by Karen Dybner
The night was warm and sticky, much like the sultry July day it had been, but now at least there was the dark sky’s respite from the blistering sun. Inside, with the central air humming, it felt cool and comfortable. The kids had been asleep for at least one hour, the clean fragrance of their shampoo and evening bath still lingering in the air. Getting ready for bed, Marco was in the bathroom brushing his teeth, while I was in the bedroom quietly putting away some folded laundry. It was already past ten when we heard it, loud, thunderous banging at our front door, the harshness of the sound hurling us out of our serene tranquility. Toothpaste dripping from his mouth, Marco stepped out of the bathroom, bewilderment in his eyes. The knocking still reverberating, I pushed past him and raced down the stairs to open the front door. There, on our front porch, in a haze of red glaring lights, the brightness making me squint in discomfort, stood three policemen, or maybe it was four. One of them stepped forward and asked, “Good evening. Does Tara Hill live here?”
I was confused. “Tara? Um…no. She’s the former owner. She hasn’t lived here for a few years. She moved to Georgia.”
Well, that wasn’t exactly true. Tara had just returned to the Philadelphia area only weeks before, having accepted a one-year consulting job in order to live closer to her sons, who, both in their early twenties, still resided nearby. She had sublet her place in Savannah to a well-known pop musician and found a cute cottage in Chestnut Hill. Her first week back, she had dropped by the house, knocking on the front door and surprising us, asking ever so politely if she could come inside and visit. I had anxiously walked Tara around the home, unveiling the many changes we had made since moving in three years earlier, hoping she would be pleased. Showing her the old pine floors we had varnished, the new kitchen we had built, and the brighter colors we had painted, I waited to see Tara’s reaction. Taking in the details, her pretty green eyes methodically scanning the rooms, Tara slowly nodded in approval, declaring in her low southern twang, “Oh it’s stunning!” “I love the colors you’ve chosen,” and “I always wanted to do something like this, but you’ve done it so well.”
I had liked Tara from the moment we met, that Sunday when she graciously welcomed me into her home, despite the official “Open House” being over thirty minutes earlier and her Realtor’s admonition not to do so. Marco and I had been out looking at homes, disappointed by the high prices and small properties our agent had suggested. Marco had proposed we just “drive around” on our own to see what else was showing that day. Spotting an Open House sign, we drove in front of Tara’s home, and I was immediately captivated by the dollhouse Victorian facade and architectural details. The kids were sitting in the back seat, tired from a long afternoon, so I told Marco to wait while I inquired if I could get a peek inside. Opening the front door, Tara, dressed in a long, green, flowy dress, greeted me warmly, exclaiming, “Why, of course you can come in!”
The charm of her southern accent matched the appeal of her home and the loveliness of her garden, all so tasteful and enchanting at the same time. Tara was a gifted horticulturist and landscape architect, and her garden was beyond beautiful. The yellow roses cascading next to the purple clematis lining up her back porch, with white falling calla lilies on the distant side, were only some of the flowers I spotted as I surveyed the back room and large, opened French doors. Almost as if in a trance, I stood still trying to see more, the splendor of the myriad colors catching my eye. Yet when noticing the price on the information sheet sitting atop the coffee table, I swallowed back the bale of excitement. Turning around I explained, “Your home is lovely, but it’s way above our price range. I’m sorry. I don’t want to waste your time.”
Meeting me at eye level, and gently putting her hand on my shoulders, Tara smiled reassuringly. “It’s okay. Take a look. And if you like what you see, don’t be afraid to make a lower bid.”
With that, the process of purchasing our home began. It had all gone effortlessly, though we bought Tara’s Victorian home, built in 1900, at the height of the real estate boom, just two years before the market crash, where all homes were ridiculously overpriced. Still, we, too, had sold our small row home in Philadelphia for what seemed an exorbitant amount, so at the end everyone fared well. The kids loved having a backyard to play in, and soon they would attend some of the best public schools in the state. I missed the pulse of the city, but there was something so peaceful about the night sounds here, the crickets chirping in the summer, and the canopy of green trees breathing above us. This would be our children’s childhood home, or as our Realtor had coined it, our “forever” home. Here, we would build memories and we would watch them grow up.
When the policeman asked me again, “We need to get in touch with Ms. Hill. Do you know a way to reach her?” I felt my stomach tighten.
“Officer, did something happen?”
He looked at me uncomfortably. “We just need to speak to her.”
By that time, Marco had come down. “Well, she’s recently back in town” and then asking me, “Don’t you have her number somewhere?”
I thought for a moment. I hadn’t written Tara’s number down when she’d come by, but I did have the phone number of a neighbor who was Tara’s close friend. Writing it down on a white index card and handing it to the policeman, I inquired again, “Did something happen? Are her sons okay?”
The officer looked nervous, pursing his lips. “I’m sorry. I really can’t discuss this. I just need to speak to her.”
After the police thanked us and we closed the door, Marco and I were left with a sinking feeling that Tara’s life had just been imploded. We listed all the possible reasons why the police would need to get hold of her—a car accident, a drug arrest, a robbery? Maybe it was altogether something less serious.
Yet back in our bedroom, I paced the room, unable to go to sleep. Just like a doctor who must tell family members that their loved one has taken a turn for the worse, I felt like we, too, had brought Tara some form of dreadful news. Despite the late hour, I knew I needed to speak to her. After tracking down the neighbor, who admittedly also had no more information than I did, she gave me Tara’s number so I could try reaching her myself.
At half past midnight, Tara finally picked up, her voice sounding small and tired. “Tara, I’m sorry to be calling you so late. The police were here and I was worried. Is everything all right?”
I heard her moan and then she began to sob. Uttering the words I had braced myself for all night, Tara cried, “I’ve lost him. I’ve lost my boy. My sweet Julian is dead…oh god, oh god…he’s dead.” Words sputtering out between big, heaving breaths, she shared the news the police had just given her. Julian, her youngest son of twenty-two, had been killed in an accident that afternoon on his way home from work. Driving his motorcycle, he’d somehow lost control, crashing straight into a tree. Even wearing his helmet, even not speeding, the impact of the crash had been too great. He had died instantly.
Listening to her deep-throated anguish, I felt my eyes fill up with tears. The heavy silence of the late night seeped into my bedroom as I heard Tara weep over the phone. Unable to speak right away, I eventually found my voice and offered to come over and stay with her. But Tara told me she needed to be with her other son and that she would be in touch.
Over the next few days, the news of this harrowing loss spread through the neighborhood. People sent food for Tara, and a memorial service was held for her beloved son Julian, the boy who had lived in our home. I was struck with how many people came to support Tara even if she no longer lived here. Yet, despite the deep sadness I felt, I made the decision not to tell my children. They were so young, only six and eight. To know that someone who lived here had died so tragically would surely upset them. It definitely unsettled me. Julian, too, had spent many years of his childhood and adolescence here, just as I had planned for my children. Somehow my beautiful home now seemed in peril. Bereaved by Julian’s death, a heavy load was tugging at it, pulling it down, a blanket of dark, menacing clouds hovering above.
I never did see Tara again after the funeral. Recalling the day Tara had dropped by our house her first week back, I remembered the beautiful flowers she had brought to plant on the east side of the home, an area she confessed she’d never been able to work on while living here. Tara had told me that the garden had been her experimental laboratory, where she not only planted leftover plants and flowers from other jobs she’d had, but where she tried out other color schemes and arrangements. Tara knew what kind of flowers, plants, and bushes survived in what type of light, what type of soil, and accordingly had planted perennials that continue to grow to this day. She had told me on that day she’d visited, she’d love to return and help me keep the garden growing.
But after her son’s death, Tara didn’t come back. No explanation was needed. I understood how painful a visit could be for her and I never pressed her on it. Instead, we kept in touch through emails. About one year after Julian’s death, Tara sent me an email where she confessed how trying the past twelve months had been for her. How she’d been unable to do much at all that year, how she’d cried herself to sleep each night, and how the plan she’d had for living close to her sons had vanished, as she was drowned in grief.
Another time Tara wrote to ask what that night had been like for us—me, Marco, and our children—to hear from the police, and then how we’d been faced with the terrible news. I felt guilty that Tara thought I had let my children know, when in fact, I had shielded them, not just then, but would do so for years following. I had kept them from the sorrow of knowing that their house, their haven of safety, had once been the home to a boy who was now no longer living, not because he was old, but because he’d tragically died at a young age. I didn’t know why I felt the need to withhold this information. Had it been that I was still worried they would feel scared? That they would feel like their house was cursed? Would they feel that Julian’s ghost was now walking around, possibly angry at the fact that he’d not been able to live his life to its fullest? Maybe I, too, was overcome with the sense that our house, a place where I’d projected so many unspoken fantasies for happiness, had been marred by this misfortune.
Yet, also needling at me was the question of why the police had come to us that night. I came to learn that Tara’s son had never changed the address on his driver’s license. For him, our home had remained his residence. At least on paper. Or maybe in spirit too. He had never fully moved on. For him, the house was still his, something I still had not wanted to reconcile.
Over the years, I did my best not to destroy the loveliness of the garden, something that wasn’t easy given the delicate orchestration of each segment the garden and front yards offered. Knowing what to weed and what to cut down was a bit of a challenge, at times resulting in some irreversible blunders. Yet, thanks to Tara’s foresight and meticulous planning, I remain in awe of the beauty that grows back each year.
I eventually did tell my children about Tara’s son. My daughter, now in middle school, inquired, “Did my room belong to him?”
I admitted that in fact it had. Tearing up, my daughter said, “It’s so sad to think that a boy who was once my age lived in my room and now he’s gone.”
My son asked, “Do you think he was the one that put up the basketball net? I wonder what other things he left behind.”
I contemplated this. Surely, Julian must have played in the backyard like my children had when they were younger, having favorite hiding spots, or imagining his garden was his kingdom. I wondered, too, if he’d ever helped his mother with the garden. Maybe that’s where he’d learned the trade. Having struggled with school, Julian had worked with his hands to create beauty. Loving the outdoors, Tara had told me he’d often worked alongside on jobs as her assistant. Perhaps he had helped his mother plant those beautiful blue hydrangeas or orange sun lilies.
Walking out onto the back porch and looking around the garden, I made my way down the steps over to the white calla lilies. Bending down to caress their soft, velvety texture, I recalled the first time I’d seen them on my first visit to the house. I lifted my head and surveyed the green trees and the array of flowers and acknowledged, perhaps for the very first time, that he was still here. Yes, I realized, Julian had never left. Nor had Tara. Their flowers were proof of that.
Category: Featured, Fiction, Short Story