and Sara had no reason to expect the content of the phone call she’d received three nights earlier. Healthy, sober, morally upstanding couples in their late forties weren’t supposed to die suddenly. Though their friends also weren’t supposed to drive at three times the legal limit and make their passengers share the consequences of their mistakes. For that matter, attorneys weren’t supposed to wait until after the bodies had been cremated to get in touch with the daughter of the deceased.
Sara pulled her old station wagon up the pile of rocks and dirt that passed for her parents’ driveway, and which treated her car’s suspension harshly.
The house looked the same as it had the last time Sara saw it. The porch swing and the elaborate lacquered door frame still needed repair, and the front garden was still full of plastic animals, though their colors had faded since her last visit. Sara had told the lawyer she had a key, but the truth was she knew the spare would be in the little plastic rock in front of the porch. She found it immediately; her parents had been creatures of habit.
Sara didn’t know what to expect when she pushed open the door. On the drive, she’d pictured her old home in a state of disrepair, like the ones she always saw inspected on crime shows, but the only mess she found was typical of a house left empty for just over a week. Her entrance swept a small pile of mail across the floor, and the contents of the garbage had started to smell.
Otherwise, it looked like it always did when she used to visit, before work commitments and her social life in Kansas City had converted her relationship with her parents into years of nothing but biweekly phone calls.
She took off her shoes as her mother always insisted, though Sara never did that in her own home. And as she thought that, she remembered that this was now her home, the house and its contents the only things her parents had left behind, and no other next of kin with whom she had to split it. There was no will; Sara assumed her parents considered themselves too young to worry about one.
Though, at twenty-seven, Sara considered herself too young to be an orphan.
A stack of bills had collapsed on the kitchen counter, and Sara flipped through them. Through the kitchen window, she saw her parents’ neighbor, Mrs. Shimerman, clipping her hedges. She waved to the old woman, who either couldn’t see her or wasn’t paying attention. Sara remembered feeling ambivalent when her mother told her about Mr. Shimerman’s death. He’d always been perfectly friendly to her personally, and would bring her family extra vegetables from his garden at no charge, but Sara had been shocked the first time she heard his thoughts on race and on working women, and told her parents she didn’t want to deal with him after that.
Not sure what else to do, Sara found tasks to do around her past and present home.
The kitchen counter held a small terrarium, for the turtle her parents bought not long before Sara moved to Missouri for college. Sara had no idea when he was last fed, so she sprinkled a few pieces of food through the top of the cage just in case. She tied up the garbage bag and threw it into the metal can her father always kept right outside the kitchen window. All the rhythms of her teen years came back easily, and that realization teared her eyes almost as badly as the lawyer’s call had.
The front of her parents’ refrigerator, once home to nothing but freshly clipped coupons and whichever of the local paper’s comic strips tickled her father, had been virtually wallpapered in Sara’s modest accomplishments: a blurb about her job that appeared in her alumni magazine, a notice in the Brown County paper about her college graduation, postcards she’d sent from business trips to cities like Boise and Tulsa, an article about her company that didn’t even mention her. Some of the old comic strips were still there, just covered by Sara-related paraphernalia.
Once she had the kitchen in order and made herself a snack, Sara toured the two-bedroom ranch house that seemed so much smaller than it had when Gnaw Bone was all she knew, before she’d even seen the kind of condominium she rented in Kansas City.
She wasn’t ready to take over her parents’ bedroom. Instead, Sara went to her old room, still decorated the way she’d left it, her desk full of framed photos of friends she hadn’t seen since high school and the snow globes her father used to bring her when he still had his truck route.
For a while, she tried to nap, lying in her twin bed and staring at the white-plaster ceiling. She’d forgotten how quiet a place like Gnaw Bone could feel, without sirens or traffic. Unable to sleep, Sara thought about what to do with this house, whether to sell it or rent it out, what to take back to Missouri with her, what she would do with her parents’ things. She wouldn’t feel right throwing them away or donating them, but she wasn’t quite prepared to go through them and cast judgment on what would stay or go.
Sara heard a car pull up the driveway, and hopped out of bed to see who was there. She recognized the postman dropping mail through the slot as Chuck Gray, though he’d aged as if in double time, his hair patchy and his stomach greatly expanded. She thought about opening the door to say hello, but realized she had nothing to say to him.
Instead, she collected the mail and began to read through it. The first thing she opened gave her an unwelcome surprise.
When her father lost his trucking job, her parents had insisted they were fine for money. The two times Sara found herself laid off, though it only took a few weeks each time to find a new position, her parents had insisted on sending her a few hundred dollars just to get by. She’d offered to pay them back many times, but they always said it was part of being a parent.
What Sara now learned was that June and Harry were only fine for money because they’d taken out a reverse mortgage on a house that had been paid off since Sara was in high school. As she looked at the bill, and the predatory terms the bank had imposed, she knew her decision was made.
For the first time in a long time, she went out to the shed and got the basketball she’d used throughout her childhood. It needed air, but she didn’t plan to dribble it. Sara just fired it over and over into the rusty hoop, now only a few inches taller than she had grown. She finally let herself cry while she did it, for all the things she’d left behind there, hoping she would never have to return, but finding comfort in their presence all the same. She shot baskets past sundown, until she was too tired to do anything but collapse onto her childhood bed.
The next morning, she packed her station wagon as fully as she could. She put her snow globes in a box lined with old shirts, along with the framed pictures her parents kept on the living-room walls. She packed the contents of her bookshelf, and the shoeboxes of old photos she knew Harry had always stored in the kitchen cabinet. Sara filled the trunk, the floor, and all available seats with mementos from her former life, and gave the turtle’s terrarium a spot next to the half-deflated basketball on the passenger-side floor. The packing and loading took her most of the day.
With a hammer and nails she’d found in her father’s toolbox, Sara blocked the old doorframe with a misshapen piece of plywood. She hammered with all her strength, barely able to keep the wood in place with her other arm. When her task was finished, she wrote “Abandoned” on the front with a can of silver spray paint. Nobody would know for sure that she’d been the one to do it, but she’d tell the lawyer the next time he called.
Sara drove her station wagon back down the rocky driveway, keeping one hand on the terrarium just in case. As she pulled onto the main road, she took a last mental picture and headed toward Route Forty-Six. The highways would take her back across Indiana, through Illinois, and across nearly all of Missouri, far away from Gnaw Bone.
She knew she would never go back.
Jeff Fleischer is a Chicago-based author, journalist and editor. His fiction has appeared in more than two dozen publications including the Chicago Tribune‘s Printers Row Journal, Shenandoah, the Saturday Evening Post and So It Goes by the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library. He is also the author of non-fiction books including “Votes of Confidence: A Young Person’s Guide to American Elections” (Zest Books, 2016), “Rockin’ the Boat: 50 Iconic Revolutionaries” (Zest Books, 2015), and “The Latest Craze: A Short History of Mass Hysterias” (Fall River Press, 2011). He is a veteran journalist published in Mother Jones, the New Republic, the Sydney Morning Herald, the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Magazine, mental_floss, National Geographic Traveler and dozens of other local, national and international publications.