Photograph by Brooks Leffler
A short story by Elias DeLeon of Everett Alvarez High School was selected as the winner of the 2018 Central Coast Writers Short Story Contest for high school students.
DeLeon’s story, Rememory, is a haunting tale based on a photograph of an abandoned old Victorian home in the Salinas Valley. It was selected from 106 submissions from 14 schools throughout Monterey County. “The high level of imagination, creativity and writing skill demonstrated by these young authors proved a hefty challenge to our team of judges,” said Leslie Patiño of the Central Coast Writers group.
DeLeon won $300 for taking the top prize. Other winners included Mei Bailey, of Pacific Grove High, second place; Grace Young, Santa Catalina, third place; and Timothy Mercuri of King City, Jennah Uddin of Learning for Life and Madeline Eubanks of Pacific Grove, honorable mention.
The following are the top three winners:
“It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.
Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”
— Alfred, Lord Tennyson
‘Sign here please,” the suit had told him. “It’s for the deed to the house, sir.”
“And why am I buying the deed to the house again?”
“Because you wanted to seclude yourself to a tiny tract of farmland in Soledad, sir.”
“Huh, I see. You know, there was once this rare type of grape that used to grow in Northwestern Italy, and it would turn into the most beautiful pink wine, given the correct conditions. Anything else and it would rot away in use and value. The Russian de Morgan I believe it was called. By God, it tasted like midnight on the lips.”
His eyes shone with lucidity as his neurons fired in the way they once did; if for only a brief moment, he was himself again.
“Are you certain you want to do this sir?” The suit said hesitantly. “Moving to some worn down, broken house, alone in your condition, all to grow some grape…”
“So the house is a fixer-upper, but I find that I am no paradise either. So the house is old and outdated, but we are both from another time. So I forget the trivial moments, but I remember the important memories. So I want to grow a grape, but that is what I want, and that is that.”
He seemed adamant, but there was still some sense of uncertainty, some hint of confusion present in his voice. He picked up the pen that had been laying on the nahogamy desk and brought it to the paper, staring blankly at the line where his name was supposed to go.
“Now what’s my name?”
The suit, defeated, obliged him. “Albert Lazarus Zaroff, sir.”
With a loose grip on reality, and fantasies and wonderlands’ hold tightening, he signed his initials on the line.
* * * * *
The suit had dropped him off with everything he needed: clothes, tools, toiletries, and some other items. After reminding him once more why he was there, the suit said his goodbyes and Albert was left, alone with his lonely home.
He stood facing the front of the house and examined his surroundings, drinking in the crisp air and the ubiquitous mountains. His vineyard lay to his left, the sticks protruding from the earth to be where his Rusing de Mongrel grape would bud. His gaze was lost in the miles of grass and the billows of blue sky that flowed in all directions.
Bringing his focus back to the house before him, he saw that the foundation was exposed; it was visible, vulnerable, vital. The house itself fared no better, just as exposed with holes gashed in the wooden floorboards and walls, as though planks were simply ripped off to be better used elsewhere. The house itself was dilapidated, deserted, determined. It was barren in both form and function, save a spired roof on the left where one could hang a weather vane. It was barren in the long valley between the mountains of Soledad; miles and miles of grapes pervaded the land, giving the distance where vision began to blur a distinct hue from the vibrancy of the grapes; but on his own plot of land, the land in which he stood with nothing but his luggage, his grape seeds, and his rapidly waning days, he would– he couldn’t quite remember at this moment. Perhaps it had something to do with midnight. He moved his stuff into the house.
* * * * *
Albert had awoken in his king-sized memory-foam mattress the next day with pink filling his field of vision. He reached for his face, and peeled off a sticky note from his forehead. It had two sentences.
Plant the grapes. You have Alzheimer’s disease.
It was an odd to thing to read from a note stuck to your face first thing in the morning, much less believe. It was too early in the morning for this. Pondering the legitimacy of the note, Albert arose from his bed to go get some coffee.
First off, the grapes. Would it have been a stretch of the imagination to say that he had written it? On the surface, there didn’t appear to be a malignant motive for planting grapes, so maybe he would have written something like that, rather than someone trying to gaslight him, especially considering the second sentence.
Alzheimer’s would explain why he would write the note: to remind himself of things he would forget the next day. But could he have a disease such as that this early in life? The idea was absurd for a man in his mid-thirties, but the recesses of his mind told him it was not so preposterous.
He reluctantly agreed to obey the note. He took the bag of grape seeds and hopped down from the front doorway. He took a hoe that was lying against the wall and began to plow the non-arable ground, preparing a plot of land seemingly belonging to another time, another world, for a grape that was out of season, for a man who hadn’t sipped midnight since he had black hair.
He had plowed, fertilized, and planted the vineyard over the course of the day, and admired his work when he was done.
“Oh, what’s that quote by Lord Tennyson…” Albert tried to remember the wording, but could only produce a halfwit rendition. “‘To try, to find, to grind, and not to suffer.’”
* * * * *
He could stay here forever, gradually fixing the house, slowly adding plank by plank, painting the house in sticky notes and sheets of copy paper. It had been a month since Albert had moved in, and today was the first evening in which he had awoken to unobstructed vision. He arose from his bed to find that it was stained yellow; he had relieved his bowels in his sleep. Confused about where he was or why he was there, he began to frantically rummage through the waves of sticky notes.
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
Find suit. I don’t want this anymore.
I can’t remember what I was going to write.
All of this felt surreal, like he was in some sort of sick dreamscape in which memory did not apply and the mountains were walls that boxed him in. He struggled to walk to the window, where he found a man staring back at him from the other side. He had glossy, empty eyes, as though he were blankly staring at Albert wherever he looked. He had canvas white hair, in stark contrast to Albert’s jet black hair. He was emaciated and skeleton like, with a hoe in one hand and a watering can in the other. Albert had no idea why, but he felt like he had known the man for a lifetime.
Albert moved back from the window and proceeded outside, where it was raining. The droplets of life poured down upon the dirt and the earth, benevolently barraging Albert’s cheeks and his vineyard that lay beside him. Not knowing who he was, or what he was supposed to do, he just stood there and admired the droplets. He must have been there for hours, collapsing just before the dead of night, staring at the natural beauty around him.
The disease had caught up with him, its most evolved form realized, and as he lay there, dying, he was able to see something spectacular: the budding of the Rogue de Morgue!
Perhaps it was a sign he needed to die, a symbol of the fruits of his labors and the crowning achievement of his life: more so than the billions he had accumulated, more so than his four kids, more so than all the world. For in this one grape, in this one last lucid moment, he was afforded rememory. He was given his old self again.
He had died in the dead of midnight, where no one could see him and the grape exchanging life in the background of the dilapidated, deserted, and determined house.
The house I grew up in is going to be demolished. A danger to the public, they say, too weathered by time, twenty years abandoned, barely standing upright, collecting dust like picture frames on the top shelf.
I’m happy it’s going to be destroyed. My mother, not me, was the one who loved that house, felt connected to each and every wall, each creaky floorboard. She was the one, not me, who spent hours weeping on the front steps, hands pressed tenderly against the wood, when my father died and she had to move away. I’m happy it’s going to be destroyed, I am sure of that.
I wonder if she knows about it yet, if the mail has arrived at her retirement village, if her tired eyes have scanned the letter from the city hall. She’ll cry over the destruction of wooden walls and cement foundations. She won’t call me on the phone to ask me how I feel, and I won’t call her. My mother and I, we have never understood each other.
A week after I get the notice, I go out with friends after work.
“This weather is awful,” says Caleb. “Had to spend this morning shoveling the driveway.”
I nod. “Terrible.” The past couple of weeks it has snowed throughout the Boston area like never before.
“Hey Lily,” Anna says to me, “didn’t you use to live in California as a kid? Where it was like, sunny all year?”
The sky was always blue in the Salinas Valley. Good for long walks, for running through the sprinklers. My mother had a giant vegetable garden in the backyard, and tall, tall sunflowers.
That garden is probably dead and rotting now.
“It wasn’t that great,” I say.
After dinner, I zip my coat up to my chin and slip on my gloves. I am still shivering when I get back to my apartment, and something about the California sky stays in my mind longer than it should, pulling me forward, or maybe holding me back. I can’t tell yet. Maybe it’s curiosity, or self-loathing, but when I am bundled in my warm sheets with the heater cranked high, I google flights from Boston to San Jose to Monterey to Salinas, rental cars, and hotel prices.
It is the temptation of blue sky. Nothing more, I am sure of that.
Click purchase. Confirm.
* * * * *
Two days later, I am on a plane to California. I do not think about my mother at the airport, the hotel, or at the car rental the next morning.
The sky is blue. The road is long, highways wide, and the steering wheel feels different in my hands as stretching fields and rolling hills fly by. It does not feel like I am going home. I am glad it doesn’t.
The traffic thins as I drive closer to my destination. Only a bright red convertible behind me and endless fields in front of me. It is painfully familiar: the bend in the road here, the turn there, the little red barn and the wind machine out there. My car slows and my heart beats faster as I reach the turn-off for the house. Closer and closer, and the sight of a towering building comes into focus, and I know what I will see, but nothing prepares me for the corpse standing where the house once stood, gaping holes where the windows once were, bare wood where the paint once was, cracked shingles, empty rooms, no front steps. No vegetable garden.
I feel no sadness. I never loved this house, I am sure of that.
I park the car on the side of the road and get out, closing my eyes and feeling the sun on my face. But then I hear the sound of high, whistling wind, like a tea kettle. Is someone else here? I inch closer to the house. There is humming.
The humming stops, but the tea kettle sound does not. There is no response.
“Is anybody there?” I hoist myself up into the splintering door frame and peer into the parlor.
It is completely empty, furniture gone, except for an old woman sitting on the weathered floor, a wireless hot plate and a rusted tea kettle in front of her. She has smiling eyes, and they meet mine as I gaze into her wrinkled face.
“W-who—” I say, but other words do not come.
“Sit down, dearie,” the woman says. The tea kettle is shrill. She begins to hum again.
I sit. She rustles through a purple purse and pulls out two paper cups. She pours slowly and carefully.
There is something so familiar about the way she sits here, one with the house, in tune with the walls and floorboards, heart empty in the same places the house is empty.
My mother is not dead, my mother is far away, tucked away in her cozy room, yet I feel her ghost watching me with big, round eyes from across the tea kettle, a teacup against her lips.
“My name is Alice,” the woman says. “What is your story?”
“I’m Lily,” I say, but she shakes her head. I understand. She asked for my story, not my name. She asked like she knows me already.
“Um,” I continue, unsure how to begin, “I lived here once. A long time ago. I grew up here. I didn’t like it. I don’t know why I’m here.”
Alice looks at me. Finally, she smiles. “Nice to meet you, Lily.”
“You too. If I may ask, who are– what is your story?”
“Can you guess?”
It is from the way she looks at the crumbling walls of the parlor, the way her hands brush the floor of the room, that I know.
“You lived here too.”
“Nineteen twenty seven.” Alice beams. “Fifty years in this place. Too many memories to reminisce about, thank goodness that old age gets rid of some of ’em.”
Alice reaches into her purse and pulls out a paper. It is a demolition notice, identical to the one I received, except for the name stamped at the top. She flattens it out on the floor.
She is smiling. How is she smiling?
“I have to go.” I stand. “Thank you for the tea.”
“Don’t you want to say goodbye?”
“Not to me.”
I leave the parlor and the floorboards creak underneath my feet. The door frame gapes open like a wound, quiet, chilling wind rushing through the skeleton house. I stop in the foyer. Alice’s gaze holds me in place.
Don’t you want to say goodbye?
I wonder if the dining room still has scratches on the floor from when my mother rearranged the furniture that one Christmas. Or if the paint is still stuck to the walls of my bedroom.
“I’m going upstairs,” I call.
“Be careful on the steps, dearie!”
I can feel Alice’s smile from here.
I reach out, feel the banister beneath my hands. Up and up I go. The shapes are the same as I remember. The curve of the railing, the angles of the hallway. The oval door knob of my attic bedroom.
I press my hand to the metal. The lock is gone, and the door creaks open by itself. There are patches of lilac paint. Half the floor is gone. But the little half-moon arch where my window once was is still there, the glass missing, but the view of endless fields and golden hills, the cloudless sky and bright sun remains.
I think of Alice, the life she must have lived, how she must now part with the place where she made so many memories, maybe with a husband, with children, maybe with a confused daughter who went forward and refused to look back. Suddenly I can see myself at six, playing with the dollhouse my father bought me; at ten, cuddling my cat Chester; at fourteen, bent over a desk with a pile of homework to finish; at sixteen seventeen eighteen and then I am leaving home for what I think is the last time, happy to say goodbye to my attic room.
I collapse on the floor where my bed used to be and allow myself to think of my mother.
The view through the little arched window is beautiful. Sunny in winter. It’s probably still storming in Boston.
I go down the stairs as fast as I can. Alice is standing when I reach the foyer.
“Thank you,” I call, smiling bigger than I have in weeks. She returns my smile.
I run to the car parked on the side of the road. Pull out my phone, dial my mother’s number.
She picks up on the first ring.
“I’m home,” I say, and the sound of her voice is the first sun after a winter’s storm. My mother and I, we have never understood each other. But maybe we can begin to try.
The trees of the valley were beginning to straighten their spines and exhale after a long day of hunching under the sweltering sky. The midsummer wind carried a smell of dust, honey, something neither Angel nor Treelore could name but loved the way it sparked laughter on their lips. In the cab of Angel’s truck the radio sung hazy and low. Treelore sang much the same way, his voice sweet and unpredictable. A young man of seventeen, his wide eyes framed by round glasses, his spindle fingers twitching to reach out and grab the world whole. Where Treelore was wirey, Angel, nineteen, was strong. His tendons snaked down his arms like creek beds, his dry laugh was a baked desert. They felt unstoppable, their skin drank in the starlight. When Angel killed the engine outside of the old house, Treelore grinned with excitement. This was a night for drinking, for watching the way Angel’s eyes crinkled up when he smiled, for kicking around a skeletal house.
The house was a falling down mess. Where it once was sheltered by a black shingle carapace, its roof was now riddled with skylights. The floor sagged beneath their weights, its old planks sighing as they walked. In what the boys guessed was the parlor sat two moth-bitten recliners that faced out into the backyard. The wall that once was there had since rotted away. The parlor was filled with sweet summer air and fire flies that worriedly bumbled about. Angel and Treelore settled into their seats without bothering to brush way the dust. Both boys had come bearing gifts: Treelore a pack of Luckies cigarettes, ‘borrowed’ from his father. Angel sat a six pack of warm beer between the two chairs. There was a gentle quiet in the valley, a reverence paid to the boys and their tradition. Each Midsummer’s Eve, they sat in these chairs, they drank, smoked, and surveilled their kingdom of wildflowers that ran wild in thickets. They were gods of summer. They were Angel and Treelore, fast and wild.
Except something was different this Midsummer’s Eve. There was a flatness to Angel’s eyes, a sense of desperation in the way he pounded beer. Eventually, Treelore stopped nudging the conversation along. He watched Angel down his fourth beer and a sense of dread welled up in Treelore.
The light faded, leaving two smoldering smoke cherries, lightening bugs, and a dark void that swallowed all else. Treelore was summoning the courage to ask Angel what was wrong when suddenly Angel was up out of his chair. He watched, stunned, as Angel vomited from edge of parlor into the backyard flowers. His heaves wracked his body. Treelore cautiously got up, and laid his wide hands on Angel’s back, fearing he might fall from the house face first into the jungle garden. When Angel was finished, Treelore steered him away from the edge.
“Angel, let me take you home.”
Angel nodded minutely and allowed himself to be guided from the the house’s bones out into the night. Treelore half lifted him into the truck cab, buckled him in, and went around to drivers’ side of Angel’s truck.
Treelore brought Angel home, and walked the two miles back to his house. The air was alive with the chirruping of insects but Treelore felt a chill run through him.
* * * * *
“What do you mean you’ve been drafted, Angel?” Treelore’s voice was barely above a whisper. He was not looking at Angel. Treelore wanted to cover his ears with both hands and stomp and sing to drown Angel out.
“Treelore, I’ve been drafted. I’m shipping out for basic in Kentucky today. They’re sending me to Vietnam.”
“No, Angel, you’re—”
“No! Angel you listen! You’re not going anywhere. It’s fine, this is all just a misunderstanding. It’s…”
“It’s happening, whether you or me or anyone wants it. Treelore, I’m leaving.”
Treelore felt the pinpricks of heartbroken tears. He scrubbed them away with angry fists, furious at himself for showing Angel his hurt.
“But you’re my best friend, Angel…”
“I know, Treelore, and you’re mine. I’m so sorry. Look, there’s something…I have to do and if I don’t do it now, I’m afraid I never will.” Angel looked down at his shoes, his voice dropping to a pained whisper.
“What is it?”
Angel took a deep breath, as if deliberating his next action. He learned forward lightening quick and crushed his lips to Treelore’s. Treelore was frozen, eyes wide, the static in his head dialing up in volume. It lasted for a long second, before Angel broke away.
Treelore was speechless.
“Stay in school, Treelore. They’re not drafting college students…”
Treelore waited, all his words sunk down to his stomach. He wasn’t sure if he was about to choke or throw them back up. Angel turned, and walked back to his truck. He drove away without another word.
Treelore was consumed by the silence.
* * * * *
Five years later, Treelore was in his junior year of college. He was a prodigal son returned home for the holidays. His mama had almost forgiven him for going to college across the country. She sensed her son was running from something. She always said, the ghosts in your attic will drive you mad long before the skeletons in your closet will. Treelore always wondered if ghosts and angels were interchangeable. He was sitting in the overstuffed La-Z-Boy by the window. Pale amber Christmas lights dripped from the gutter. The house smelled of nutmeg. Christmas was four days away. Treelore watched moths beneath the lights, watching the subtle dip of powered wings. The shrill ring of the phone lurched him from reverie.
“Hello?” He asked.
Treelore felt his stomach fall dead away. He knew that voice.
There was a soft, tired laugh.
“Yeah, man. I’m home. I’ve been home. Can you come see me?” Treelore managed to choke out ‘Yes, of course, he’d be there in ten.’ He called to his mother in the kitchen that he was going out and he’d be back by dinner. He ran out the door, nearly forgetting his thick, downy coat from the peg by the door. Winter in the valley was biting. It breathed soft ice into your joints and left your lips blue and cracked. His father’s car engine sputtered before flaring to life. He sped off towards Angel’s house.
Angel’s mother opened the door and invited him in. Treelore found Angel sitting on a raggedy couch in his parent’s living room, the tv whispering. A cane was propped against the couch next to Angel. Treelore almost couldn’t believe this. Angel, alive and sitting before him, with long unkept hair and sad, tired eyes. Angel, who Treelore had spent nights dreaming about, his mind painting pictures of him dead in a jungle trap, dead in a rice paddy. Dead, dead, dead.
Angel spoke first. Angel always spoke first.
“Hey bud. I missed you. Come, sit with me.” Treelore somehow willed his legs to carry him around to the couch and gently set himself beside Angel. Treelore’s eyes danced to the cane and away and back again.
“Is it yours?” Treelore asked, cocking his head toward the cane.
“Yeah,” Angel said. “I have to walk with it now. My knee was shredded up in booby trap. I waited three days for a medic. When they found me I was delirious with infection, burning up something awful.”
“Oh my god. When did that happen?” Asked Treelore.
“Six months after I shipped out…I was sent home after they fixed me.”
Treelore felt a cold feeling settle in him. It was soon replaced by blistering hot anger.
“You left me hanging for five years Angel! I thought you were dead…”
“Treelore, I know I’m—”
“Treelore listen, when I got back, I couldn’t see anyone. I couldn’t talk to anyone. I just slept. I wasn’t me when I came back. I needed…I needed time, Treelore. You can understand that, right?”
Treelore felt the anger leech out of him. He looked at Angel, and felt a wound that had refused to drain for the past five years.
“Yeah, of course I can. We don’t have to talk about it tonight.” There was a soft silence that seemed to swallow the static cooing of the TV and the clatter of cooking activity from the kitchen.
“Your hair’s long now,” Angel said tentatively. He reached out and with a gentle hand tucked a lock of Treelore’s natural hair behind his ear. “I like it.”
Treelore felt a rush of warmth in his chest. Angel took Treelore’s spindly hand in his own calloused one. They were seventeen and nineteen again. They were Angel and Treelore, wild boys who had never seen a jungle beyond the thickets outside the bone house. Maybe, Treelore thought, tomorrow they’d drive out there. Maybe he’d hold Angel’s hand as they drove.