The compulsion seized James when he saw the exit sign for the airport coming up on his right. Merging carefully into the lane of slower moving vehicles, he glanced down at the time displayed on the car’s dashboard clock, and gave a mental shrug. The flight he had booked online just before leaving home had been the earliest he could find, but didn’t leave for another three hours. Given the traffic surrounding him, it was a fair bet the airport would be packed. Still, he had printed his boarding pass and wasn’t checking any bags. Could he risk it?
It was late afternoon, and moments before a brief downpour had covered the ground with a temporary layer of glistening water. Now though, the sun’s light was everywhere; relentless rays flashing off the metal skinned cars on all sides and sparkling up from the wet pavement underneath his tires. James felt as though he was trapped in a real life arcade, the constantly maneuvering vehicles and bright surroundings pushing at him to stay alert, stay focused, when all he really wanted to do was seek out a secluded shelter where he could relax and think.
Would the little red brick house, which even as a child had seemed cramped and oddly proportioned to him, still be there? The troubled neighborhoods around the airport had long been an embarrassment to city officials, and a number of urban renewal projects to fix the problem had been spawned, flamed brightly for a short time, and then sputtered out under the accumulated weight of too many unrealistic expectations. Might it, as well as the nearby haven he sought, have been demolished in favor of some ill-fated housing project?
The point of no return was approaching. If he truly meant to do this, he would have to turn right after reaching the bottom of the exit ramp, instead of continuing straight into the network of roads serving the airport. It was a ridiculous idea, except for the fact that he couldn’t shake the sudden belief that doing this was important. That Andrea, no matter where she might be at this moment, would want him to follow his instinct, even if doing so meant there was a risk of missing his flight.
“There’s been an accident,” Dad’s voice had said, sounding far more distant than a few hundred miles or even an iffy cell phone connection could account for. “She’s stable at the moment, but …” He had hesitated then, the momentary pause more frightening than anything else he could’ve said. “But it’s serious. Come fast, son.”
When James reached the bottom of the exit ramp, he turned right.
“Drea, are you out here?”
James scanned the back yard, looking for any possible hideouts where his little sister might have taken refuge. There wasn’t much. A postage stamp piece of cement just outside the kitchen door which he supposed might laughingly be referred to as a back porch. A surprisingly wide expanse of grass, given the smallness of the house itself, spotted with an occasional cluster of weeds that made him cringe. Just as soon as Dad was done with the paint job inside, he had no doubt what task he’d be assigned next. There was a coil of hose, an ice chest, and a stack of bins to the right of the postage stamp, but nothing that appeared large enough to conceal his truant sibling. Could Drea, normally so shy and reclusive, have already found a neighborhood kid to hang with?
“Drea,” he tried again, “you can come out now. Dad’s done yelling. He went to the hardware store to get some stuff to fix the wall.”
“If Mom were here he wouldn’t have yelled at me.”
It was Drea’s voice, and although distant, James could easily hear the resentment in every syllable.
He sighed. The kid was probably right. Granted, the falling ladder had made a lot of noise, enough so that James himself had almost jumped out of his skin, not to mention the sizable hole it had punched in the plaster wall it had fallen against. Still, Mom had a way of smoothing over accidents, raw emotions, and hurt feelings. If she had been with them, instead of shepherding the last load of their possessions from Louisiana…
The back yard was encircled by a chain link fence, but on the side bordering the street, a tall hedge also protected the property from traffic noise and the prying eyes of passersby. He stepped off the small square of concrete, and trailed the back wall of the house towards the looming screen of foliage, shot through with radiant bursts of pink flowers. Although faint, Drea’s voice had sounded as though it was coming from there, and it made sense anyway. Pink was her favorite color.
He reached the corner, and turning right, discovered a narrow pathway in-between the wall of bricks and barrier of fragrant leaves. The light here was muted, and James blinked, momentarily disoriented by the sudden dimness. Cautiously, he edged forward, occasionally crouching to avoid low hanging branches.
From a few feet in front of him, Drea giggled. “You’re too tall.”
It was cooler here as well, and James sighed, sinking down to sit with the wall at his back. Even though he was now closer to the street than he had been while standing in the back yard, the sound of the ever-present traffic was muffled, as though the leaves in front of him could mask any unwanted intrusion from the outside world.
“Better than being a dwarf,” he teased Drea, but there was no heat in the remark.
Leaning his head back against the rough bricks behind him, James closed his eyes, reveling in the opportunity, however brief, to sit still and do nothing for a while. The past few days had been a hectic blur of packing, carrying boxes, moving furniture, and finally interior painting of the new house to top it all off. There was one thing that could be said for Drea’s accident repositioning the ladder, at least it had gotten them a long overdue break.
“I don’t think I mind being a dwarf,” she murmured, sliding down the wall until she was sitting next to him, “as long as it means I’m able to find places like this.”
James chuckled in agreement, when the kid was right, she was right. “Point,” he said, reaching for her hand and squeezing it when they made contact.
The narrow streets of the old neighborhood felt familiar, and although he hadn’t driven this way since Mom and Dad sold the house years ago, James figured he could rely on his muscle memory to guide him back to the house where he and Drea had spent their teenage years. Despite his earlier worries about urban renewal projects sweeping through and demolishing everything from the past, the mixture of homes and businesses here appeared largely unchanged. There were a few differences of course, a Jack in the Box where before he remembered a convenience store, a car wash that had apparently taken over the empty lot where neighborhood kids used to hang out, and inevitably, a Starbucks that had expunged the local coffee joint. Small changes, when compared to the massive ones he’d been afraid of, but it was still a relief when he turned a corner and spotted the little red brick house that was his destination.
He parked his car across the street, and sat motionless for a time, staring at the place he had thought of as Drea’s salvation. The house was the same, the faded blocks of its facade giving off a ruddy glow in the afternoon sun. The two windows, one to either side of the front door, had always looked like black holes to him, and unlike his mother, the current occupant had not hung colorful curtains to counter the dreary effect. The glorious hedge in the side yard, a barricade of vibrant foliage mixed with beautiful pink flowers where he had found Drea on that first afternoon when she had run away was still there.
Slowly, James got out of his car, and walked to where the tunnel in-between the wall of the house and the hedge began. The passage was smaller than he remembered, and he wondered whether that was because he was viewing it from the wrong side—the two of them had always entered from the back yard—or whether it was Drea’s absence that made the difference. He crouched and peered into the dim interior, searching for the world he had followed his sister to on so many occasions.
“Can I help you, young man?”
James jerked guiltily upward, and then struggled for several seconds to free himself from the branches at the tunnel’s entrance. When he finally emerged, he was wearing several leaves, a few tucked into the collar of his shirt, and several more lodged in his hair.
His challenger was a thin grey-haired lady wearing gardening gloves, wielding a pair of rather sharp looking hedge clippers in one hand.
“I, uh, used to live here,” he stammered, unsure how he could explain his compulsion to her. She would probably think he was insane, although judging by the way she was looking at him now, he was more than halfway there already.
“Really?” she asked, slapping the blades of her clippers into one gloved palm. “I’m not surprised. Seems like every bird, bug, and rodent in the city makes its home in this tangled mess.” She squinted at him appraisingly, “Although I must admit, you’re a bit larger than most of my tenants.”
“My sister and I,” he said, trying to explain again, “this was our special place when we lived here.”
His eyes dropped away from hers, and he stared again into the depths of the Passage leading to Drea’s former world.
“I thought …”
Coming here had been a mistake, James realized, a pointless squandering of time he couldn’t afford, for a goal he could neither imagine nor articulate.
The hedge clippers snapped, and he looked up, wondering if perhaps the old lady had dismissed him as a harmless lunatic, and returned to her yard work. But no, she was standing beside him, holding out a branch containing several bright flowers.
“Give her this,” she said softly, “as a remembrance of the world you both shared.”