“Are we there yet?”
It had been a few minutes, at least, since the last time she asked this question. I told myself that this was progress, tried to not grind my teeth together too badly.
“Just a few more miles,” I replied, making sure that my hands remained loose on the steering wheel of the truck. Don’t tighten them into a white-knuckled grip. Sara’s just anxious, probably like all twelve-year-olds get.
But she’d asked me that same question close to a hundred times, over the last hour or so, and I was getting to the point where I was seriously considering just booting her out of the truck. Not while it was moving, of course, and I wouldn’t just leave her behind in the middle of nowhere. Maybe I’d put her in the back of the truck, make her ride around in the bed for a while with the wind whipping at her hair and preventing me from hearing any more of her inane questions.
Before she could dig deeper into my last remaining nerve, however, I spotted a familiar road sign up ahead, tilted at about a fifteen degree angle. I knew that sign, remember back when Tommy and the others accidentally side-swiped it with his brand new Mercedes, how he showed up the next week, ashamed, driving a tiny little smart car as punishment.
“We’re almost here,” I said, my voice softer now as the tides of memory lapped at my anger and washed it away.
“There are houses!” Sure enough, ahead of Sara’s pointing finger, a housing development sprang up in the little valley that we’d entered, a collection of small but brightly colored and well-maintained houses, the kind of houses belonging to the young and eager and hopeful that they’d someday have a much better life than what they did now.
“One of those,” I said softly, turning the truck towards the cluster of homes and remembering-
-remembered the distance from the base. “Out here?” I say, trying to not frown too deeply. Alexis would see that frown. “It’s a ways, isn’t it?”
I didn’t fool her for a second, of course. “You would live on base if you could get away with sleeping in another five minutes,” she retorts, raising an eyebrow as she looks across the console of our battered pickup at me. “Come on, this is the kind of place that we can afford, and that we get more for our dollar. You’re the logical one – shouldn’t you be pointing this out?”
And as we draw closer, my girlfriend lets out a delighted squeal, clapping her hands together in uncontainable excitement. “Oh, Brian, they’re so cute!” she cries out, and I can’t hold onto my own annoyance at the distance as I see her face bloom in happiness. “Look at them! And we could fix ours up, make room for gardens in the backyard…”
I blinked at Sara’s voice, cutting through the seductive memory. “This one,” I said, turning the truck into a driveway and killing the engine. “Now, there shouldn’t be any threats around here, but I need you to be careful-”
I didn’t even get to finish the warning. Sara already had her door open, was dashing out and up the lawn of the house to its front door, tucked under a little awning to keep off the worst of the Texas heat. She tried the door, puffed out her lips when it didn’t open, and immediately leaned forward to try and stare through the little windows flanking the entrance.
I sighed. For a second, my hand strayed towards my service weapon, but I probably wouldn’t need it here. Already, I could feel the little bit of remaining hope starting to drain away. There was a feeling, of sorts, of emptiness that covered the entire neighborhood. The houses didn’t look any different from how I last remembered them, but I couldn’t pick up any hint of life in the area.
It felt… silent. Asleep.
Reaching the door, I dug my keys out of my pocket, slipped the door key into the front lock. My fingers trembled slightly, making it tougher to get the key to slide in, but I finally managed. I opened the door, let Sara squeeze past me, and then stepped inside-
-“Inside is going to need some work,” Alexis says, her fingers idly tapping on my arm as she looks around. “And with the sun shining right down on the front door? It really needs an awning or something.”
“We could add one,” I add, even though I was the one initially opposed to considering a house out here.
She nods. “We’d need to add quite a bit, I think. But there’s room to do it, and the bones of the house look good.”
“Bones?” I tease her. “What are you, a carpenter, now?”
“My dad is,” she counters, turning and taking her hand off my arm so she can plant them both on her hips. “And he’s taught me plenty!”
“Yeah, I remember. But look, Alex, this place is still a lot of work. And if we’re going to commit-“
“Brian,” she says softly, and I stop talking.
For a minute, she just looks at me, standing in the lobby of that open little house. “We’ve been dating for three years,” she says, her expression soft but serious. “I haven’t done anything to rush you, to try to push you into uncomfortable territory. I love you, but I’ll wait for you.”
“I love you too, Alex,” I start, but she holds up a finger to cut me off.
“But you need to make a decision,” she says, and closes her eyes. I see a shudder run through her body, down to her toes. “I want to wait forever, but it hurts, Brian. It hurts to be with you and not know if you really see us together, someday, sometime.”
I step forward, slip my arms around her, trying to soothe that shuddering. “Alex,” I say, waiting for her to open her eyes and look up at me.
It takes a minute, but finally, she does. Big green eyes, so soft and vulnerable, open and honest. That face won my heart from the first time we met, when she dragged me away from the back wall and out onto the dance floor, ignoring my protests. She looks up at me, and I know that she’s more scared than she’s ever been, but she’s there because she trusts me.
“I love you,” I repeat, pouring all of myself into those words, filling them with truth. “I’m here. Always. I’ll never abandon you, Alex, I promise. It’s scary, but it’s…” I take a deep breath, hating how raw these words of truth make me feel. “It’s better when I’m with you.”
She looks up at me for another minute, her eyes searching my face for any sign of uncertainty. There’s nothing there for her to find. “So,” she begins, but stops.
“So,” I finish for her, “it looks like we’re buying a house.”
The house is empty. I know it, from the moment that I step inside. I’ve lived here, worked with Alexis to make it into not just a house but a home. My hands have repaired and rebuilt much of the entire structure, at one time or another. I know how it feels when there’s someone else inside, warming it with the heat of their body, moving around and making the old joists creak.
There’s no one here now.
To be continued…