CHAINED TO DUST
By Miranda Marnik-Said
El started the engine of her 2000 Chevy. She shifted it into gear and sped down the driveway. The wheels spat gravel at the house her father had owned for 30 years; the house El and her sister Violet had lived in for the entirety of their childhoods.
She just needed to get away. She wanted to get farther from that goddamn house than she had ever been in her life. The airport. Yes. That was where she’d go.
She couldn’t breathe until she rounded the bend and the familiar navy doors were out of sight. Only then could her lungs relax, and she inhaled sharply. Oxygen flooded her brain; she was finally able to think in complete sentences.
Vi didn’t understand; it wasn’t that El wantedto run from her life. She hadto. Everything was driving her away from home: memories of a happier life before losing her mother, long days spent working and caring for her father as he wasted away to dust, even the desires that she had tried to ignore by stuffing them somewhere deep down: they all told her to get away. But her father needed her.
No, he hadneeded her.
He was dead. El had to keep reminding herself that he was dead.
Nausea rose inside her as the word materialized in her mind; she fought the urge to pull over and spill the contents of her stomach on the side of the road. No, she couldn’t stop. She had to keep going.
Twenty hours earlier, as El sat on the beach behind the house, leaving hadn’t even been a seed of an idea in her mind. Her tears had hit the ground, making little spots of what her father used to call “gooey sand.” There were grains between her toes and stuck to her calves. Any other time, she would have brushed it off; right now, she couldn’t be bothered to. Surf tickled her feet, but she was too lost in her own head to notice.
He was gone. Her father was truly dead. El’s mind seemed to grasp the concept one second and completely reject it the next. It was a picture of her new reality that went in and out of focus.
The house phone rang and the jangling noise pulled El back into her body.
Everything was distant. Her limbs seemed severed from her consciousness, but still moved. She stood. The large glass doors yawned in front of her, and then she was swallowed by the house.
El picked up the phone. “Hello?”
“El? It’s Vi. I wanted to remind you that father’s will is going to be read tomorrow.”
“What makes you think I wouldn’t remember?”
“You’ve been so out of it lately. Do you even know what day it is?” Yes, El knew what day it was. But she kept quiet, suddenly drained of energy, unable to say anything to her sister. “That’s what I thought. Afterwards, some of father’s friends will be coming to the house for a potluck so can you just make sure the first floor is clean? I’ll come over about 20 minutes early to help out a bit, so don’t worry.” A sharp cry cut Violet off. “That’s Rosie, I’ve got to go put her to bed. I’ll see you tomorrow. Love you!”
Violet hung up before El could even respond. Not that she would have. She had stopped listening to her sister as soon as she caught a familiar smell a minute ago, of old books and parts of the world she could never hope to see. It smelled like her father.
El put the phone down and followed the scent over to the bookshelves. Dust covered the knick knacks all over the shelves, most of them stacked haphazardly, in whatever free space her parents had been able to find. There was the vase from Ethiopia, the scarf from India, the leather notebook from France, the handmade saltshakers from Chile.
She pulled the scarf carefully from the stack, shaking the dust off of it and refolding it as she regarded the books. They were the only dustless things. Her father had read them all so often that each was completely clean.
She wondered how long they would stay that way.
El spun the wheel and took a sharp right at her father’s favorite restaurant. Or what used to be his favorite restaurant. He hadn’t been in years, since even walking down to the kitchen had become too much for him. It boggled her mind to know that the man who had once traveled the world at his wife’s side could have been defeated so quickly. Her death had hollowed out his soul, stealing his autonomy and chaining him to the house. That goddamn house.
The house was old, at least 100 years, two stories with a creaky wooden staircase in the foyer. Sometimes when El stood on the large third-to-last step, she thought she could still smell her mother’s perfume: slightly floral with subtle, musky undertones. It was almost as if the memory of the scent had been absorbed by the wallpaper and the scratched wooden banister.
Each room was eccentrically decorated, to put it mildly, with mismatched paintings and tables and mirrors, all collected from the trips that El’s parents had taken when they were still young. But El’s favorite room of the house was the largest one, the one that contained all of her father’s bookshelves and her mother’s paintings.
They had spent almost every night in that room when El and Vi were little. El could remember every detail of those scenes, always the same. Her mother’s newest canvas spread out on the floor; quiet Debussy playing from the corner as she knelt over it; paint brushes of all sizes and styles scattered on the dropcloth beside her. El’s father sitting in his usual large wingback chair; the leather creaking as he shifted forward, engaging his daughters with every word of the book he was reading aloud to them. Violet and El cross-legged on the carpet, wrapped in blankets and watching their father’s worn but captivating face.
At the night’s end, El’s mother would clean up her workspace, and her father would replace the book to its proper place on the shelf, lovingly dusting each book until they were spotless. Then he would usher the girls upstairs and put them to bed. Their mother would stay downstairs, setting the painting in her small artist’s corner and straightening her paintings already hung on the walls.
Years later, after her mother’s death, El’s father had insisted that the paintings be thrown away.
“They’re too painful, El. I can’t stand looking at them.”
“But they’re all we have left of mom,” El argued.
“Throw them away El, or I will.” His voice was deep, forceful but heartbroken. She wondered if that was what he truly wanted, or if it was all so much for him that that was the only way he could think to lessen the pain.
But El had never been able to bring herself to do it. She had stacked them all behind the couches against the wall, carefully layering each one with canvas so the dust wouldn’t get to them.
Most were landscapes and city scenes: one of the yellow stone buildings of Verona, one of the beaches of Puerto Velero, others of rolling hills and sunsets over major landmarks.
There were no paintings of their small town, and El knew it was because her mother had hated Harrisville. She had only ever felt at home when she was away, exploring the far reaches of the world.
Even though El had never been outside of Michigan, she was sure she took after her mother in this way. Harrisville had always felt like hands wrapped around her soul, suffocating her; chains around her ankles, keeping her feet in one place. She had always known that one day, she would leave Harrisville and never return.
“If you don’t eat, I’m going to start throwing away the things on your bookshelves,” El used to threaten. Even though they both knew she couldn’t do it, her father would accept the plate from her and eat.
Other than this daily occurrence, El didn’t have many interactions with her father once he receded to his bedroom. After that, it became increasingly obvious that he was fading away, leaving her behind. Sometimes, she would go and sit outside his door, just to feel near to him. She would listen as he muttered to himself, reading the same book over and over. But he didn’t read it the same way he used to when El and Vi were kids. No, it was very different. His voice was soft, but forced, his tone manic. And he never stopped reading that book.
Early on, maybe a couple months after her mother’s death, El tried to switch out the book with a different one from his bookshelf. She hoped that maybe if he read something else, it would snap him out of this, even though she knew deep down that there was no going back. When her father couldn’t find the one he wanted, he screamed and yelled and fought her, the whole time his eyes so painfully desperate that she had to give in. That book was the last fragment of his humanity, seeming inconsequential to anyone but him.
When she wasn’t dealing with her father, she was working two jobs: bartending at night and sorting books at the library by day. There was little, if any, time to sleep between work, taking care of her father, and managing the house. She was the only one there to keep it in good condition, pay the bills, do the shopping, and anything else that needed doing.
Before her mother died, her father had been in charge of shopping and paying bills, her mother in charge of making sure the house wasn’t breaking down. El’s time had been filled with school and family; everything had been so clean cut, so certain.
Until it all shifted under her feet, and her world was thrown sideways.
Her father’s transformation to the shell that he became started when her mother was diagnosed. He spent all of his time with her, getting her everything she needed, putting all of himself into taking care of her. But her sickness wasn’t something that tea and paint could take away.
When she died, it seemed like the father El had always known climbed into bed and never got back out.
The restaurant was long gone when El’s phone started ringing. She didn’t even have to look to know it was Vi. El turned the radio up and rolled down the windows, trying to drown out the sound of her sister’s disappointment. She knew it wouldn’t work.
While their father had drawn into himself, Violet had decided to do the opposite: she threw herself into the outside world. She eventually met her future husband and then had Rosie, both of whom she loved more than herself. Just as their father had thrown himself into taking care of their mother, Vi put all of herself and her energy into them. But they were just a distraction. From their mother’s death, from their father’s ineptitude to live, from El’s spiral downward. Violet couldn’t deal with any of it, so she didn’t. And with no one there to help her, El had fallen deeper and deeper into darkness. She never got out.
There were four new messages by the time El reached the airport. She left the car in long-term parking and lugged her duffel to a bench in front of the flight display screen.
She hadn’t even figured out where she wanted to go.
There was a flight to Taipei, one to Abu Dhabi, one to Berlin, and one to Dublin, all leaving within two hours.
El didn’t know what to do. She closed her eyes. If she turned off her brain and let her body move on its own, she wondered what it would do. Would her feet take her back to the car, back home? Or would they lead her on, away from a life she felt stifled by? The first thing her eyes landed on when they opened was the flight to Berlin. Germany had been one of her parents’ favorite countries.
Her brain wasn’t turned off. She felt what she felt and knew that she didn’t want to feel it anymore. El grabbed her bag and marched toward the desk.
“A one-way ticket to Berlin, please.” The woman at the desk nodded and gestured for El’s passport, which she quickly handed over.
“Terminal 2, gate C20. Enjoy your flight.” El momentarily watched as the woman wrapped the sticker around her duffel bag and handed it off to someone else. Panic rose in her chest as she watched it go but El forced it back down. Violet had done what she needed to long ago, leaving El behind to deal with the rest of it. Perhaps it was selfish, perhaps not. Now it was El’s turn.
Security took thirty minutes, leaving her with only twenty before her flight boarded. She sat by the window, watching plane after plane take off, and avoided checking her phone.
And then it was ringing again. El couldn’t stand it any longer.
On the other end, Violet breathed irregularly.
“He left the house to you.”
El’s stomach dropped to her toes at the same time that her heart started to pound in her chest. Everything around her went blurry. She could no longer read the words on the boarding pass.
“Father left the house to you.”
The words still wouldn’t sink in.
“But, you’re the older child. You’re the one with the family. I don’t…” El trailed off.
“I don’t know. All I know is that he did.” She paused and held a hand over the phone to say something to Rosie. “His friends will be coming in thirty minutes. I’ll be at the house in ten.” Violet hung up without even pausing.
El’s hand didn’t realize it was time to put the phone down; she sat frozen for a few minutes. Finally, someone over the intercom announced it was time for her flight to board.
The house. It was hers. She owned it and everything in it. All of the knick knacks, all of the books, all of the paintings. It was all hers.
And all of the responsibilities that had been forced onto her plate when her mother died would still be hers. But that wasn’t even what bothered her. It would just be her in that great big house. Her and the memories, the empty bedrooms, abandoned books, loneliness. She couldn’t bear to see everything that her parents had built collect dust and crumble without them. She couldn’t bear the drifting scents that pulled her further into the darkness; the memories of all that had been; reminders of an entire world out of reach.
“Flight to Berlin, now boarding passengers in groups 1 and 2.”
El looked down at her ticket. She was group 3. She didn’t have much time to decide.
Her ticket was shaking in her hand. Eventually she realized it wasn’t the ticket, but her hand that was shaking.
“Flight to Berlin, now boarding passengers in group 3.”
El’s legs straightened and she stood, slowly. Everything felt heavy and it seemed as though she was moving through molasses. No one around her seemed to feel it.
If she made this decision to leave, would she ever come back? Could she abandon their home, all that was left of her parents? She wished her sister had never called. She was paralyzed. She felt the chain around her ankle more strongly than ever, tying her to this town, tying her to the house.
She found herself in the line, which moved forward steadily.
She wasn’t sure she could really do this, if she could walk away from all of it. Could she leave behind everything that her mother and father had built together?
Then she was in front of the woman with the scanner. El paused, and the lady looked at her expectantly. Employees and travelers bustled around them.
“Your boarding pass, please.”
She felt something like a laugh growing inside her, but she didn’t have enough air to let it out. The line of people grew longer behind her, but El was chained to her spot.