“I don’t do maybes, Cecelia,” Spence says, shuffling papers before shoving them haphazardly in a manila file. “You’re either selling or you’re not.”
Cecelia fiddles with her necklace, biting her lip. “I’m not sure if I want to.”
“Then what are you doing in my office?” Spence raises an eyebrow, his suit rumpling as he leans forward. “I’m your real estate agent, not your therapist.”
Cecelia sighs, a noise that falls flat against the carpet she’s been scuffing her feet against for the last two minutes. “I know, I just… it’s been hard. It’s not like it makes sense to keep the house—it’s not a knickknack I can shove in my desk drawer for sentimental value. But I grew up there, for heaven’s sake. It’s not… I can’t just say goodbye to it like it’s nothing.”
Spence’s face softens, his quirked mountain of an eyebrow softening into something more of a rolling hill. “Hey. I get it. You just lost your mom a month ago. Grief does weird things to the mind. You’ll get through it.”
“I hope.” Cecilia’s eyes drift to the swaying trees outside the window, then back to Spence’s face, smiling lightly. “I thought you said you weren’t my therapist.”
“I’m still your friend. Also, it’s no fun to work with a depressed client. Tell you what,” he says, getting out of his chair. Cecelia follows suit, heading for the door. “I’ll give you a few days. You said your flight back to LA is… Tuesday? That gives you five days. Go through the house. Clear out the cobwebs. Find whatever skeletons your mom had shoved in the closet, metaphorical or otherwise, and then get back to me. If you’re selling, great! If you aren’t, slightly less great, but still your choice. If it takes you longer than Tuesday, you’ll lose the childhood friend discount. Capiche?” Spence grins as he props the door open. Cecelia rolls her eyes, taking the door from Spence. “Got it.”
“Oh, and Cecelia?” He stops her just before she crosses the threshold going out of the office. “Not sure if I’ve said this, but… my condolences. The world lost an amazing woman. Your mom was… absolutely great.”
She swallows. “Yeah. She was.”
The door creaking open is almost as familiar to Cecelia as her name. The hinges go slowly at first, painfully slowly, before passing that one floorboard and swinging open like the ghost of a circus strongman is pushing it along. The mark on the wall right where the doorknob hits is worn down with scuffs and dents, the lasting memory of strangers unused to the house’s many quirks. Only she and her mom ever got the hang of it.
It’s funny, Cecelia realizes. She’s now the only one alive who knows how to properly open the door.
The inside remains mostly the same as she remembers it; at least the painters who’d come in to touch up the bathroom walls had the decency to leave things be. It was a shame Massachusetts was so far from LA, or else she’d have stayed while they came.
She runs her finger along the top of the angular couch, fabric fibers tickling her skin. She spies incomplete crosswords littered on the coffee table and she has to stop herself from crying.
She was just lying on the couch, she remembers the neighbors saying after she’d called them, panicked when her mother wouldn’t pick up the phone. Doing her crossword. Watching the news. The pen was still in her hand.
Cecelia sits on the couch in the place she always would, nestled in the crook between the left arm and back. It still smells like the shampoo she used as a teen, after all the nights she spent, wet hair pressed against the cushion as she penciled out solutions to algebra problems. She hesitates, then picks up a crossword and the open pen lying on top of it. Three down is already partially filled in. H-something-something-E. The clue is “living unit; also popular hardware depot.”
Cecelia smiles, though her eyes prickle with the onset of tears. The universe could be cruel. She quickly pencils in the O and the M and throws the crossword back to the coffee table.
As soon as she enters the kitchen, it’s Christmastime. Nutmeg and cinnamon pepper the air. Her hands are covered with flour and her mother—her mother—holds a wooden spoon.
“Cece, remember what I told you about pie dough,” she says, leveling out a cup of flour with her finger.
“Only use cold water,” Cecelia replies out of habit. Her mother smiles.
“Right! It makes the crust nice and flaky.” She winks. “Would you be a dear and go get some?”
Cecelia walks over and grabs a cup from the pantry, going over to the sink. As the water fills up, she looks back over to her mother. Her eyebrows are furrowed like the way they always were, the apron older than Cecelia herself tied around her waist. Her hands worked the pastry blender further into the dough, cutting the Crisco up into smaller and smaller pieces, just like she had taught Cecelia to do. Cecelia’s so distracted that she doesn’t even notice when the water reaches the rim and spills over.
“Oh, Cece! I think that’ll be enough water,” her mother interjects. “Here.” She walks over, and the familiar scent of vanilla and almonds surrounds Cecelia. “Let me take that from you.”
“No, let me. It’s fine. I won’t spill.” Cecelia starts to walk back to the kitchen counter.
“Cecelia, I insist.” Her mother holds out her hands, ready to take the cup. Her fingers inch closer to the glass.
“Cecelia!” Her mother’s voice rises in warning, punctuated by the sound of glass shattering on the kitchen tile.
Cecelia blinks, and then she’s back. The kitchen is dark and smells only of wet wood and a muddling blend of spices. Her mother isn’t there.
She remembers how that memory ended, remembers all the begging and tears and how she was convinced she ruined Christmas. She also remembers her mother holding her close, giving her tissues, and telling her no, it’s not true, you made a mistake and I don’t blame you a bit. The pie had still tasted like guilt, but she went to bed knowing her mother still loved her, and that was something.
She sighs, rubbing her necklace pendant. It certainly was something.
Cecelia makes sure the downstairs is all clear before she even dares go up the narrow staircase to the upstairs. She knows it would be too easy to fall into the deep end of nostalgia, tangled in her mother’s old bedspread that smelled like roses and salt, and to stay there forever. So she waits until everything is packed up in neat cardboard to get shipped to LA or to go to donations before finally making the venture past the hanging frames on the wall of the stairwell, before finally stepping into her childhood bedroom.
As soon as she crosses the threshold, it’s nighttime. She’s in bed, tucked under her polka-dotted comforter. The clock on the wall says it’s well past her bedtime, but her light is still on. Books are stacked up on her bedside table, and one lays in her lap. Somehow, she knows she’s been doing this for a while.
“Cecelia Marie, what on earth are you doing up at this hour?” Right on cue, her mother enters, terrycloth robe flowing dramatically.
She closes the book and feigns sleep, but she’s already been caught in the act.
“I thought we talked about this.” Her mother sits down at the foot of her bed. “You’ve got school tomorrow. You shouldn’t be up this late.”
“Will you sing to me?” It blurts out before Cecelia can register what she’s saying, but her mother takes it in stride, grinning softly.
“Couldn’t sleep, huh?” She pats Cecelia’s shoulder through the blanket. “It is late, but… I suppose. What song?”
Cecelia smiles shyly, and her mother laughs, knowing exactly what she wants. “Ah. I see.” She takes a soft breath.
“Twinkle, twinkle little star,” she begins, her breathy soprano smoothly touching each note. “Hadi iyi uykular.” Her voice grows softer as the song continues, and Cecelia’s eyes droop. She swears she’s falling asleep as her mother’s voice fades, but when she opens her eyes, it’s midday. Sunbeams illuminate dust floating in the air, particles coating virtually every surface. She sits up on the bed, necklace swinging. There are too many stray memories here, she thinks. I’ll have to stop tripping over them.
It’s Monday evening when she finally makes it to the back porch. She could see those two Adirondack chairs side by side through the sliding glass door, the ones that once were filled every morning but now sit alone. Even though the lookout over the rocky coast is phenomenal, watching the sun set and rise each day over it was something she never wanted to do alone.
By Monday, however, she’s as confused as ever concerning the fate of the house, and the porch was always the place she felt she could think.
She walks out, wooden planks creaking under her feet. A breeze blows, cool against her cheeks. There’s a touch of humidity in the air. The environment reminds her of that night, the night when— oh.
“I’m not sure how many more times I can do this.” Her mother’s voice sounds from behind her. Cecelia turns, facing the true reason she couldn’t come out here. “These old bones weren’t made for New England air.”
“I could move you to Florida,” Cecelia says. It was what she had said back then, but she still meant it now. To think: her last conversation with her mother, and she was offering to buy her a condo in Florida. “Would you like that?”
Her mother laughs, wrinkles deepening with happiness. “Ah, no. I don’t think I could bear to leave this house.”
Cecelia murmurs a slight hm in agreement, sitting down in the chair next to her mother.
“I want you to have this,” her mother states after a few moments.
Cecelia turns to see her mother extending her hand, necklace dangling from her wrinkled fingers. She reaches up to her neck, expecting to find the chain that’s been hanging around her neck for two months, but it isn’t there.
“Your necklace,” she says, taking the piece of jewelry from her mother. “But…”
“It’s yours now,” her mother interrupts. “Wear it with pride. I got it from my mother, right before I left for college. I know you’ve already graduated, but… I figure better now, before it’s too late.”
Cecelia fastens the necklace around her neck. She’s worn it so much since then that it feels like an old friend.
“It looks lovely on you, Cece,” her mother says. “I love you, my dear.”
A gust of wind blows, water crashing against the craggy shore. Cecelia lets the roar of the ocean drown out her memories.
As the sky and the sea calm, Cecelia clutches her necklace.
She knows what she has to do.
She’d sent an email to Spence to meet her at the house on Tuesday. He never replied, but she knows he saw it when his beat-up Volvo pulls into the driveway. She watches him get out, briefcase in hand. Before he can knock, she opens the door.
“What’s all this about ‘Meet me at the house’?” he asks, too annoyed for a proper greeting. “You really could have just told me your decision in the email. ”
“No,” she replies, grabbing his shoulder and pulling him inside, “I couldn’t’ve.”
Spence whistles once he enters. “You really cleared this place out,” he remarks, circling the foyer, eyes tracing the walls up and down. “Really makes you realize how much stuff you have, eh? So”—he claps—“what’s your decision? Why am I here?”
“This is why,” Cecelia says, dropping the keys into Spence’s hand. “You can’t exactly send house keys through an email. I want the listing up sometime this week.”
Spence’s eyes widen. “So you’re really deciding to sell? I won’t pretend I’m not happy, but I was thinking you were going to keep it.”
“Well. I thought so, too,” Cecelia admits.
“What made you decide to sell?” Spence asks, his eyes still large.
Cecelia touches her necklace and takes a deep breath.
“I realized it’s not my home. Not anymore.”