This story is one of the September Writing Challenge entries chosen to be a featured story.
What defines us? What takes us in context and out of context and explains us all away like a definition in a dictionary?
It isn’t the march of time, for sure, that swirling bastard child of conformity and place.
I adjust my glasses again as I put the final stack of books in a box. My face glistens with the sweat of a Georgia summer, and the glasses are determined to slide down my nose and take my vision with them. I sigh, stretching my aching arms above my head. My joints don’t work like they used to. The wood-paneled study looks so empty with the shelves devoid of books. I remember being a little girl and sitting on the floor in this room, in front of my father’s desk, playing with barbies as he would fill out some legal or financial mumbo jumbo. To me, the stacks of bookcases were like turrets of a great castle. If I concentrate, I can still hear the rustle of his papers, smell his cigars, and see the cup of tea left to cool, untouched.
On a whim I sit down on the dusty carpet, cross legged, like when I was a little girl. I fight the burning tears that appear without warning behind my eyes. It’s finally hitting me. I’m alone now. I lay down all the way, arms above my head, staring at the ceiling. My eyes close, and I replace reality with the one I remember.
In the hazy dream world I’ve created, my mother opens the door.
“Come on, you two, dinner’s ready.” She laughs, and my dad stands up, beaming at her. I look at my mother’s face, squinting, trying to make her out, but where her beautiful eyes should be, there’s only a shifting illusion. I can’t remember my own mother’s face, not really, not perfectly. I feel sick.
My eyes flash open to the lazy afternoon sunlight streaming through the window. My breathing is quick and fast and anxious, and I cough on the dust. I turn to sit up, and something catches my eye. It glints beneath the decades of dust. Contorting my body in a way that strongly disagrees with my 50-year-old bones, I grimace and reach under the dusty, worn desk.
My fingers close around a flat cylinder of metal, cold and fuzzy with dust. I pull it out, adjusting my glasses with my free hand, and wiping off the dirt with my thumb. It’s a quarter, dated 1970, the year I was born. This coin is as old as me, and who knows how long it’s been under that desk. Maybe it was there while I played barbies on the floor, while my mom called us in for dinner, while I had my first kiss at my 16th birthday party on a dare. Maybe it sat there during my mother’s funeral, when my dad tried to tell me about his will and I refused to listen, and left. Maybe it heard the last words I ever said to my father in this room.
I rub the coin reverently. It is priceless. At least to me. I take a deep breath and pull myself up with the help of the desk. The movers will take it to a Goodwill tomorrow, along with the other furniture. I grab the last box of books and slowly leave the room, taking a deep breath in the doorway and turning for one last look.
It is just a room, the coin is just a coin, and yet these things define me. Forever.
I turn away, no longer fighting the tears, gripping the coin so hard it leaves a mark on my palm. I shut the door behind me for the last time and walk out of the only true home I’ve ever known.