Homecoming by Thomas Redjeb

He gripped the wheel tightly as he steered carefully around the winding roads. Rounding the corner, he saw the sign, like a beacon announcing his arrival. He was home.

Wiping the sweat from his brow, he sighed with exertion. It was early September, yet the summer heat had lingered unusually long, and with his air conditioning broken, the car had quickly turned into a sauna. The journey had been lengthy and without incident, his only companions the unwavering heat and his suitcase which, loose in the boot of the car, repeatedly clanged against the interior. Normally this would have irritated him, however his mind was preoccupied with the task before him. Task was perhaps the wrong description he told himself, as this was a journey he revelled in, knowing the end reward would more than make up for any inconvenience.

He did not usually return home during university term time, however on this occasion he had been compelled to – in the same manner that the eye is drawn to an open flame. He could not have been more than fifteen minutes from his destination, yet his mind was painting vivid pictures upon the streets, his memories splattering onto them as if they were the canvas and he the artist. There was one common theme to the images. A woman. Eve.

He could not help but recall his earliest childhood memory, when they had both been no more than 6-years-old and had only just met at primary school. At this time she looked boyish and revelled in this look, proudly displaying her scrawny, ragged ginger hair. He remembered when, during their first summer break together, the pair had hidden in the lush green shrubbery at the roadside and pelted passers-by with water balloons. He could now see this was a spiteful act, yet at the time he had not cared; he was in a state of euphoria, with their targets soaked and giving chase, adrenaline pumping through his veins as they made their escape. He remembered trudging home, sodden with sweat from the humid air. He had been promptly scolded and punished by his parents, but that night, lying in bed with a warm summer breeze blowing from his open window, a smile had spread across his face. He slept soundly.

He wondered if at that age he could have known what his childhood friend would come to mean to him. Instinctively, he came to a halt at the roadside and found himself facing the entrance to the park in which he and Eve had frequented in their early teens. Somewhat surprised by his own actions, he decided to go for a stroll and see the old park again. Walking along he now found he could enjoy the heat, released from the confinement of the car and the amber sky poked its way through the trees, illuminating his path. As he ventured on he could not help but recall that it was in his teens that he had first felt physical attraction to his closest friend. By the time they were both fourteen Eve’s boyish looks had changed, overtaken by bold, flowing ginger hair, eyes that drew him in, like staring into the deepest ocean, and then her smile. That smile. The one which he often imagined and saw when he closed his eyes, the beaming, toothy grin, which made his hair stand on end and all his worries disappear.

Rocking on the swings in the warm summer evenings she would often make jokes at the expense of their classmates, teasing those who wore glasses or had peculiar facial features. He would be submissive in these exchanges, as he found himself lost, his mind wandering and focusing upon Eve’s face as she spoke. This resulted in moments where she would be annoyed by his seeming lack of interest, however his bumbling apologies always charmed her, and she would soon smile and all would be right with the world.

He came to the end of the path and through a gap in the trees he caught a glimpse of the swing set upon which he had toiled away many hours. Pressing forward in disbelief, he stood over the swing-set and ran a hand along its frame. He felt a sharp twinge in his chest. In his mind the swings were covered in a lavish fiery red paint and the seats were adorned with black leather coating. Now it stood, a run down, broken thing, the leather torn and scratched, the paint all but gone, chipped away or eroded over time. Looking around in horror, the park’s features came into focus. The grass was patchy and thin, revealing areas of dried mud, on which was a littering of crusted bronze leaves. Gazing upward at the trees he saw the branches, weather-beaten, a mix of withered, dying leaves and those that clung to the vigour of summer, a feeble few, still lush and green. Looking upon the area he could not help but feel sad as the sun was lowering in the sky, the amber haze of evening growing ever closer, as did the inevitable fading of nature, with only autumn beckoning.

Shaking his head and turning back to his car, he put this unpleasant image from his mind and focused on the reason he had returned home. He was unnerved by what he had just seen; there was a haste in his steps. Starting the engine, he quickly drove onwards. After a few minutes he found himself turning into Eve’s road. Her house was located at the far end of the street. He pulled up next to the curb, sitting in silence for a moment, surveying the scene. The sun was struggling to fend off the looming cloud of evening, creeping in from a distant point in the sky. The setting sun cast a shadow over his car, a signal to press forward into the light. He took a deep breath, whilst his mind recalled the countless times he had walked this path with Eve as schoolmates, friends, and finally lovers. They had become an item the night of her eighteenth birthday. The party had taken place at her home, whilst her parents had been away for the weekend. The night had worn on and it was around midnight when he heard his friend Mike spilling the secret of his adoration for Eve, under duress from her mocking comments in front of other members of their class. He felt awkward at seeing his friend embarrassed in this manner, but was equally angered by his secret being uncovered. Eve approached him with a twisted smile, unlike her usual casual demeanour and embraced him.

“I’ve been waiting to hear it from you.”

Her words had shaken his very being and he remembered vividly his stumbling and public confession to her. She had then led him out into the night, away from the crowds of schoolmates, where they had kissed for the first time. Sitting on the driveway outside the house the pair began to chat, Eve boasting of her control over Mike. These words had faded into the night sky as his mind wandered, drinking in the beauty of her figure, now a fully formed woman. Staring at her he could not help but notice the vastness of the night sky behind her, giving him a form of solace, dreaming of the possibilities that lay ahead. After that night the two had dated for a year, spending every moment they could together, and he recalled feeling a sense of bliss, one that only came from being in her presence. It was at this moment he got out of the car and began to walk along the roadside toward her home.

This story was originally published by Bandit Fiction as part of the Bandit Fiction Presents… series of digital issues. These issues remain freely available, and by purchasing one, you’ll be supporting us to continue doing what we love doing: bringing the best works from new and emerging writers to the masses.

It was now that the painful memory suddenly engulfed him. It sapped his spirit as he walked onward. In the summer of the previous year he had received an offer to study at university, some five hours travel away from Eve. This was an extraordinary opportunity and one that brought him immense happiness, but Eve had not shared in his joy. She had become cold and distant upon hearing of this news, their passion like a fire, extinguished in an instant. To Eve it was as if he were abandoning her and in her loneliness her smiles had become frowns, her tears of laughter turned to tears of hate and he had come to feel a sense of guilt and shame for what he had done to his once vibrant, carefree friend. He had tried to reason with her, prove that their bond would remain unbroken, yet nothing he said was enough. In the end they had separated and he had left for university. Since that September of the previous year, he visited home infrequently, for winter had gripped the area, emphasised by a snowstorm which had prevented his travel home. Despite this he did not stop thinking of Eve, those endless possibilities that he had dreamed of. As he slept he could see her smile and would awake in a hot sweat.

After enduring a year of troubled feelings, he had decided to take action, and that had led him here, a few short steps from her house. He came to a halt and gazed at the building. The setting sun was casting a dark shadow over the front of the house, filling him with a sense of dread. At that moment the door opened and from it emerged Eve, hand in hand with another man. She did not glance across the pavement, but remained locked in conversation with her companion. His first instinct was to run over, declaring for the second time in his life his love for her. He would convince her their romance was not over, that it could still work and she would cast this replacement aside. Yet at that very moment he heard her utter a phrase which shook his unwavering affection for her.

“My last boyfriend was a pushover, a total doormat. I used to torment his friends and he did nothing. What kind of a man is that?”

The words lingered in the air for a moment, scathing and cruel. Frozen; his eyes darted back and forth frequently between Eve and her male companion. His mind began to race as the loving words she had once whispered to him seemed to blow away, like dying leaves on an autumnal breeze. The memories he had so fondly recalled upon his homecoming replayed in his mind, yet where they once appeared bright and warm, they were now tinged with a sadness and an unease, a coldness. The vivid recollections were taking on a new form, warping, like the rusted park swings, from an object of adoration to one of revulsion. In the same way the park had changed, the woman before him no longer seemed to resemble Eve at all, at least not the one he remembered. Seeing her now he realised that throughout their time together spite had been at the core of Eve’s actions. Be it the innocent passers-by, soaked by her water balloons or the others in their class that she tormented due to their oddities. Even those he called friends had been subject to her callousness. She had always been cruel, but never to him. Not until now.

The sun was hanging ever lower in the sky, producing an amber haze that obscured his vision. It would soon disappear, giving way to the murky cloud of the evening. He gritted his teeth, anger swelling within him and went to step forward, to call out but his mouth went dry and no words would form. In this moment of hesitation he could not help but question all he knew. The humble fool, too naïve, too blind to see. Was Eve worth sacrificing his integrity? Was she really even the woman he remembered, or did she simply wear the skin of that person? Did that person ever even exist? He looked carefully upon the image of the man before him and saw in him, the same blinding adoration that had once consumed him. Slowly the anger that coursed through him subsided, replaced by the unexpected feeling of self-pity.

He lingered at the roadside, watching as Eve and her partner entered a car. They sped off, and as they did so the thick shroud of grey cloud that had been looming in the distance engulfed the sky, extinguishing what little was left of the setting sun. He stood for a moment, reflecting. The past was done, it was to be locked away and forgotten, left to wither like the old swings rusting in the park. In time, its very existence would be forgotten.

A cool wind was picking up, one which chilled him. He turned his back on Eve’s home, retreating to the safety of his car, whilst behind him dying leaves were plucked delicately from branches by the encroaching autumn winds. Amongst the leaves littering the street the memories of himself and Eve still stood, solemnly watching as he left the street.

About The Author

Thomas Redjeb is a teacher and English graduate who spends his free time writing. He has another short story ‘A Moment in Time’ which has been published by Didcot Writers in their Anthology First Contact. 

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