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Time & Place by A.C. Schalk (2016 NaNoWriMo Short Story Contest Winner)

Even though both of his parents had been gone for years, he kept the house on Chapel Road and visited it from time to time when he felt most alone. Throughout the years, the house became his respite from the outside world. A place to collect his thoughts. At one time or another, relationships, college and work all pulled him away to what seemed like bigger, better things. Inevitably, he found himself longing for something and often found comfort within the familiar yellowed walls of his family house.

The black front door told nothing more than the houses on the left and right. As part of a row of houses on Notting Hill, the house that Owen grew up in was nothing more extraordinary than the next. Tall, red brick walls broken up by symmetrical white-framed windows and an entryway that stood off of the tree-lined streets.

It was what once lived behind the door that meant something. Beyond the door were countless stories, memories, smiles, troubles and tears. Not only those of Owen’s family, but of those who inhabited the house over the course of the last century. Souls now lost to time and place. He once tried to trace the history of the house, but eventually lost interest.

Owen did not think much of the house’s appearance as he approached the glass framed front door. He had climbed the concrete steps countless times as a boy and, as a young man, the entryway and his parents, always welcomed him back home. Now, as an adult, he felt detached, separated by the thick layers of paint, the heavy lacquer of years, sealed in a glossy finish. He often wondered, what was the original color of the door? As he ran his hand up the black iron railing, he felt the same cold indifference. Home once meant something to Owen, but now it was merely an idea, a thing of the past, which included his beloved parents. As an only child, they were all he had.

Owen turned the key and entered the small foyer. Instantly, he felt a flood of familiarity and silence. The yellowed walls were a testament to the age of the home. The comforting color of worn documents, old pages in books, the opaque wash of age. All of which paired with a lingering musty smell, made evident by the warmer months of the year.

Walking through the front door always made him think of his childhood and all of the times he came running in with purpose. His mother, with her soft eyes and rigid mouth, scolded him to take off his shoes and hang up his coat before bolting up the staircase that wrapped up to his second floor bedroom. His father always smiled and said to let the boy run through all of the doors he can, both open and closed. Owen missed them both.

He made his way into the kitchen to put away the groceries he picked up for the next couple of days. The kitchen no longer smelled of his mother, a homemaker, but of time passing. The emptiness of not being used. As he closed the fridge, he noticed a reflection on the back window and walked over to the vibrant colors staring back at him from the garden.

The house shared a common area of grass and trees that were quite large considering the layout of the neighborhood. When he was a child, it felt like something out of The Secret Garden. Mature trees, some with blooms, hanging over a patch of lush green grass. It was the perfect place for adults to picnic and children to play. Owen often spent his days there as a young boy, imagining himself on an island. The trees were the ocean, threatening to engulf his ship, his home. Though the area was always a beautiful break from the busy streets of London, how small it all looked to him now.

Just next to the kitchen was the library. Owen wandered in. He was surprised by the return of the feeling he had as young boy: intruding upon his father’s workspace.

His father had been gone for 3 years, yet Owen still expected to walk in to see his father making brush strokes and smell drying paint. An artist, his father painted nearly everyday of his life. Although he possessed an undeniable talent, much of his work hung around the house instead of the public galleries.

The library also, of course, contained rows and rows of books. Owen studied English Literature in college and in just a couple of days would be back on campus professing the works of the Romantic Poets to incoming freshmen. Teaching was his own artistic endeavor, he rationalized.

Owen took a seat in the black leather chair and a deep breath in and out. What to do? What to do? The rhetorical question swirled around his head. Perhaps I’ll just stay in and catch up on all of the books I’ve been meaning to read, but didn’t get around to this summer, he thought.

After staring off for several minutes, thinking of his summer, he decided to go upstairs to take a nap. The train ride back from the Lake District that morning felt longer than expected. A short rest might clear his head to start on the article he promised to have ready before Christmas. As he traipsed up the curved staircase, he barely lifted his head to see his father’s works lining the wall. Still-life pencil sketches and a few watercolors of the changing seasons made their way from the foyer to the top of the stairs.

Owen opened the door to his room and headed straight for his bed. His last thoughts drifted to the lakes and mountains of Wordsworth country.

——–

As his eyes slowly flickered open, Owen began to focus. What time is it? The lack of natural light coming through his curtains indicated that it must be past dusk. The streetlights were not yet on. As he sat up, he realized that his alarm had not gone off. So much for getting started on that article, he thought. His attention wandered around the room to his book filled desk. One book stood out to him. Owen lifted himself up just enough to grab the large book and then fall back into bed. Filled with poetry and photographs, the book was one of his favorites. He had read it to his father in the hospital everyday until the end. Each verse hung in the air while his father enjoyed the haunting images throughout the book. Now, as Owen began to turn the pages, he stopped on a page with a yellow marker. “This poem,” he said aloud. All of a sudden, an uncontrollable rush of reverie pulled his mind back to her.

He had not thought of her for a few months now. The space between memories had become greater and greater with time. Every once in a while, her name or the outline of her face crossed his mind. Where was she? What was she doing? Did she think of me here, an ocean away? Little questions he often dismissed from this mind. He sat up. He could no longer ignore them.

He met her two years ago at a literary conference in the Lake District. The same conference he attended every summer and had just traveled back from that morning. The first night of the two-week conference always included a reception. That was where he first saw her. He remembered how beautiful she looked amongst the usual faces in attendance each year. Long golden hair, a fair complexion and deep, dark eyes. In that moment, he decided that he must know more about her. He took every opportunity to sit next to her and monopolize her evenings with conversation after the conference talks ended each day. He quickly realized that past her dark eyes, there was much more to be discovered.

During one particular evening in the lobby of the Inn at Rydal, talking for hours about life, events, issues, he told her about his father’s passing the year before. He didn’t understand at the time why he would tell her something like that. He felt unusually connected. For the first time, in a long time, he felt comfortable, like he was at home. Yes, that’s what it was, he remembered. Being with her felt like home.

Two years had passed and, to Owen, that seemed like a lifetime. He glanced down at the black and white pages. Lines from the book began to stand out to him. We share a fondness for the faraway. Yes, this was the one he read to her, over the phone, in the very same room. Love’s mysteries are plural as lovers are. It was during the weekend just after the conference. He had come home to visit his mother for a couple of days before the semester began.

The thought of reading poetry to her over the phone seemed like something out of a movie, but at the time felt like much more than that. It was real. For hours they had talked about anything and everything. He was reliving it all again. They talked about making plans for her to come back to visit, plans for him to visit her in the states. I’d love to come see you sometime in Zionsville, he remembered saying. We test our loves on time. He never made that trip.

Despite the deep connection he felt that week in August, they fell out of touch not long after she returned home. A few calls, a couple of emails, and then, nothing. In an age where there are countless ways to stay in touch, he managed to become disconnected.

His mind pulled him back to the present. Maybe I could send her an email just to see what she’s up to, he thought. He quickly changed his mind. No, we haven’t spoken in over a year, she won’t remember me. I could call, it would still be early evening where she was. She probably wouldn’t answer, he thought. Why did we lose touch? It was me. It had to be. She was so much more.

He could hear the wind pick up outside. He put the open book aside on the bed, walked over to the window and looked out onto the secret garden. The back of the leaves meant the rain would soon arrive. As a boy, playing in that garden, he never imagined that he would meet a woman like her. She was perfect. He turned around and looked once more on the book. Growing up, he had ideas of what he thought he wanted, but never seemed to find it.

His most recent relationships had lasted just a few months or less. All lacking that understanding he felt with her. He thought of reaching out again. I could write her a letter, she might be surprised to receive a letter from England. No, that won’t work. His desire to connect with her again was urgent.

The four yellowed walls of his small room seemed to be closing in on him. He paced around. Tomorrow he would be leaving, locking the black door behind him, heading for the train station, and traveling back to Scotland. Once again, he would be alone in his apartment on Princes Street.

Why were all of these feelings coming back now? Perhaps being alone, in this house, was a bad idea. Then he thought of her hugging him goodbye and smiling. They had let go that day and hoped it wouldn’t be the last time. Then he remembered his father, encouraging him to run through doors, both open and closed. Owen paused. And then reached for his phone.

Outside the rain began to tap against the windows and the door.

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