Olympia - Hally Winters
Updated: Aug 17, 2021
We had moved so far South we could’ve escaped God, but now we were back. All my memories of Olympia were no match for the intertwining feeling that being back seemed to reanimate. Feeling touched memory and memory colored feeling. To a baptized Californian, the color of water was green, and green was everywhere. The very light coming through the high canopy filtered in green like a kelp forest. I could go so far as to say it smelled green. Kelsi and I were moving back to Olympia, our last-ditch effort at our marriage ever since my certain activities, and because we both wanted to buy a house it seemed ideal.
“It will be nice.” She said, “Having your parents so close.”
I could only picture problems with that, but I nodded and squeezed her hand.
The house had been bought based on 23 photos online, so as we pulled into the driveway of our new home she said it looked bigger than she anticipated, and I agreed. The furnished house stood alone except for an acre of green green grass on all sides. Other houses and trees pushed out the perimeter leaving our house particularly lonely, a luxury.
“After we settle in we can have a drink out here,” Kelsi said motioning to the wicker chairs on the front porch.
“That will be nice.” I said, “Ready?” And I opened the door.
The window in the bathroom was a little low for comfort. I sat on the toilet and let my eyes fall on the other houses, our new neighbors. Lawns made up of grass and ferns and waist-high fences filled out the flatlands. About a quarter-mile away I noticed a thick tree with a rather large burl. Its shape looked oddly familiar, and I wasn’t sure if it was a resurfaced memory. My eyes tricked me into feeling like the tree was looking back, an ominous fog descending like finding a well in the middle of the forest, and I wavered between not believing it and not wanting to find out.
“Are you almost done?” She was checking up on me.
I rolled the toilet paper roll. “Yes,” I said as she walked away.
“I think I know this place,” I said. “Like I used to hang out here.” I walked down the porch past her reclined body, to the front of the driveway. A narrow creek wound through town, so I suggested we go for a walk if only to get closer to the tree.
“Yes, I used to play right here with a kid I knew.”
“Awe, how sweet.” She seemed mildly interested like I was telling her about a dream I had the night before.
“She was my best friend. We were what like nine or ten and she taught me how to smoke a cigarette.” I mused. The girl was also my first love, and so she started it all for me. When I think about my type it seems irrevocably tied to how I remembered her. Straight black hair with bangs and a bow in her hair. She always wore the most feminine dresses and white tights. She was a nice girl, but she smoked cigarettes, the punctum in my childhood fantasy. That’s right, she stored the cigarettes in the burl of the tree.
I walked about the tree, and gingerly put my hand into the crevasse of the burl. Nothing was there. A flash of the possibility of us meeting again, as adults, pulled my hand away. The scent of the creek and the nearby willow trees sent shock waves of memory through me. I looked up to the house across the creek with brown trim along the second story. That was her house.
“I’m ready to go back when you are,” Kelsi said.
“Yep,” I said. I could see walks becoming a regular thing in my routine.
In Kelsi’s attempt to lay down roots as she called it, I found myself being lugged along to each house in the neighborhood. At one or two houses we left a plate of cookies and the card on top.
A woman with short sleek black hair, not a strand out of place, and too much makeup opened the door.
“Hello, we just moved in right over there,” Kelsi turned away to point at the house, and the woman’s eyes flickered toward mine and back to Kelsi before she noticed. “And we just wanted to come by and introduce ourselves. I’m Kelsi—”
“And I’m Josh.” I cut in, “I actually used to live here when I was a kid.”
“Did you?” She smiled.
“In that old blue house just up the road. My parents still live there.”
“I think I know them.” Her eyes met Kelsi this time. “Well, glad to see you back,” but the woman was talking to me.
“Josh was telling me about a friend that lived here that he used to play with, do you…”
“Hmm, that must have been my daughter, Olivia. She passed away twenty-five years ago this June.”
“I’m so sorry,” Kelsi said.
“Well, I better let you go.” The woman’s mood changed completely, “Thank you for the cookies.”
“No problem. Hope to see more of you.” Kelsi said, and I sheepishly waved at her as she met my gaze.
“That doesn’t make any sense,” I told Kelsi as we walked back. “Twenty-five years this June. I was around nine or ten when I met her, right?”
She said nothing.
“That was twenty years ago give or take.”
“Maybe she got the date wrong.” She argued.
“No,” I said. “Mothers don’t get the dates wrong.”
“Well, she probably has cancer or something.”
Sometimes Kelsi didn’t make any sense.
I looked from the bathroom window toward the tree where Olivia and I used to play. I didn’t have her last name, so I was typing, “Olivia Olympia death” and random searches came up. I tried it with “tragic” and “little girl” but only aimless rabbit holes. I was positive I had played with the girl. I hadn’t bought the cigarettes, myself. My parents didn’t know about her, so I couldn’t ask them. They used to let me loose on the neighborhood as a kid. We moved into the big blue house when I was eight years old, so I knew I hadn’t gotten the dates wrong. Twenty-five years ago, I would have been living in Lakewood and only four years old.
I woke up early the next day and left our bed quietly. It rained in the night, and the sky was a dim blue, a perpetual twilight. I walked to the tree in the silent morning. The cricket’s verse hadn’t ended yet. I paused before the tree, my shoes soaked, and embraced its maternal figure. I didn’t care that I was missing some detail to make my childhood make sense. My hand groped the dark tree for the crevasse, and I thought of the way Olivia would lick the cigarette and hand it off to me. Then I remembered our first kiss, my first kiss, in the dip of the creek, the water lapping at our feet, my arm hanging idly over her. I withdrew myself into the cover of the creek.
“Where were you?” I asked Kelsi. The sun had started cutting through the clouded canopy.
“With Mrs. Goodall.” She said, “She asked about you.”
I instantly felt insecure. “Yeah?”
“She asked how you were doing and I said fine.” Kelsi paused, “And then she asked me what else you said about Olivia. She said she missed her daughter.” She glared at me. “It was embarrassing.”
“Why?” I grew defensive.
“Because you never tell me anything these days.”
I paused. “You’re never interested.”
“That’s not true. I’m just done carrying the conversation.”
“Maybe if you asked questions.”
“I’m not the problem,” Her words were loaded, “And I’m not in the mood.” She walked away. I knew that meant I was going to have to deal with it later in some capacity.
I got up early again, this time from insomnia, and decided to go on a targeted walk. I went by Mrs. Goodall’s house and saw there were no lights on. I knew she stayed up late because I did too. Excuses kicked in while I walked onto her property. There were no fences. Her garden of dahlias ornamented the garden pink and yellow with alyssum and lobelias filling in the space. How could I not enter her garden? It was quiet again, and the misty morning made the silence denser. I peered into her windows and saw nothing out of the ordinary. The kitchen with hanging spoons and a coffee maker in the corner. Then I heard a noise and ducked. A slice of a shadow moved over the garden. I held my breath and crouched toward the street. My heart beat a thousand times per second. I walked as fast as I could toward my house, until I was far enough to seem inconspicuous. I turned my head for just a moment and saw her on the front porch, wearing a robe and a head wrap. A flicker of light broke between us.
I burst through the front door and woke Kelsi up. She was frustrated, but I didn’t care.
“Why did you say you thought she had cancer?” I asked.
“Mrs. Goodall? Why did you think she had cancer?”
She rubbed her eyes. “Because of the wig.”
I stood silent and Kelsi asked, “Why?”
“No reason.” I said, “Sorry for waking you up. I’m going to go for a run.”
The wig. I tried the words between my lips. “The wig.”
I ran in the opposite direction of both houses. The world was slow around me like I was running through water. Then it hit me. It was her. It had always been her. I thought of the ribbon she always wore, and the knowledge fit neatly within me like I had always known. When I had gotten far enough away, I hid behind some bushes and tried to break it all down. I wasn’t sure what this truth had done to me. I thought of Olivia’s dead body rotting in the ground. Her clothes being left behind in the closet growing dusty. Her shoes still muddy and her mom putting them away for the last time. I thought of her bedroom smelling stale like a museum. Then I wasn’t sure which came first. Me playing in Mrs. Goodall’s yard, or Mrs. Goodall slipping her daughter’s tights on, her fitting a straight black-haired wig on and tying a bow into it. I thought of the cigarette she smoked perfectly and never coughed from, and how I thought that was so cool. Then I wasn’t sure if these memories were being washed clean or out of sight.
The rain softened by the time I made it back to my house. Small streaks of light shot through the clouds, but they didn’t feel warm like they would have in California. For the first time, I noticed how everything in Olympia wasn’t sun-damaged like it was in California, the cars driving by, the paint on the houses, rusty, but without the long-term effects of UV light. I wondered if it did the same thing to skin. I thought of people who drive the same route every day in their truck and how one side of their face grew weathered, the other stayed taut. I wondered if the same would happen to me in my half a life spent in California, the other in Washington.
I opened the door to Kelsi standing over boiling water wearing a robe and slippers. She took one look at my face and said, “You look like you’ve been cheating again, haven’t you?”
Hally Winters is a writer living in Sunland, California. She received her MFA in creative writing from California Institute of the Arts, and her work can be found at drDOCTOR, Two Sisters Writing and Publishing, An Elephant Never, and more.