This story was written by Sophia Peterson from Hong Kong International School.
Each week during the holidays, we will publish a story from one of the finalists of our 2019 Summer Short Story Competition. Our favourite entries will be compiled into a book, which each finalist will receive a copy of. The winning entry will appear in Young Post on August 31.
When was the last time I walked this road? It’s less of a road now, and more of an overgrown path. The mud beneath my sandals squelches as I struggle to pull the heel back up to take my next step. The leaves of the birch trees are still damp from the rain. I hear them fall, pitter-patter, from their heights to meet me.
I can’t believe I’m back in this town. I swore I’d never return. I close my eyes and remember my exit.
It had been a rainy May morning; I had just returned from school. I shiver as I recall the faces of my beloved parents. My head swims with half-formed regrets. The melancholy of that day has hung over me like a black cloud ever since, my sorrow raining down wherever I go – forcing me to come back here.
I thought I would be filled with hatred, but now I am only listless and empty, all the fire and rage burned out. I kick a small piece of broken concrete in front of me, and bits of dust fly up into the air. I have been so lost. Ever since I left, I feel like there’s been an emptiness in me, a hole longing to be filled. I’ve walked the roads of many different cities, I’ve seen views that have no parallel. The places I’ve been cannot compare to this drab, grey town. And yet, I’ve never felt found; none of my travels have taken me to a place I can call home.
I make a left, coming across the only grocery store in the area. How many times has my mother taken me there to buy ingredients – or even, on rare occasions, a sweet treat after school?
I keep going.
The cycle path winds behind the school like a snake. I smile, remembering when I first learned to ride. My father had carried my bike over his left shoulder, his right hand holding mine. He taught me how to turn, how to manoeuvre around corners and bends. He told how to signal to pedestrians and how to stand up when riding uphill. He removed the training wheels with bicycle grease-stained hands. When I smoothly cycled downhill, pedalling close to the curb but never once touching it, he stood there, hands on his hips, filled with pride.
What am I even doing here?
I let out a lingering sigh. Fourteen months is a long time to be away. I mooch about the shops; everything feels both strange yet familiar. It all seems so trivial now. I left the only two people that truly loved me over some foolish disagreement.
I don’t even remember why I left.
I continue forward and spot the second-hand book store, where most of the housewives
of this too-small town gather to gossip. Although the sun is dipping slowly beyond the horizon, the store is still open.
I push the wooden frame; the automatic sensor announces, “Welcome!” upon my first step into the store. The young boy behind the counter only looks up from his homework momentarily to glance at me. He calls out, “If you need any help, just let me know!”
I nod, but he doesn’t see, resuming his writing instead. I scan the shelves, noticing some titles that we had at home. I walk over to the children’s section. The soft sounds of the boy’s pencil scratching the paper reaches my ears. It’s calming.
I run my fingers over the delicate spines of the books, then come to an abrupt stop as I recognise a title: Where the Wild Things Are. My parents had bought it for me when I was seven. To this day, listening to my mother read it to me at bedtime is one of my fondest childhood memories. This story was our favourite. I believe my mother had loved it even more than I had.
I pick it up immediately and flip open the cover. The sleeve falls a little to the side. As I move to adjust it, I notice the writing on the inside:
Happy Birthday! May you always find your way back home if you are
lost. When you do, you will always find a hot supper waiting for you.
Love, Mum and Dad.”
I almost drop the book. I trace the letters as if I can feel my mother writing this message. What is this book doing here? Did she sell it? It seems unlikely; she cherished this book. Finding it is a sign – it must be. It seems I must go home after all.
I almost cringe at the strangeness of that sentence. It had never crossed my mind before, but now it seems as if it was what I always secretly wanted, only was too ashamed to admit it.
Yes, it’s decided. It is time to return home. Not for me – but to return this book. I’m sure my mother had been looking for it. Hurriedly, I pay for it. The boy starts at my sudden change in demeanour. Pushing the door once more, the shrill cry of “Welcome!” rings out. I walk out, setting a course for my old house. As I get closer, I feel my courage starting to slip away. But I have the book to keep me going.
I plod through the muddy fields until I reach the mustard-coloured farmhouse. My parent’s house. I don’t feel right calling it my home after everything that’s happened. It looks as if a giant has taken to resting on the roof, for it sags and stoops. There are gaping holes in the fence for the wind to rush in and out. On cue, a gust of wind arrives, and the gate squeaks, slowly opening into what was once my childhood home. I see the silver Volvo SUV parked on the lopsided rode. They’re home. Realising this, the reality of it all starts to sink in. I stand shakily, not quite believing that I’m here.
Suddenly, my beard is gone, I feel shorter, calluses and blisters no longer covering my hands, my clothes no longer dusty. It takes everything in me to stop myself from running straight through the front door and into the living room. I can almost picture myself as the young, carefree teenager I was when I left. Now, I have matured, scarred by the hardships of the real world.
I calm myself, breathing as if I’ve been deprived of air. I step onto the porch so that I’m standing in front of the door. I hear the floor panels creak beneath my heavy frame. I step away again and walk to the window. There is a bowl on the kitchen table; I can’t see its contents, but it seems to be steaming. I press my forehead closer to the glass. All of a sudden, I step back in fright, my heart pounding. The bowl has a picture of Goofy, the Disney character, plastered over it – it’s my bowl!
We bought it during our first ever trip out of the state. We had always wanted to go to Disneyland, but could never afford it. Still, my parents had scrimped and saved for two years. I did not ask for a single dollar of pocket money; we ate at home every evening except on our birthdays; my father even took on an extra job delivering groceries. But it was worth it. The trip was wonderful. At the end, I was allowed to pick a souvenir – just one. I had no problem choosing; I had known what I wanted before we’d even walked into the gift shop.
When we walked out again, I held a Disneyland plastic bag containing a bowl bearing Goofy’s smiling face. It was his expression that I loved most; he seemed so happy. He looked like he didn’t have a single worry or care in the world. After that trip, I refused to use any other bowl.
And now here it is, sitting on the table.
I gather as much strength I can muster. I once spent some time sleeping rough on the streets, and got pretty good at hiding my fear. I try to hide it again, now. I grip the book firmly in my hands, pressing it against my chest. My knuckles turn white from clutching it. I let go with one hand and reach for the cold metal doorbell.
I slowly press it.
I hear movement and noise. I have no clue what will happen next. Will my parents welcome me with open arms? Or will they turn away, shutting me out just as I had done to them? No, I refuse to believe it.
I feel someone grab the doorknob on the other side. I edge a little further away from the door. Knees shaking, and heart pounding, I whisper a prayer. I hold my breath as I see the door open.
In the doorway stands my mum. She is the same as I remember. She wears a simple green dress, with white floral patterns along the hem. Her hair, just reaching her chin, is turning white at the roots. The crow’s feet etched in the corners of her eyes seem to stretch to her ears. We stare at each other in silence. I gulp and hold out the book.
It feels as if I am handing over a part of myself. I try to ignore the sight of my hand shaking as I bring it up to the women who raised me, and hope she doesn’t see it either. Her eyes widen as she realises what it is. The sleeve has started to fall away, exposing the message inside: “Dearest Darren”. Her hand trembles, too, as she accepts it. She holds the book in front of her, looking down as if seeing a ghost.
I feel tears spring to my eyes. Why hasn’t she said anything? I feel the urge to cry, and will my feet to turn and leave.
She looks up, eyes wide and filled with uncertainty, and says, “I … There’s … There is some supper waiting for you inside …” I stare at her. She continues, “It’s still hot. We … we always keep a bowl on the dinner table … just in case.” I crumple on the porch, my knees finally giving out. My mother rushes to me as I burst into tears. She wipes them away, fat tears rolling down her own cheeks, too. Through my blurry vision, I see a taller, broader figure appear. My father.
I feel another hand on my head, slowly pushing my hair back. “Don’t worry Darren. Don’t cry. We’ve found you. We’ve found you.”