“It doesn’t matter,” Allen said. “Time will come for you, too.”
Mary disagreed profoundly. How could he say that? How could he!
She stormed down the old staircase, it complained through groans. It should probably have seen a renovation or two throughout the centuries their family had insisted on keeping to tradition, never leaving their home ground. Indeed, no one other than Allen’s great great grandfather thirty generations back built the house which now rested on American soil.
Well, Allen often reminded himself, it wasn’t America yet. Not back then at least. At some point, someone had had to leave one home for another, or else they wouldn’t be anywhere new in the first place.
Mary though, didn’t agree, she wanted to leave here, the thought of spending the rest of her life in the family home was filled with feelings of dread. How it still stood without falling apart was a mystery to her. The neighboring houses were all much younger, and yet they had seen plenty renovations over the years.
The main question in her mind which dominated her motivations was as simple as they often were for a sixteen year old; how else was she supposed to find love? It was a small town after all, only five boys around her age, and out of those five, only one was of particularly dreamy stock. But he didn’t like Mary, no, his eyes were mesmerized by her best friend.
What could she possibly offer that I can’t? It boggled her mind.
Not that Mary was allowed to be romantically involved, as her father had prohibited her from pursuing relations with anyone. He would claim fleeting love could do none but harm the Barlow family secret, whatever that was. He never said.
“I’m going to Moms,” Mary shouted as she slammed the front door closed, a rusty nail from the decorative wheel hanging next to the door popped out and fell to the floor from the force.
Allen was still on the upper floor, preparing for the evening’s ceremony.
As Mary walked along the road, she cursed her father. When she was little, she didn’t understand how strange her family was, but as she grew older, she realized how all other families lived under the same roof, shared dinner, watched tv, had electricity, running water, but not hers. No, her father would never install any such contraptions, nor let his wife inside. She had to get her own house down the street. No one but direct descendents were allowed to place their foot inside the Barlow household. It didn’t make a lick of sense to Mary.
Just another of Dads crazy traditions, she thought.
It didn’t help that the question why was eternally disregarded. As if Allen had an automated response for when there was no answer, ‘In due time, you will understand’. He always said.
If he won’t give me an answer, he can keep it, she thought.
She had given him one last chance this evening, he failed to comprehend the stakes, so now, she would see her mother, then run away.
Allen found the key to the family heirloom chest, and procured a weathered old text from it, along with a set of candles and other niceties. It was time for Mary to know the truth, as it has been passed down through the ages to the next heir on their sixteenth birthday, as dictated by the family traditions. Allen didn’t know why it was so strict and precise, but who was he to meddle with the way things had always been.
According to his own mother, Nora, not following the doctrine of tradition could forever break what set their family apart from all the rest. ‘It’s like introducing a street mutt to a family of cats’, Nora would explain. ‘Nothing good ever comes from that’.
Mary’s mother, Elsa, was happy to see her daughter. She rummaged through the kitchen cabinet and found a bin of coffee. Elsa didn’t drink much of it herself, but she always kept it around for when Allen or Mary came to visit. It helped her enjoy a particular memory of times yonder. After all, it was how she met Mary’s father, over twenty years ago.
A young Allen had, against his mother’s wishes, left their home that evening. His plan was perfect, or so his young mind had decided. He would hitchhike with Burt Reynolds, an old farmer, who was leaving town that evening to sell his radishes at the town next door. It was a bigger town, so most of the farmers congregated there at the yearly harvest market. When Allen got up on the cart, he found no radishes. It was empty.
“Where is your harvest sir?” He asked the aged farmer.
“Oh, we’re not going to the market lad,” Burt said. “You mother came by, so I told her of your visit, she then offered to purchase my stock and drive you back home.”
“What’s she going to do with all those radishes?” Allen asked, momentarily forgetting the problem he was now presented with.
“Beats me,” Burt said with a hackling laugh, then whipped his horse to turn back towards the Barlow house.
Now sour, Allen accepted his fate and was delivered home to his mother.
“Thank you Burt,” Nora said as she threw him a large sack of coin. “That will be all.”
The young Allen defiantly crossed his arms as he left the cart and strode inside. Nora waved to Burt a final thanks as the old man gestured his surprise by the wealth of the sack with coins, it was far more than he had asked for.
Well inside the house, Nora conjured a piece of paper to Allen. It was old and weathered, the very same paper Allen was now planning to give his daughter.
Mary was looking out the windowsill of her mother’s home, with a cup of coffee in hand. Most of the coffee was gone, and had since long grown cold and bitter.
“What’s wrong dear?” Elsa asked with no hint of concern, a veteran at spotting her daughter’s rising teenage drama signs.
“I can’t take it anymore,” Mary said. “Dad is impossible to deal with, I’m not even allowed to bring my smartphone into the house! How am I supposed to fit in and keep friends when I stick out like a sore thumb?”
She turned around to face her mother, her face did no attempts to hide her dismay.
“Oh sweetie,” Elsa said. “It’s just the way things are with him.”
Mary swallowed the bitter content of her mug in jest, her emotions were analogous. “How can you stay married to someone who clearly doesn’t care enough about you to break tradition, it’s all he ever talks about! Tradition, tradition, tradition!”
Elsa motioned for Mary’s mug, and filled it with a second serving, then sat down at the kitchen table. “Your father is a good man,” she said. “He does what he believes is the right thing by us both, even if it sometimes seem like he doesn’t.”
“Forget I asked.”
Mary finished the refill of coffee and went to her bedroom. A room which she seldom used due to the ways things were with her family, but a room she had fitted to be more of her own than the room at the Barlow house. Here, she had a tv, videogames, a laptop, and charger for her smartphone, the only device she wouldn’t leave behind yet which she always had to leave in the mailbox when she entered her Dad’s house. ‘A phone is no use if it’s in the mailbox, Dad.’ She would complain. A stack of stuffed toys covered her girly decorated bed, and a set of posters and photos covered the walls.
Elsa was reviewing an old memory, as she always did when the aroma of coffee hung in the air, and she was alone with her thoughts. Back when she was a teenager, a handsome young man had stumbled his way into the coffee shop she worked at. He had been alarmingly confused, speaking with a thick and odd accent, as if he came from some farmers home way into the country, or so she suspected. He ordered a cup of coffee, and she obliged. It wasn’t anything fancy, but the face he made suggested it was the best coffee he ever had. Later that evening, enchanted by the strangely polite and handsome young man, she had offered him to take her to the town hall. A dance was held there, once a week, and it had become the main event of the towns dating couples. Elsa hadn’t been there for months, but perhaps it was time to try again, and it would certainly be a fun evening with that strange boy.
The evening turned out calm but pleasant, they kissed, and that was the last time she brought anyone else to the dance.
Back at the Barlow home, Allen was struggling with the next stage of initiation. He wondered how the Barlows of the past had managed to go through with the ceremony.
Well, my mother was no mystery, he thought. She would probably have left me behind if it was up for choice.
Allen never got to know his own father, after all. ‘If not a Barlow, then not of concern’, Nora had said. Not that there were any other Barlow’s around, and a quick look at the family tree suggested there seldom were. Just parent and child.
Elsa knocked on Mary’s door. “Honey?” She said. “We should go see your father, perhaps I can mend things a bit.”
Mary had packed a few things in her backpack, one of the stuffed toys, a large blue elephant, her favorite, as well as her laptop, five sets of clothes, and the phone charger. She was just about ready for her adventure.
“No point, Mom,” Mary said. “I’m never going back there.”
“We have talked about this,” Elsa said. “Your father needs you.”
“No he don’t, all he needs his is house and those precious family traditions of his!”
“Come now, you know that isn’t so, how is he supposed to buy groceries without your instructions, you know he’s dense with technology, especially when it comes to those credit cards.”
“He has you, Mom, maybe it will get the two of you back on track with your marriage if you took care of things again.”
“That’s not fair Mary, our relationship has always been complicated but stable, you know that.”
“Fine, sorry, but I’m not going inside the house, we can talk, but I’m done with that place.”
“Good enough for me.”
Mary opened the door, she had the backpack on her back.
“What’s with the luggage?” Elsa asked.
“Precaution,” Mary said and shrugged to signal she had no desire to discuss it further.
Allen stood at the porch, all preparations done, mind made ready, the missing ingredient being his daughter. He hoped she didn’t plan to stay the night at his wife’s place, as it was the final eve of revelations. It could only be done on her sixteenth birthday, and it had never been delayed in the family past. If it was delayed, maybe it would be the end of their special place in the universe. Allen also didn’t like the prospect of seeing his wife if he went there to bring Mary home, he wasn’t sure he could handle it if he did.
He heard two sets of gravelly steps scraping against the asphalt, someone was coming. He hoped it would be Mary and one of her friends seeing her home, but alas that was not meant to be. A knot built inside his stomach as he saw Elsa, followed by Mary.
“Why,” Allen said to no one. “Why,” he quietly repeated.
“Hello dear,” Elsa said. “You upset our daughter again, I hope we can clear things up a bit.”
A tear rolled down Allen’s cheek. “You’re not supposed to be here, Elsa.”
“Why would you say that?” She demanded. “If this is how it’s going to be, I rather take our daughter back with me.”
“No,” Allen said with more tears sliding down his face. “That’s not how I meant it.”
“What’s wrong Dad?” Mary asked, she had never seen him cry before.
“I don’t think I can do this.”
“What do you mean?” Elsa asked, her brows curled with concern.
“Our daughter, it is her time to take the family rite of passage, to take ownership of the house.”
“I don’t want it! You can keep it!”
“It’s not about what we want, it’s about honoring the family.”
“But honey, why does it make you sad?”
“Because it ultimately means I have to leave you behind, my love.”
“What kind of stupid tradition is that!” Mary shouted, “Unbelievable!”
“The one that matters most,” Allen said and then fell down the ground, crying loudly.
“You’re scaring me honey,” Elsa said as she stepped up on the porch and then draped him in her arms.
“I am scared, the two of us will part forever, confronting it now, it feels worse than death, I thought I could handle it, that I was strong enough to go through with this, but seeing you here, in front of me, it’s too much,” Allen said in between sobs.
Mary had enough of the drama, she didn’t want the house nor its secrets, she didn’t care for the traditions, she had enough of all this nonsense. She stepped past her parents and entered the house, there, her father had lit candles on a round table next to the staircase, illuminating an old weathered piece of paper. She picked it up, and read it. It was a set of instructions, of the familiar does and don’ts, and there, at the bottom, in big letters, a message from Earl Barlow, the man who built the house:
“I write this for my son, who will hand it to his own, who will hand it to his, and so it should pass forever. It is your sixteenth birthday, which lends the time for you to accept great responsibility and transcend beyond human capacity. With this house, the world is yours. By twisting the handles on the wheel next to the house entrance door, you commend not only time, but place as well. Through the wheel, you can move the house anywhere, be it in times past, future, unknown lands, or famous cities. Explore what has been, and what will come to pass. I do not myself know how this came to be, only that it is. I therefore urge you to follow the steps listed, so that our family’s power, this house power, will forever remain with us in all of time. As a final heed, there is no control behind the directions of travel. I built the house on Scottish highlands, then by happenstance fiddled with the wheel which took the house to a green plains with strange looking wisents and long necked camels. I had seen camels on my travel through Asia, these were not of the same ilk. Now, it is your destiny to commend the house. This being your sixteenth birthday, you have to turn the wheel in order to fulfilling your duty, to know its truth. You may turn it as many times as you wish. Be sure to let your own children acclimate and prosper where you settle, until their time is come.”
Mary put the paper down, and immediately went for the wheel. She turned it, then carefully opened the door. Her father was still there, on his knees, crying on her mother’s chest.
“Dad, it doesn’t work.”
“Did you break it?”
“No Dad.” She sighed and rolled her eyes. “I just did what the paper said.”
“Wait, you were planning on leaving us here?”
“What is she talking about, dear?”
Allen got up on his feet, and entered the house. He closed the door, leaving Elsa alone outside. He took a deep breath then turned the wheel. As he exhaled, he slowly opened the door again, Elsa still stood outside. He repeated the process, yet nothing changed.
“It’s broken,” he confirmed with relief. “Elsa, you can come inside, looks like the legacy is over.”
Elsa stepped inside the house and closed the door behind her, and as she did, her eyes glazed over. “So this is the inside of the Barlow home.”
“Sure is!” Allen said. “I have dreamed of showing you the inside of the house, my love.”
Brimming with excitement, he pulled Elsa along for a tour.
Mary hadn’t planned to ever set her foot inside again, but those feelings were slowly fading. She looked around, imagining what changes there could be, now that the apparent family secret had been broken. Then, on the floor, she saw an old rusty nail. She picked it up, inspected it for a bit, then matched it to the wheel. It fit. She turned the wheel, then opened the door.
A Novelette based on this short story is available on Amazon.