The Settling Dust

Each time she returns to the same spot near the end of the gravel drive, under the maple tree. At a distant glance (and it’s never more than that) she doesn’t appear to have aged a single day in what has been almost twenty-seven years. 

I’ve always been a bit skeptical, perhaps, too cynical, to believe in the supernatural, so the first shadowy glimpse of her I quickly dismissed as a combination of eye strain and an overworked mind playing tricks on me. Then it happened again. And again soon after that. Over the span of a month or so, I lost count of the sightings. Sometimes now, I won’t see her for days at a stretch, then suddenly, out of a smoldering orange dusk or a gray misty dawn, she’ll be there, sitting cross-legged in the grass or shivering in the rain. No matter the weather, she’s wearing the same clothes I last saw her in – denim cutoff shorts with a dusty blue top. In the few seconds it takes to sprint from the living room window to the front door, she’s gone.

If you’ve ever returned to the home you grew up in after years away, then you might understand when I say that even though it all looks familiar, something about it also seems not quite real. Despite the distressed exteriors, the inner dimensions have warped and shrunk – everything looks slightly off-kilter from your memories of it. I didn’t think I’d ever come back again, much less live here. During these dark lonely months, strange twists of fate have shaken loose everything I thought I knew. Soon, when it comes time to pack up and leave again (this time for good) there will be a sadness I would’ve never dreamed possible during that long miserable drive north last winter.

A few nights ago in a dream, I waved goodbye to Charlene again, only this time, it was I who went speeding away, her small spindly figure barely visible through the dust cloud in my rearview mirror. If I had known that day, all those years ago, that we were saying goodbye for the last time, I guess I would’ve done something more than half-heartedly wave at her back while she pedaled away down our old dirt road. I guess at age fourteen, you don’t think about finalities much. You figure the days will continue to roll on unchanged forever. At least, that’s what I thought if I’d thought about it at all. 

“There is something I need to tell you,” she’d said, mounting her bike “but – I’m late for my curfew so it’ll have to wait till I see you tomorrow or Sunday or… I don’t know, whenever.” Flustered, her face beet red, she tucked the textbook my sister Wendy let her borrow under her arm before riding off.

I bumped into her older sister Kat a couple of weeks ago at the Shop Smart. She came pushing her cart around the corner near the produce aisle. I was coming from the opposite direction and we nearly crashed into one another. It took her a few seconds to see me behind the beard I’ve let grow a bit long these days and that is now flecked with gray. Then, lit by recognition, her dark green eyes (so much like Charlene’s) brightened and she rushed over to wrap me up in a hug. 

Our first words were clumsy and awkward. She said she was in a hurry, but we exchanged numbers and promised to catch up soon. A few days later, we met at a downtown cafe. 

Though I wanted more than anything to tell her about what had been going on, I was apprehensive. I wasn’t sure how she’d take it. How do you dump a thing like that in the lap of someone you haven’t talked to in decades? For what felt like a very long time we waded through the perfunctory small talk of people who used to know one another in some long-ago life. The empty chasm the years had wedged between us was impossible to ignore.

“You look great,” I said.

“Even three kids and two husbands later?” She laughed.

“You’ve endured.”

“Thanks. You too Nick.” Her long thin fingers, candy-striped nails, played nervously with a stevia wrapper. I took a long swig of black coffee.

“So… what brought you back after all this time?”


“Ah, do it every time. Should be the town slogan: where dreams return to die.

My turn to laugh.

“Yeah, well – the house has been empty since my dad died. Been on the market for nearly two years now. When the shit hit the fan back in Boston, I guess I needed a place to crawl back to, you know, lay low for a while, try and work up the steam to give it another go. Think I’m almost there.”

“You’ll be ok, Nick. Just a setback. You’ll get back on your feet.”

“Thanks, Kat. What about you? Ever make it out?”

“Yes. For a full semester and a half.” She giggled.

“Then what?”

“Dropped out. Just wasn’t for me, and besides, I was needed here. Mom wasn’t in a good place, you know. Empty nest syndrome was pretty bad that year. I guess I was afraid that it was either that or see her locked away somewhere. So I did what I thought I had to do to keep that from happening. No regrets.”

Her gaze fell from the window to the table. For a few long seconds, we sat in silence.

“I’m so sorry Kat.”

“It’s okay. We made it through. All of us, each in our own way.”

As the conversation progressed we drifted into deeper waters. It took nearly forty-five minutes for either of us to actually say her name out loud. We both knew there was no leaving the table without going there, just as we both knew that once we did there would be no coming back for either of us. Who knew where the conversation might lead or what might rise up out of the dusty attics of our memories.

We began by swapping funny stories. Her little sister Charlene. My best childhood pal. Always such a tomboy. Our conversation literally went on over countless refills and evaporating hours.

“They never did find out who did it, did they?” I said.

“No. Never. Hit and run. If it had happened today with all the technology maybe they could have, but back then I guess it just wasn’t there. Whoever hit her might as well have been a ghost.” A chill flew up my spine.

It was a closed-casket funeral. I was shielded from seeing her lifeless body. I still remember the mangled remains of the green Schwinn bike though – the bent handlebars, the horribly twisted frame. Up to that point, I think I was in shock. I hadn’t shed a tear, but when I saw that bike on the back of her uncle Jodie’s flatbed truck, I wailed and shook. Suddenly, it was all too real.

After a brief pause in the conversation, while Kat texted her kids she’d be running late, I summoned the courage to lay it all out there, knowing it would be my last chance to do so. Once she looked up from her phone our eyes locked.

“Brace yourself, Kat. When I tell you this, you’ll probably think I’ve completely lost it. Sometimes I wonder myself. It’s been a hell of a year, but… I can’t dismiss what’s been happening quite that easily.

With kind curious eyes, she sat and listened intently until I’d said all there was to say. Then, she slumped back into the booth and began to smile. Not quite the reaction I was expecting.

“You know, I’m not all that surprised actually.” 

“Really? Why?”

“She never told you, did she?”

“Told me what?”

“The reason she came back to your house that night.”

“To borrow my sister’s algebra book,” I said.

“Nope. That was just a clever little cover. She came specifically to tell you something, Nick. We talked about it. She asked me what I thought she should do.”

Then it came surging back, my last memory of her getting on her bike, saying she had something she’d needed to tell me before speeding away that day, leaving a little dust trail behind as I waved her off. After that, I didn’t think any more about it until later, after the accident, and for the next several months that was all I could think about.

“Tell me what, Kat?”

She pulled out her purse and tucked a folded bill under her empty cup for the waitress before getting up and putting on her jacket. Then she knelt down beside me and placed a cool hand over mine, her eyes wet with emotion. Her next and final words before walking away sucked the air out of me, if not the entire room, leaving me breathless with immediate understanding and heaviness of despair.

“That she loved you.”


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