Everything was hazy. The morning mist slowly climbed up the russet bricked walls, dampening everything it touched, grazing the floor and bouncing up again. It spread across the fields surrounding a small, abandoned-looking ivy covered house with a sloping roof and small windows and smothered it like the smoke of a roaring winter fire. There was no one around. The air was silent, for the mist choked the sound out of everything it covered. It was menacingly beautiful, and I loved it.
I took a deep breath in, feeling the moisture on my face as I inhaled. I’d been outside for five minutes and my hair was already stuck to my forehead, drops of water running down my cheeks. I could see my brunette hair that had escapeed from beneath my hat out of the corner of my right eye, and the edge of my fringe poking down from my forehead, framing what I could see around me. I wished that I could take a picture like it, framed by split ends and dripping strands, something natural and elegant and simple that I could treasure as a moment of perfection of my very own. Unfortunately, I didn’t have cameras in my eyes... So I hoped that I would remember it forever. I prayed to God that dementia would never take hold of my mind and grip it so tight that memories would start to leak out the cracks, making me forget everything I’d ever experienced, including what was before me at that moment. I watched the mist crawl along the grass like a predator creeping towards its prey. I couldn’t see further than the treeline just ahead of me, with pine trees heavy with water.
I started to walk forwards, shaking, feeling somewhat nervous. With each small step I took towards the house my feet got wetter and wetter, the dew soaking through my boots and the hem of my jeans. My boots squeaked slightly underfoot, the unfortunate result of fake leather and water. It disrupted the quiet. Suddenly, the world was full of sound again, the barrier of silence broken by me. All 5’2” of me. I had the sudden realisation that I could break something as powerful as silence, and that gave me more confidence. I stepped towards the house with longer strides, no longer shuffling slightly in fear of disturbing someone or something bigger than me. As I got closer, I started to recognise small details: the fading green wooden door, the brass handle, the red-rimmed window panes, and the russet bricks that hid beneath the ivy that had clambered up the walls over years and years of cultivating, trimming and growing. A rusty panel was nailed to the right of the door. As I grew closer, my breath becoming heavy with the effort of dragging myself through the mist and knee high grass, I could see grime on the windows, and where the ivy had once been trimmed and pulled away whenever it grew where it wasn’t wanted. The plant was thinner there, but growing quickly, trying to compensate for years of being held into place.
It got to a point that with each step I took, memories started to flash back to me, as though the world around me was trying to remind me why I was here in the first place.
The smell of freshly baked bread on an Autumn afternoon.
The sound of a lawnmower waking me up in the morning.
The sunset disappearing behind the pine trees behind me.
The numbness of my feet after the snow in April.
The taste of tomato soup as the rain came down in sheets.
Every little memory started to seep through the cracks I’d tried to seal after a terrible childhood, revisiting me as I creeped towards the house in unison with the mist. In my mind, I was a part of it. A part of nature’s cycle, doing what I was supposed to, doing without even knowing. I was the mist. I dampened like rain, but choked like smoke. My entire life an oxymoron. I thought about leaving and coming back when I felt more comfortable, and when the sky and my mind were clearer, but my legs weren’t listening. I kept willing them to stop. But I kept stepping. My eyes closed. My hands clenched into fists. And then I reached the door.
It was my right hand that uncurled and stretched out to touch the handle. I could see that I was trembling. Or was I shivering? I couldn’t tell if I was cold or nervous, or maybe both. Beneath my finger tips, the handle was freezing cold. If I looked closer, there were scratches visible, probably from drunken hands fiddling with keys or children hanging on it, wailing to be let in from the rain or snow or wind quicker than their parents could manage. The wood of the door was covered in peeling, faded green paint, and it looked sad. It made my heart sink to think that such a quaint and beautiful place had been left to become a rusty, peeling old ruin. The plate to the right of the door was just at my eye-level, and I could see the faint traces of a number beneath the rust. Uncaring of the state of my clothes, I pulled a wet sleeve up and over my right hand and started rubbing at the plate. I couldn’t remember what was under it all, and for some reason I felt like I needed to know. The rust didn’t come off easily; it flaked and scratched, but I think the dampness of my sleeve helped, in a way.
I don’t know how long I was there for, stood there scrubbing at a rusty house number of an abandoned house in the middle of a field. But I couldn’t doubt the relief I felt when white started to appear from beneath the rust. It was like a weight was lifting from on my shoulders with each movement of my arm. A blue started to appear in a thin line, and reminded me of porcelain. The blue showing gave me energy and anticipation, so I started to rub quicker. A 1 appeared, then a 2, then a 4. The number was chipped, but I could still make it out. I could remember it.
I was shorter, smaller, gazing up as a man with his back to me gazed at the wall beside the newly painted door. In his left hand was a hammer, in his right was the new house number that we had chosen together to replace the one the old owners had left behind. A shiny white one with royal blue numbers painted onto it. 124. The number that captioned my newly found childhood. He cocked his head for a moment, contemplating where to put the plate, before pulling at some ivy to clear a space. I smiled as I watched him. He reached behind, towards me, and I gently placed the four nails I was holding into his calloused hand. The sound of him nailing the plate to a wall rang in my ears, clanging shut on a bad period of time in my life. A time that I’d forget until the end of my days.
The clanging rang in my ears years later, as I stared at the rust patches. I shook my head, trying to rid myself of the memories. But why did I want to forget them, if I was there already? I didn’t understand my own logic. I knowingly contradicted myself a lot.
I knew I couldn’t just stand there and stare at the door forever, but I didn’t know what to do. The door stared back at me, a sad mixture of paint and wood, droplets of water gathering and dripping down slowly. It was like a mirror. I felt my heart start to sink as tears started to stream down my face. I needed to see more, just to calm myself and know just what had happened. It was what I needed, as a person, and as an unfulfilled child of broken things.
I reached for the door again. The handle was just as cold this time, but it didn’t make me shiver. Despite crying, I wasn’t even shaking. My lip trembled, but I bit down on it, begging for my brain to find some kind of confidence that was buried deep in the corners of my mind. There was a blunt pain starting to grow from behind my eye, but I ignored it. I needed to know. I’d spent too long not knowing had happened.
My hand closed around the handle and turned it. It felt so familiar in my hand, and it turned effortlessly. The door opened silently. The sight before me took my breath away.
I couldn’t breathe. Everything was exactly the same as I could remember it, from the painting hanging on the wall to the green throw hanging over the back of the faded sofa. The pale yellow curtains were drawn, casting a tired, tinted light across the room. I crouched down and put my hand on the carpet and smiled to myself when I realised that it was just as fluffy as when I was last there. I had the sudden urge to just lay there and breathe, but I got a grip of myself quickly. It wasn’t the time to muck around. Tears started to sting my eyes. Thousands of memories started to press against the block in my head, and small ones seeped through, flashing in my mind. Laughing loudly. Jumping on the chairs. Spinning and spinning and spinning until I got so dizzy I fell to the floor. I shook my head so the tears disappeared, and with them, the memories.
It was creepy how everything stayed the same. Everything. Even the books on the shelf were in the same order, in the same battered condition. I couldn’t see any sign of time passing, not even a speck of dust on a shelf. My eyes narrowed.
I pushed my fringe back, finally irritated with it dangling wetly in front of my eyes. I didn’t know what to do. After a moment, I took in a deep breath, expecting to smell lemon, with lavender and mint eating at the edges, but I didn’t. The air smelled different, which could have been explained by how long I’d been gone, if everything wasn’t just as it had been left. It smelled musty, like rotting wood and leaves, mixed with a sort of moisture that could only be described as the air in the bathroom after having a long, hot shower. I stepped into the house further, and pulled the door shut. It closed with a loud click.
I heard a movement from the next room. My heart leapt into my mouth. Suddenly, all I could hear was it beating harder and harder as I realised that there was someone there. Someone was in the house. My house. Well, it wasn’t my house anymore, it wasn’t anyone’s house. I started to shake again. Then my breathing started to get heavier. There was another noise from the next room that sounded like a cough. I needed to say something. My mouth opened to speak, but my throat tightened and no sound came out. I shook my head and tried again. Nothing. I closed my eyes. Come on, focus, I thought. My hands tightened into fists, my teeth clenched, and then I uttered three syllables that changed my life.
I stood there in silence for what seemed like an eternity, waiting on what could either have been a person or an animal to reply to me. Seconds slowed. The clock on the wall started to click in slow motion, mocking me for appearing. I knew that I shouldn’t have gone, I knew it. I was mentally kicking myself, clenching my fists tighter and tighter until I could feel my nails digging into my palms. I imagined blood trickling from them, and smiled terribly to myself. I was an idiot. The room was starting to tilt; I felt like I was going to pass out. Greens and yellows started to melt together into a sickly combination of sofas and curtains and carpet, paintings dripping as though they were still wet. I prayed to any God that could have ever possibly existed that no one was in the next room, and that I had just called out to a squirrel. I imagined it scurrying away, out into the mist and towards the trees, never to be seen again. Lost in serenity. I was suddenly jealous of an imaginary squirrel.
Then a bang came, along with a hushed - and rather amusing - exclamation of “shit”. If I wasn’t dizzy, I would’ve giggled. Moments later, I heard footsteps. Human footsteps. If I’d had any doubts about it being another person in the next room, they were all dashed in that moment. Thousands of thoughts ran through my mind, over and over and over, but the most prominent was I’m going to die I’m going to die I’m going to die. They grew closer and closer. They stepped on the squeaky floorboard by the dining room table. Step by step. I couldn’t move. I was glued to the floor, just as my eyes were glued to the doorway.
The footsteps stopped.
After a moment, a head poked around the corner. The first thing I noticed was his eyes. His eyes were stuck somewhere between blue and green, and were narrowed beneath a mop of black hair that looked half dry, his skin was halfway between pale and tanned... A boy of halfways. After a second, I vowed to never tell him I thought of that. My instant thought was that a stranger was amongst my things, my past life. Surrounded by estranged memories and my old dreams. If I survived whatever was coming, I’d ask him questions about absolutely everything.
“Hello?” I asked again, feeling slightly more confident. He was afraid. Afraid of me, no less. “Who are you?”
He didn’t reply. A grimace was fixed on his face, his jaw clenched. I could see his hand clutching the doorframe, and if I looked closely I was able to see his white knuckles.
“Do you live here?”
His head shook slightly, and his eyes widened with something that looked like fear but felt like apprehension. He moved slightly, stepping out of the doorway. He was tall. Even from a distance I could tell that he would tower over me. I felt his gaze sweep over me; I wasn’t a big fan of being watched and couldn’t help but shift uncomfortably under his glare. After a moment, he looked away and ran his hand through his hair, pushing it back. I took that moment to let my eyes wander over him, returning the judgmental glare as I took in his height, his face, his muscles (or lack thereof), his white t-shirt and his jeans. When he turned back to me, I stared. Our eyes locked.
“Who are you?” I demanded, firmer than before. I felt confident, despite my trembling hands.
“Alfie. Alfie Harris,” he resigned with a sigh. “I don’t live here. I don’t.”
“I’m Olivia,” I replied. The name tasted different on my tongue when I said it out loud to someone else. I’d only ever written it, or mumbled it to myself. It was new. I wasn’t sure if I liked it or not. “Olivia Williams.”
“How do you know this place?” he queried. He’d probably realised that if someone was around here, they were either lost or coming to the house. “I don’t see many people around here, especially in the mornings.”
I felt cornered. Not knowing what to say, I shrugged and looked around the room again for answers. It was all so familiar. The memories that started to come to me made me bite my lip and breathe in harshly. Not now, I told myself. I was stalling, watching dust dance through a bar of light that sliced through a gap in the curtains. I remembered the many times I’d leapt up to try and catch the dust, and my frustration at it when it slipped through my fingers time and time again. Then an idea sprung to my mind.
“My, um, my friend used to live here,” I lied.
Alfie nodded gently, as though he understood. I didn’t see how, though. He hadn’t experienced this house when everything was good and pure.
“Me too,” he stated. That caught my attention. He was looking away from me, but I could sense some sort of pain in his voice. There was a strain there, something that he felt like he was missing. “I knew a girl who used to live here. She disappeared a long time ago, though. I haven’t seen her in a while.”
I didn’t know who had lived there before me, but I never thought that there was a girl. I had always liked to think that I was the first young girl to have lived there. But I looked at him again, and thought that I recognised something there from years and years ago. The way his eyes softened as he glanced around the room, I knew that I was missing something.
“What was your friend’s name?” I asked gently, stepping forward slightly. I reminded myself to be careful not to strike any difficult chords or cross a line. I knew that loss broke people, but in different ways. I didn’t want to break him even more, even if he was a stranger.
“Arianne,” Alfie replied, refusing to look at me. My heart pounded. Shit.
My earliest memory was being pulled by the hand through the blue door of a small house in the middle of a field of emerald grass and ruby flowers. I saw everything around me as precious and, after forgetting the previous six years, I was keen to make new memories with the new people, especially the person grasping at my hand. I glanced up at the walls that towered up above me, backed by a turquoise, cloudless sky that made me smile. I smiled a lot. I always had a grin plastered on my face because everything I saw made me happy.
“Come on, honey,” a male voice said, and I looked up at the man holding my hand. He was twice as tall as me, and had a friendly smile and soft lines on his face. I loved his eyes. They were hazel and bright, glinting whenever he laughed. I loved his laugh. I loved a lot of things. “Welcome to your new home. Our new home.”
He led me through the door and into an empty room. Empty. When I peered around his legs, I could see that there were boxes piled against the wall to my left, and opposite me was a pile of shiny, stained wood, that was probably for a bookshelf. The room was full of empty clutter, all of their possessions lined up in rows as though in an order. I didn’t have anything except the clothes on my back and the teddy dangling limp from my right hand. I liked it, despite the emptiness. It felt like home, and that was all I wanted.
A woman came through the door, grinning from ear to ear as she pinned her black hair up on top of her head. The sun streaming in through the window behind her made her glow, radiating absolute perfection. My heart was leaping in my chest, begging for me to step forwards and experience my new life as much as possible. I wanted to run around outside, I wanted to laugh and cry and scream and mourn whatever I’d lost and celebrate everything that I’d gained. And God had I lost and gained a lot. I couldn’t remember how much I’d lost, but I knew it was a lot.
The woman - Julia - winked at me, then stretched her hand out towards me, beckoning for me to walk towards her. I glanced up at the man - Richard - because I was feeling uncertain. He was the one I was attached to, because he was friendly and kind and funny. He gave me a reassuring nod, and let go of my hand. I clung to it, afraid. Chuckling softly to himself, he reached forward and grabbed Julia’s hand and dragged us both through the doorway. It wasn’t forceful, it wasn’t even rushed. I felt like I was floating, or being pulled gently through lukewarm water. I laughed again. I was always laughing.
When we stopped, it took me a moment to catch my breath. I closed my eyes and breathed in heavily. The moment was to be savoured just as much as any other moment in the presence of the people who had ultimately saved me. I could feel the euphoria of happiness coursing through my veins. When I opened my eyes, they were both looking down at me. I kept eye contact with Julia, still struggling to breathe, when she peered up at the door in front of us. I followed her eyes. My heart skipped a beat.
“Welcome to your new room, Ari,” Julia beamed.
I couldn’t keep eye contact with Alfie. I shook the memory from my head, along with the tears that threatened to overflow as they stung my eyes. He let his eyes wander, swiftly glancing over me briefly, before turning away and peeing through the curtains of the window behind him. The mist outside made the light softer and the curtains gave it a pale yellow tint, reminding me of so many frost covered winter evenings during which I smiled and curled up next to a window with a book or a game.
I was Arianne. Arianne Olivia Wallis. I knew who Alfie was, and I knew who I was. I just didn’t want to admit it, or remember it. I wanted to forget everything about myself from the past.
But if I wanted to forget it, why did I go there?
“She left a long time ago,” Alfie’s voice broke the silence. I felt a lump rise up in my throat, but I swallowed it down. I couldn’t cry. Not there, and certainly not when he thought I was a stranger. “Arianne, I mean.”
Alfie. Alfie, Alfie, Alfie. My childhood best friend. My healer of bruises and sad faces, always there for Arianne. Always there for me. I didn’t like hearing my own name said out lous, even when it was said from his lips. The lips that I had known so well, the face that was once somewhat familiar became prominent in my mind. He had changed so much from when I had last seen him; puberty had left him taller, broader, and handsome. The way I remembered him was as a small, skinny boy with a mop of scrappy, dark hair and a smile that was so infectious you couldn’t help but reciprocate it. I wanted to laugh and smile and hug him. I’d missed him. But I didn’t want to tell him who I was because I didn’t want to go into details, explaining where I’d been and why I was there. That was partly because I didn’t know the answers to any questions he could’ve possibly asked me. I didn’t know where I’d been. Up until then, I’d hardly known who I was.
“I’m so sorry,” I said, choking on a slight sob. I tried to pass it off as a cough, but he still looked concerned. “I haven’t seen Arianne in years.”
That time, I wasn’t lying to him. It was true, I hadn’t seen her, because I hadn’t been Arianne since what had happened. I became Olivia.
“Me neither. I sometimes wonder if she’s even around anymore, after what had happened...,” his voice trailed off. He looked around as though he was searching for something, and he ran his hand through his hair, pushing it out of his face again. “I’m sorry, I’m dwelling on it again. I do that a lot. Things haven’t been the same since she left. Can I get you a tea or a coffee? I suppose a friend of Ari’s is a friend of mine.”
I nodded solemnly. “A coffee would be lovely, Alfie.” His name rolled off my tongue and it felt like home. A pang of despair ran through my veins. I missed being Arianne. I missed him calling me Ari, I missed everything about that life, even if I refused to remember it.
He walked into the kitchen, and I followed him, standing in the doorway. Everything was the same, even the cups. Two of Julia’s chipped china mugs with intricate designs swirling around the middle were placed gently on the counter. They were delicate and precious and I had the urge to claim them as my own, because that’s really what they were. They were Julia’s, so in that respect they should’ve been passed onto me after... I shook the thought from my head, and instead watched Alfie make coffee. Leaning against the doorframe, I smiled softly whilst his back was turned. Even though he had filled out over the years, his body still wasn’t as defined as others, and he looked softer than other men. It was difficult to describe, but if he were a drawing he would’ve been created with smooth lines and delicate shading. He crouched down to get something out of the cupboard and a patch of skin showed from under his shirt, and I had the sudden urge to touch it. I wanted contact with someone again, preferably someone who knew me before.
He turned to me then, and I felt a blush creep up my neck at the thoughts I’d just had run through my mind. His hand reached out and handed me a coffee cup, and our fingers brushed. The sensation filled my mind with thoughts of the past, and I silently pleaded with myself to stop thinking about it. I hadn’t thought about anything to do with the house or anything in it since I’d left all those years ago, tear-stained, bruised, afraid... No. I shook my head slightly, and looked at Alfie again. He was what I should have been focused on, not what had happened.
Alfie yawned and ran his right hand through his hair. He smiled slightly at me, but it felt awkward. It was awkward. It wasn’t Alfie and Arianne, it was Alfie and Olivia. It wasn’t as though we were old friends reuniting after something traumatizing, we were new people making acquaintances in an unfortunate situation. I tried to make eye contact with him, but he kept avoiding it. I wondered if I remembered my eyes, if any part of me looked familiar, but I realised that the brown hair was much different to Arianne’s blonde, Arianne had a crooked jaw whereas mine was straightened, and I was no longer Arianne. However much anyone would have liked me to be Arianne, I wasn’t.
My train of thought was broken when Alfie coughed.
“So, um, where did you meet Ari?” he queried, hand rubbing the back of his neck as he took a sip at his coffee. I liked that. Most men that I’d met gulped at their coffee, but delicate sips were familiar and gentle.
“Oh, at Brownie’s,” I used my limited knowledge of Arianne/my past to my advantage, remembering where Alfie never was. “We were in the same group. You tend to get attached to people when you see them every week for a few years. I was with her during her... transition. You know, when she came out of where she was and came here.”
“Oh yeah,” Alfie nodded. He leant back against the counter, tapping his fingers and glancing around the room awkwardly.
“Where do you live?” I asked him, curious, but then realised that I sounded creepy. “I mean, this is said in a context where I’m not a stalker. Not that I’ve been a stalker. I promise.”
He smiled at me then. A gentle, brilliant smile that made something stir inside me. It woke up Arianne. In my chest, the heart of a little kid beat faster and faster and jumped around and I didn’t know what to do. And I swear to God his smile could light up a thousand cities and cure cancer and heal everyone’s broken hearts and break them all over again. I smiled back. And it just made us both smile more.
“I live in the town down the road. I just visit this place a lot, it just helps cope with everything, I guess. Even after what happened,” he kept smiling. “Don’t worry, I know you’re not a stalker. Or are you?”
“Not at all. Just a friend who misses her friend a bit.”
Dammit Olivia, why did you have to make things awkward? I thought, mentally kicking myself. We lost eye contact again, and suddenly the world seemed slightly colder, or emptier, or less. I didn’t know how to describe it. I sipped at my coffee, realising that it was just sitting in my hands, getting cold. It tasted bitter and calming, warming my mouth and throat as I swallowed it down. I could remember the smell of fresh coffee every morning when Arianne walked into the kitchen, Julia’s back to her, pouring out two large mugfuls before the woman turned to her and said good morning in her gentle singsong voice.
“I miss her too,” Alfie’s voice sounded strained, as though it was the first time he’d said it since everything that had happened. As though he didn’t want to accept that she was gone, even though she really was. Arianne wasn’t coming back, as far as I was concerned, and that’s all Alfie knew, too. But he was muttering, and it seemed to me that he was more talking to himself than he was talking to me. “I miss her every day, with everything I do, I miss her. I see her in so many things. I mean, I see her in this fucking room, standing just beside you, where we used to play and talk and drink juice in the Summer. I know we were only little kids, and I should have gotten over it years ago, but I haven’t. And I can already tell that you haven’t gotten over it, either. If you’d gotten over it, then you wouldn’t have come here today.”