“Lillian, come on!” Uncle Richard calls, and I run, my arms swinging wildly at my side. In his hand I see something green and flat and large.
“Coming!” I call through panting breaths.
I lean up against the trunk of the crabapple tree that graces the top of my favorite hill. Uncle Richard laughs.
“I’m decades older than you, girl, and I wasn’t half so winded climbing up.”
“Yes, well, I bet you didn’t run.”
“No, I didn’t run.”
I turn my gaze from his face to whatever is in his hand.
“Yes, I used to love flying kites with my kids. I thought you might like it too.”
Uncle Richard hands me the green diamond and directs me to stand farther along the ridge. I run that direction, breath already recovered. I feel the wind catch the fabric, and Uncle Richard says, “That’s it, Lil. Let ‘er loose!”
I let the wind rip the kite from my fingers and then race back to stand by my uncle’s side. I reach just above his waist, and he looks down at me with great bushy, gray eyebrows.
“Want to hold it?”
“Here, hold the reel in your right hand, like this. Good. Now, with your left, grab this string. Yes, you’ve got it. Now, just if it looks like it’s falling, give ‘er a tug.”
“Like this?” My eyebrows scrunch across my forehead.
“You’ve got it, Lil. That’s it. Let out the string some more. Let it go higher.”
In my enthusiasm I forget to stop the string, and with horror I watch as the kite flies higher and higher until it descends over some woods.
At least, I think, the woods are still on our property.
“Nevermind, dear. Don’t cry.” Uncle Richard wipes my eyes, tweaks my nose, and grabs my hand. “I want to show you something, anyway. Come.”
I reached for my cellphone, my eyes never leaving the screen of my work computer, and hoped no one else in the office could hear my Disney ringtone.
“I’m calling for a Miss Lillian Alpin.”
“This is she.”
“Hello, Ms. Alpin. We’re calling regarding your property in Grand Gorge, New York. There is a matter of back taxes and a mortgage which is falling behind.”
“Yes, I know,” I said, sighing. “I’ve been thinking of selling it. My agent tells me the price he could get for the property would just about cover it all.”
“Be that as it may, we’re going to need to see some money by the end of the month.”
“Yes, sir. I understand.”
I hung up the phone, my lip caught between my teeth and my fingers absently twisting my beaded necklace. I grabbed my phone again and hit the first name on my speed dial list.
“Yeah, babe. What’s up?”
“I just got a call from the mortgage company about the farm. I have until the end of the month to make a payment.”
“Honey, we’ve been over this. I told you already what I think you should do.”
I clenched my jaw. He wanted me to sell the family farm. The one that had been in our family for over three hundred years. The one where I had run barefoot as a child, my feet tough enough that I didn’t mind the rocks and twigs. The one where I had floated along the top of the pond in a pink blowup ring, not noticing or minding that the water was green with algae. The one where I had seen a newborn kitten for the first time, my eyes wide with wonder.
The one where grownups didn’t yell at each other and blame each other for every little thing. The one where I felt safe when everything else fell apart.
“Drew, you know I don’t want to do that.
“But think of the investments you could make if you don’t sink all the insurance money into that old cash drain.”
“Forget the investments, Andrew. It’s not a decision I can make lightly. I think… I think I need to go up there and see it again before I decide.”
I heard him grunt, although it was muffled. He probably had moved the phone away from his mouth.
“Fine then. Go, but remember what’s important while you’re there. The future. Your future. Our future.”
“I will. I promise. I should probably go up this afternoon.”
“Okay, if that’s what you need to do, then I’m all for it.”
“Thanks for understanding, Drew.”
“I don’t. Not really, but I guess I can respect it. Go see the old place. But remember, you know what I’m advising.”
“Yes, I know exactly what you’re saying,” I said out loud, but I was thinking, I know better than you do just what you’re suggesting.
“Great. Look, I’d really love to talk more, but I’m on the clock. Later, okay, after I get off?”
“Yeah, sure. Sorry, I forgot you picked up that extra shift today.”
“It’s fine. Bye, hon. Love you.”
“I love you, too.” I placed the phone back on my desk, staring at the background picture of my fiance and I. That’s a fake smile, I thought to myself as the screen went to sleep.
I climbed into my car, opening the maps app on my phone out of habit. I quickly closed it. Though it had been years, I knew the way without help. I clicked my seatbelt into place and pulled out of my driveway, aiming my car for the mountains.
The way was familiar enough that I let part of my mind wander. The other part watched the vehicles zooming around me, though they became less and less frequent the higher up the road went.
“Breakfast is almost ready,” Grandma says.
She and my grandpa’s cousin, Sue, have been tormenting us with the smell of bacon for ages now. My grandpa is already seated at the table, and Aunt Dodie and Uncle Richard join him now. I am in the tiny barn kitchen watching over Grandma’s shoulder, ready to assist, if only they’ll let me. I am eight already, after all.
“Let’s pray, then,” Uncle Richard says, and he grabs Aunt Dodie’s hand. She grabs Grandpa’s.
I bow my head dutifully, but the sound of eggs in the cast-iron skillet distracts me.
“Dear Lord, thank you for —” Uncle Richard is still praying, but it is not his voice I am listening to anymore.
“Lynn, flip that egg!” Sue whispers at Grandma.
“It’s gonna burn. Flip the egg.”
They go back and forth through the entire prayer. I slit my eyes to peek at them. Sue is shaking her finger at Grandma, whose eyes are squeezed tightly shut. Sue attempts to wrench the metal spatula out of Grandma’s hand, but Grandma holds on tight, shushing her again.
I clap both hands over my mouth, trying hard not to laugh. I don’t understand how Uncle Richard isn’t giggling himself by now. Finally, Grandma gives in and moves the spatula towards the eggs. Her eyes are barely open. I snap mine closed again before she sees me peeking.
“Amen,” Uncle Richard says, and I finally let out the big laugh building up inside of me.
“See, Sue. The egg isn’t burned.” Grandma says, sticking her tongue out.
I laughed out loud at the memory. The sound of my own voice after an hour of silence startled me, and I pulled out my phone. It was time for some music.
“Hey, Siri. Open Pandora.”
“Opening Pandora.” My phone replied in her robotic British accent.
The trip up into the mountains had been uneventful, and now I was settled in. My clothes were neatly tucked inside my suitcase, which sat on the twin bed opposite mine in the tiny, curtained-off room in the barn that I called mine.
I stood looking up at the hill behind the barn, and I wondered what had changed- was it me or the hill? It seemed not so green as I had remembered. Not so steep. Not so lush and inviting. Not so anything that appealed to my eight-year-old self.
Twenty years was a long time, especially when half of those years are childhood years. The decades since I had come regularly to the family farm had changed many things, me not least of all.
I no longer ran around in pigtails, blonde hair streaming behind me in the wind as I pumped my legs, attempting to fly. I had traded in ill-fitting t-shirts for business suits, and flip-flops for sensible pumps.
The farm itself was as different as one could imagine, yet it looked nearly exactly the same. The trailer on the right side of the drive was as yellow and faded as ever. The barn on the left of the dirt driveway sagged a little in the corners, but I knew it wasn’t any likelier to fall around my ears than ever before. The grass was knee high in places, and the pond as still as a corpse, though I suspected it teemed with life if you counted the mosquitos.
The main difference, I supposed, was the lack of people. As a girl, the farm had been a busy hive of activity, although most of the time I was the only person there younger than half a century old. Aunts and uncles and grandparents and second and third cousins multiplied like clowns pouring out of a clown-car, and I could never keep track of who they were or where they came from.
Now, they were all dead or else moved away, and somehow or other the deed had come into my possession. I had gasped when the lawyer told me, but I nearly fainted when he told me the size of the lean against the farm. Combined with back taxes, I owed almost the entire sum of my parents’ insurance policies. The amount was staggering, and I wondered who had let it go so far.
I knew our family had never been rich — not since 1640, when my many-times-great grandfather had first settled here. Even then, his son had refused to pay property taxes, and, despite my worries, I let the smile break on my face at the irony.
I allowed my mind to wander, brought back by the empty hill before me. My feet slowly dragged me upwards as memories washed the present away.
I follow my uncle along the hilltop until we enter the cool shade of the trees. Uncle Richard tugs me down an overgrown trail and I beg him to tell me stories. He does. I listen enraptured as he tells about his growing-up years and all his brothers and sisters.
Our walk in the woods is long and slow. We amble along, and I wonder dimly if Uncle Richard is lost. He is, after all, pretty old. Soon I see that we are not lost. My uncle stops in front of a small clearing.
A low wrought-iron fence surrounds the clearing. Uncle Richard opens the gate, and its creak sounds too loud in the hushed woods. I cringe.
“Come, Lil. I want to show you something.” He leads me past the gate, and for the first time, I focus on what lies beyond.
The crunch of leaves beneath my feet brought me out of my reverie. The brisk autumn air swept my hair away from its tight chignon, and short tendrils curled across my forehead. I brushed them back with my wrist, noticing for the first time where my feet had taken me.
I was now deep within the woods, following the deer trail that led to my family’s private graveyard. My steps slowed until I was barely moving forward at all. I let my hands run over the trunks of ancient oaks, the bark snagging along my palm. I reached for a lonely birch, and it felt like Sunday hymns beneath my fingers.
All around me the air hummed with something I couldn’t quite place. I stretched my insides, feeling for the answer, calling like a bat, but my echolocation was not so precise that I could find anything. The closest I came to naming it was as a far off memory trying to wing its way home.
There are stones everywhere. Some are small, others as tall as I am. We are in a graveyard. Uncle Richard points out family member after family member resting there.
“That’s your great-aunt Allison, there. And here. This is where your aunt and I buried our little girl. She was called Lillian, too.”
I nod as solemnly as one can at only eight years old. My Aunt Dodie, Uncle Richard’s wife, has told me the story of tiny Lillian and how I was named for her.
“Here. This is what I want to show you.”
He points at a double gravestone. There are no death dates on either of the stones. I look at the names closer. They say Richard Allen Hollis and Deloris Anna Hollis.
“I don’t understand.”
“They’re ours. Mine and your aunt’s.”
Uncle Richard sits on the stone, long legs stretched out in front of him, ankles crossed. Though it is not fall, leaves crackle beneath his feet.
“But you’re not dead.”
“We will be one day. No one lives forever, Lillian.”
“I can’t lose you and Aunt Dodie. I love you too much.”
“We won’t be lost, Lil. You’ll follow us some day to our far-away home.”
I nod. I know about heaven, but I don’t say what I’m thinking — that heaven seems very far away and distant to me.
Not many steps away, I could see the wrought-iron fence. It seemed smaller to me now than it had been. Another thing that had changed because I grew, I supposed.
The gate protested mightily as I pushed it open, and I wandered through, Uncle Richard’s voice echoing in my head. I stopped by little Lillian’s grave a moment, but turned my eyes a little to the right, to the stone my uncle had perched on so long ago. I read the names again, this time including the dates in my perusal.
Richard Allen Hollis, 1922-2014 and Deloris Anna Hollis, 1934-2016.
The talk Uncle Richard had given me many years past was more real now than it had ever been before. I had not been here since they had gone away. Both of their funerals had happened during my busy months, and I was unable to get the time off. I kneeled before the stone, arm outstretched, finger tracing the cold facts.
“One day, this farm will be yours. It’ll be up to you to keep making memories here. To host as much of the family as can possibly fit. To burst the seams with cousins and puppies and kites.”
“But I don’t want it to be mine. I want it to be yours, always.”
Tears burn my eyes and I let them fall. They scald my cheeks. I am almost ashamed of them, but Uncle Richard pulls me quick into a crushing hug. He understands that my child’s mind does not comprehend death. Not fully, anyway.
When I stop crying, Uncle Richard takes my hand again and we meander back home. I do not beg for stories this time. They seem to remind me of how old my uncle really is. Instead, I cling to his hand like two socks fresh from a dryer.
He doesn’t mind.
I don’t know how long I stayed there, mulling over the past and the present. It must have been a long time, for when I tried to stand, my feet wavered, and my knees knocked inside the wet fabric plastered against them. I left the same way I came, fastening the gate behind me.
My feet scuffed against the leaves, kicking them up before me. My eyes landed on a scrap of green hidden beneath the foliage. I stooped and flicked away the leaves. I grabbed the object and hurried my steps back toward the barn.
“Celia? Yeah, it’s Lil.”
“Lil! We haven’t talked in ages. How are you?”
“I’m hanging in there. Actually, I called to ask if you and the kids want to come over this weekend? I thought we’d have a family get-together like when we were kids.”
“I’ll have to check with John, but I think that works for us. The kids’ll love it.”
“Perfect. Let me know. I’m gonna call Kathrine and Jenna and see if they can come, too.”
I hung up and called my other two cousins. They agreed to try coming. A weight lifted, and I wanted to sing, wanted to raise my voice in harmony with the trees and the birds.
One more phone call to make, and thinking about it made the desire to sing vanish.
I waited as the ringer rang once, twice, thrice, even a fourth time before Andrew picked up.
“Hey babe, I was just about to call you. I talked to your agent. He has a buyer lined up and everything. Just give him a call and set up the showing. Everything else is ready to roll as soon as you say the word.”
I forced myself to take a breath before answering. “Thanks, Drew, but I’ve decided not to sell.”
“Don’t raise your voice at me, Andrew. I made a decision, and I think it’s the best one.”
“You promised you would keep our future in mind.”
“And I did. This is what I want my future to look like.” I paused while he spluttered on the end of the line, then continued. “If you don’t want to join me in that future, well, that’s your choice.”
“You’ll regret it. You’ll regret ending things between us in five years when you’re an old maid, living in poverty, and I’m enjoying my investments here.”
“No, I don’t think I will,” I said, my fingers rolling over the ratty, green edges of Uncle Richard’s kite.