The Day I Went Home

A dark beige three-story house with big windows, two balconies, and white pillars

My cab pulls up in front of the house. I’m shaking already. I hate being back near Pasadena. Sweat drips on my back and my eyelids start to twitch.

Breathe, I remind myself, it’ll be alright.

I haven’t been back home with everyone there in months. I haven’t seen Carlos, my brother, in just as much time.

I haven’t had to deal with all of it since the funeral.

“Here, please.” I smile at the driver. I receive a swift nod back as I stumble out of the car.

My house—my childhood house—has lost all its charm. It used to sparkle to me when I came home for the holidays. The vines used to curl up around my old bedroom window, giving me the perfect frame of plant-green and paint-white to stare out at suburbia. The sun used to fly right over me as I was guarded by the angled roof. My mom used to put up a wreath for every season, every holiday. She even made themed playlists to blast around the house. Every time I’d come home it was happiness. Every week was joyful and exciting and vibrant and new.

Now, the vines are turning brown. There’s a dent in the white coating of the house. The sun bounces off my window, flying directly to my eyes, making me lose my balance momentarily. Worst of all, it’s quiet. The exterior of my house is dull. There are no holidays anymore. There seems to be nothing to celebrate. It’s the end of March, for goodness’ sake. Shouldn’t my mom have covered our front yard with flowers to celebrate the seasons’ change?

The last time I was here, there was at least something. Now, my childhood home feels desolate and abandoned.

“Alina!” I hear my mother cry. “Oh, you came. You actually came!” She runs toward me, leaving the door open, wrapping me in her arms.

“I did,” I mumble.

“Oh, Carlos will be so excited to see you! I’ve got your favorite cooking right now—mac and cheese and cornbread. I know it’s so Southern of me, but I can’t help it.”

I take a deep breath before following my mother into the house. My shoulders are tense. I shouldn’t be nervous. I just wish it were all normal.

My mom’s trying to make it normal. I can feel how normal everything is meant to be when I smell the citrus candle burning from the dining room. I can feel the normalcy as whiffs of cheese float from the kitchen into the hallway.

There’s only one thing missing—Dad’s smell of paper from working at the publisher’s.

“You came, big sis.”

“Why is everyone so surprised I chose to make it?” I chuckle, turning around to see my brother.

“I thought you’d have a last-minute paper due on the efficacy of solar-powered engines or something.” Carlos’s eyes start to loosen. His cheeks turn up.

“You don’t know me well enough to know that I’d be doing an experiment?”

Carlos smiles at me. It makes it seem like everything is okay. It’ll all be okay. It’s weird how a smile can do that to a person.

According to his face, the entire family is the same. From the smell of the room, the entire family is the same. It’s all peace and joy. Just like we’re waiting for Dad to come home from work.

“Linny, come help me with the dinner!” my mom calls. It takes me back to high school even. Getting stuck on physics homework and wanting to figure it out, but it was already 6:30. I had to help.

Back then, I was home for dinner. Not in my apartment alone, waiting for some ramen to heat up. I didn’t even have to pathetically drag myself and a book alone to a cafe, watching all the San Francisco couples drink their steaming cappuccinos with smiles, while I sat there alone, waiting for a grilled cheese that I couldn’t even make for myself.

Back then, I wasn’t so desperately alone. Now, the loneliness is inevitable. The loneliness rings through me as I’m surrounded by my family with only one missing piece. The emptiness makes my knees weak.

“Linny? Alina?” My mom appears in front of me.

“Are you okay?” Carlos asks, eyes wide.

I take a sharp inhale through my nose. “Yeah, sorry, guys.” I flash a weak, barely toothy smile. “Just got caught up in my mind. How can I help?”

I’m sent through the tan corridor toward the kitchen, where I’m meant to chop up some parmesan to sprinkle into the mac and cheese later. The knife makes swift slicing noises as it clunks against the chopping board. I sneak a small piece of cheese before continuing. It’s salty perfection. My eyes almost roll into the back of my head.

Food on a grad student’s salary is truly subpar. This makes up for all of it.

My mom walks back into the kitchen, giving me a swift rub on the back before turning to stir the pasta. She’s always been one of those moms who thinks everything tastes better when you make it yourself. Truly, from her, it does. She always cooks fresh macaroni noodles herself and makes her own cheese mixture to cover the pasta. For the cornbread, she even taught herself how to make the batter. She taught herself when I was five, when I tasted fresh cornbread melting in my mouth and decided it was the love of my life.

The kitchen has turned into her laboratory, as it does every time she steps into it. To anyone else, it would be a sight to see, but to me it’s home.

“Oh, Alina, hun. Go sit down for a few. Dinner will be all but eaten soon enough.”

I walk back out. I’m in a bit of a daze. My head is still woozy. I need to sit.

I let the soft brown cushion of the couch sink in as I sit down. It still smells like Dad. Not much, but ever so slightly.

It still smells like home.

The doorbell dings.

“I’ll get it! No one else needs to!” Carlos yells frantically. I don’t think he’s been so perfervidly passionate about answering the door since the night of his prom. He was bringing this girl. She was so giddy about the night. She flounced into our house in a bright pink gown as I sat on the couch in a hoodie. I can’t remember her name anymore; it feels so long ago now. I think it started with an A.

“Alina!” Carlos comes flying into the living room. He seems out of breath, a little anxious. Following behind him is—“Adria, my fiancee. I’d like you to meet Adria. I mean, you’ve already met her, of course, but that was a very long time ago, so I don’t think you remember her, but she’s here and—”

Adria laughs with a small smile. “I know you told me you were nervous, but breathe, Carlos. She’s your sister. She’s not going to murder me.”

So this is why he wanted me to come so bad today. Carlos is getting married.

“I’m so happy for you guys.” My eyes fill up with tears.

I go to hug Adria. She’s the sweetest hugger. She gives me a big squeeze. She’s going to be my sister-in-law. I’m going to be a sister-in-law. It’s all crazy.

As I go to hug Carlos, he whispers to me, “It’s still a pretty good family, right? Even with the change?”

I see my mom standing in the doorway of the kitchen, beaming over the room.

“Yeah, Carlos,” I say. “It’s even better. Dad would be so happy for you. What’s that smell?”

“Oh, sorry, it’s me,” Adria says. “I work at the library so I smell like fresh books all the time.”

It feels like it could be home again.

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Ollie Small lives in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, and is a member of the class of 2024 at Suncoast High School in Riviera Beach, Florida. A STEM student by day and writer by night, they love romance and binge-reading books at any opportunity. They have one dog, a labradoodle named Lucy, that they love deeply. Last but not least, they are currently collecting stickers for a sticker wall next to their bed. The wall will soon run out of space.
Accompanying photo: “House” by Hannah Rubenstein