When I finally came home again, the lights were out, which I should have expected. It was strange—the same kind of strange as when you stumble across something you loved as a child, a toy, a favorite stuffed animal, a place you used to play, and you see how it’s changed, how small it’s become, how staid of color, how lonely. Cold clung to everything, as did the shadows that waited for me like the family that had once lived here. All was still, and the stale stench of ten years’ dust reminded me of how long it’d been.
I stepped inside and shut the door behind me. The lock caught the way it always had, and I opened the door and then closed it again, harder, to make it latch. There were curtains over the windows, but they were thin, and the lights from the neighbors’ houses came through in moving reds and yellows that hung in the air, never seeming to touch the floor or furniture. When I took a step, the floor groaned, and my heart beat faster. Why was I here? Why was I doing this?
At the foot of the stairs, my mother’s cane hung from the banister. I touched it and set it swinging, just a little, just enough. The movement made the house feel different. Not quite alive, just different. Upstairs were more shadows and bedrooms and memories that I didn’t want to face. Not tonight.
When I moved into the living room, everything was as it had been, and I wondered where the time had gone. It had passed so quickly, but that’s the speed of life I’ve learned, too fast. In here the cold sat, and moving through it was like wading through something solid. My toes and fingers ached with the same cold that numbed my nose and ears. I removed my scarf and set it on the back of the couch. I bent to turn on the light, but it didn’t work. Why did I think it would?
Dust-dimmed tinsel dripped from the dry tree’s gnarled branches like bracelets from elderly hands, ornaments like gaudy jewelry, and I had to turn away. The needles had all aged brown. They carpeted the floor beneath the tree, rising and falling where the gifts had been, the gifts we’d never opened. My mouth was dry, and I took off my gloves and set them on the end table. Then my coat, which I laid across the back of my father’s favorite chair.
The lights from next door moved as though chasing each other, and I watched them hazily through the curtained window. Somewhere outside a bell rang, then again. Mother had always liked bells. I’d taken her favorite. It sat on the mantle in my bedroom. I knelt down, and the cold floor hurt my knees.
I wasn’t as young as I’d once been.
I brushed the needles from the largest gift, still wrapped. Its paper, a solid, metallic green, caught the neighbor’s chasing lights in a way that made me smile, but it was a strange smile, because I wasn’t happy. I was . . . here. I was doing what I needed to do, finally. The present was for my brother, and I pushed it aside. The next one, smaller, and gold, was for me. Touching it, I felt the way I had as a child sitting in this exact same spot on Christmas morning. My heart beating quickly, my hands shaking. Looking back at my parents, both smiling, which is how I imagined them now, smiling at me, waiting for me to open my present. My chest felt tight, and a tear cooled my left cheek. I tore into the wrapping.
Ten years before, I’d been in college, a musician, but that dream, like so many others had come and gone like a good day, fading into a painted sky, and then disappearing beneath a crisp moon. The gift was a tuning fork, a small one. I swiped the tears from my cheeks, afraid they’d freeze there, and then I banged the fork on my knee. It hummed, and I pressed its end to the wood floor, and my childhood home took up the sound. Outside, the bells came again, and together with that one note, they sounded a symphony. I held the fork until the note died. The bells clanged once more, then again, and then they too were silent. In that still moment, when the world and I held our breaths, waiting, the movement of the lights changed.