He removed the chequered laundry bag and lifted it onto his emaciated shoulders. Looking at the untamed shrubbery and sprawling weeds, it was clear how vastly things had changed, hidden roots now firmly settled beneath the parched and fractured soil. The last time he walked along this path he was seventeen years old, his parents were still alive, and timber gates and varnished doors were forever free and open. Now, security cameras and perimeter sensors warned him not to get too close as vast walls stretched along the streets, their peaks adorned with sharpened razor wire. Streetlights illuminated the smooth tarmac as curtains flickered behind modern sash windows, their voices whispering and fingers warning. He could imagine their reaction to the sight of his shabby clothes, uncultivated beard, and long greasy hair. He was a sight for sore eyes, his more so than most.
Halfway up the path he put the bag down and wiped his brow with the back of his arm. Reaching into his pocket for the weed he’d harvested in the field beside his barge, he looked across the stretch of open land towards the tree on which he once had fun. The tree house was gone, together with the swing, and as he looked closer still, he realised it was sick. The wounds in the bark were covered by cankers and fungus, and the protruding orange horns, pointed directly at him. He remembered sitting between the branches and looking up at the stars, comfortable on his own, yet yearning for more. He remembered that humid afternoon when they met. He could see her now, the summer dress; bright yellow with blue flowers scattered across the fabric, thin straps on bronzed shoulders, a birthmark beneath her left ear, hair the colour of honey, the scent of her skin; watermelon. He lit up and tried to forget. But it was no use. The place was swamped with memories of how things used to be, who he loved, and lost. For these reasons he never returned. It was easier that way. Not easy, but better.
The last time he saw his parents was five months ago. They came to visit him where he’d moored and tried to move on, as far away from people as possible. He invited them in and waited, recognising what they wanted, but knowing he no longer existed. As the kettle boiled on the gas cooker, his parents assessed his home and tried to understand, but they didn’t stay the night, and he was glad. When they left he felt guilty about his conduct. He didn’t mean to be so distant, but he couldn’t help it. He wanted to ask and answer, to be attentive and engaged, but he’d done it before, and failed. He knew they cared and visited to ensure he knew, but he was out of reach and no longer able to return. Watching them drive off into the distance he began to choke, standing in the swelling cloud of smoke, tears streaming down his haggard face. They disappeared around the corner, eyes watching him from the windscreen mirror, hands waving farewell, forever. He returned to his barge, sat on the roof, and stared into the vast expanse of trees beyond, his fingers tracing ancient scars as mosquitos sucked what little life remained. And now, he was back, along with everything else.
He was scheduled to meet the solicitor tomorrow morning to go over the paperwork and begin the process of adopting an orphan life, but he would sooner skip it all and return to the dark and dirty water, back to where he belonged. He never wanted any of this. Not their money, nor their property or possessions. It meant nothing to him, and he felt uneasy knowing it meant more to the myriad of other mourners, the ones that always wanted, always needed, always grieved in jaundiced clammy skin. The only thing he wanted, was them, alive, again. But it was too late. There was nothing he, or anyone, could do. Words meant nothing now, and all the things he could have said that final day, now raced through his head, leaving him weak and unwilling to move. He knew what was inside the house. He knew what waited for him, and he didn’t want it. He didn’t want anything. He never had, apart from wanting to be left alone, and now that he was, he had more problems than ever before.
He lifted the bag once more and forced his feet to move, his soles scraping the uneven gravel beneath. Staring down at the multitude of tiny stones he remembered when his parents paid to have the house and all its land renovated and restored. He remembered the designs and landscapes, the builders and decorators and gardeners working for months to finish on time, proud of their work, and jealous. He remembered the man who told him he was a lucky boy, and it stayed with him for years, until he was the man and all the luck was gone. It was no different now, stood before the door, faced with everything that now belonged to him, together with his one good eye, the other crushed beneath the wreckage of his first and only car, her dress devoured by flames, the new scent; death.
Turning away from the entrance he walked along the path to the back of the house, leaving his bag and keys behind. He kept his eyes firmly fixed on the ground, each step laden with remorse, until he finally reached the barn. Raising his head he looked at the rusted shack, a place of bygone beauty, all old and worn and real. It was like it always had been, and would forever be. Shelter from the storm, protection, safety, home. He reached out, yanked the padlock free, and disappeared into the darkness.
The Soundtrack for ‘Rust and Home’ is Willy Mason’s ‘Restless Fugitive’.