Chapter 1: Homecoming.
At the backseat of the Uber, a pair of siblings sit, ushered to a strangely familiar place. Alike to clockwork, her head swivels to glance at her brother. Litha, headphones nestled on his ears, his trap music echoing as if the beat is reaching for her.
Her face turns to view the picturesque scenery of LakeShore straddling the Azura. The largest lake that runs along the edge of the town, where it feeds into five other enmeshed lakes.
Flinching. “Ow.” Cece grits her teeth and petulantly rubs her arm, dousing the short flare-up of pain. Her head whips to the side. Litha shoves his headphones to rest on his shoulders, lifting up his phone, he slams a thumb on the pause button.
“We’ve been driving for hours, might have been a long time since we’ve been here, but grandpop’s hometown ain’t that big.”
Her initial response is resigned to a flippant shrug. “First. The GPS said that Lakeshore is over a two-hour drive from the airport and secondly.” She points to the window behind him. “We’re here.”
He pivots his torso and gazes out the window. His phone slips from his grasp and plops unto his lap. The car streams down the road that winds alongside the open blue waters. The beaming bright sun in full bloom, illuminating the spread of still waters like its cast under a spell. The surface shimmering with pools of glistening white. Beyond, divisions of stretched land are encrusted with opulent houses that sprawl unto the lake like terrestrial fingers, adorned with a verdure of foliage.
Litha blows an impressed whistle. “Definitely more beautiful than I remember.”
Unable to disagree, she peers down at her handbag interspace between them and nods.
The vehicle cuts through the central business district of the town. They catch flashes of townspeople and pastel coloured buildings as the car zips by. Driving on and on, past a strip of stores, neighbourhoods and standalone homes. The car seems to journey further and further to the end, as if at one point the road will just end and after. It will only be water.
Eventually, the car slows to an expectant cruise and Cece immediately perks up. The car stops completely and the Uber driver casually remains inside, eyes transfixed ahead of him.
Litha widens his eyes and pops the car door open. “Guess we’ll help ourselves,” he mutters under his breath. He exits and Cece follows suit and they round the car. With the boot already unlocked, Litha heaves it open and lugs out their luggage one by one. Emptied, Litha slams the boot close and merely seconds later. The engine grumbles a farewell and the vehicle rolls away.
Both of them pause. Standing on the sun-beaten asphalt, taking it all in. Over fifteen yards forward, down a slight decline. A detached, one door garage with a straight paved way to the road stands beside a homey wooden cabin settled on edge, with a part of the Azura as their backyard. Attached, a narrow pier elongates beyond on the tranquil waters. Cece draws her gaze back to the cabin and the single oak door opens.
An elderly couple shuffles out, their skins a deep sepia like one that bathes a forest floor under golden sunlight. The only betrayal of age is not weathered skin or slouched backs, but only their sterling silver hair.
Cece straps her handbag over her shoulder. Aligned with her hip, she takes the lead of the large suitcase. Together they walk down and Litha drags the other behind him as they both respectfully follow the cobblestone pathway, avoiding the evergreen grass on either side like it's lava.
Closer on approach, their grandmother clasps her hands together, excitably juddering on one spot, squealing. Their grandfather readily opens his arms. In one big engulf, they envelope their grandkids in a desperate embrace.
Gradually breaking apart, Litha steps back to give him a fully body scan with a stunned look. “That’s quite a grip, old man.”
“Old man?” His voice raspy, grated by time but still strong and somehow comforting. “As if you can talk beanpole.” Abruptly, Gramps charges forward and effortlessly throws Litha over his shoulder, knocking his suitcase to the ground.
“Walter!” She yells reproachfully. “Careful with the boy.”
Gramps mindlessly continues to jog ahead of them in circles on the grass. Litha’s lithe frame squirming over his shoulder laughing.
Cece looks back at her, a mirrored image of her mother. “Hi grandma.”
Her gran takes a moment to soak in her granddaughter’s resplendent features: Her curvaceous outline, honeyed shea butter skin and golden-flecked hazel eyes. Ebony braids bound into a high bun. Her face contorts into a merry sob and she reels her into a bone-crushing hug.
“You have grown to be such a beautiful young woman.” She holds back a cry. “Aren’t you fortunate to have my genes,” she says and gives her an extra squeeze.
They part and her gran shoots a punch at her shoulder.
Cece gawks at her, jaw hanging. “Grandma!”
“No, no, don’t grandma me.” Fists on her hips, her weight shifts to one side. “I have not seen my grandbabies in ten years. I practically had to force your mother to book them international flights to get you two here. Now look.” She gestures to her expansively. “You two are all grown up.”
Cece pouts apologetically and shrugs helplessly. “I know and I’m sorry…but at least we’re here now.”
Gran reaches out an arm and steers her to stand on her flank, hand resting on her shoulder.
Litha, finally off gramps shoulder, he jogs up to gran and stops to stand before them.
Gran looks at him from head to toe with an impish smile. “Nice of you to join us from Pandora. I’m sure the Omaticaya people are missing you.”
Cece snorts and stifles a laugh with her fist, watching Litha inspect himself in pure offense.
“What, I’m not even skinny?” He playfully narrows his eyes at her. “Plus, when and how did you watch Avatar?”
Gran gives him a look and shakes her head. “We watched it on our blue-ray player, we’re not as outdated as you may think, boy.”
Litha chuckles and goes in for a hug, gran slaps a few hard claps on his backs and withdraws to keep him at arm’s length. “Who am I kidding, this milk chocolate hunk of a grandson is most definitely a heartbreaker.”
Litha flaunts a dazzling, knee-weak worthy smile. “Well….” His hand sweeps over his black buzzed haircut, trimmed on the sides. He looks over to Cece and winks, and her eyes nearly roll out of its sockets.
“We should take a picture,” gramps says and pulls out a sleek black phone from his brown trousers. He then holds it to his face at a peculiar slant. Deliberating with himself, whether he should take the photo landscape or portrait.
“So that everyone’s in the photo, lets rather take a selfie,” Cece suggests.
A groan rumbles in Litha’s chest, swallowing down a protest.
Gramps nods assertively and walks to them as they huddle together with the house as their backdrop. He holds up the phone with only their heads cut in the shot, so close that they all look like they have bobbleheads.
Cece cringes and steps forward to swipe his phone from his hand.
And her eyes briefly admire the latest Samsung android. “For old folks who seem to be clued up with technology, you sure don’t seem like you know how to use it.” She extends her arm, capturing an optic angle with torso-length shots where the light catches them perfectly.
“As most old people,” Litha slips in and gramps lightly elbows him in the ribs.
After a brief series of taps and minor expression changes, all of which are filled with bright eyes and stretched smiles. Cece hands him back his phone and gran finally guides them inside the house.
Walking in single file, Cece’s eyes wonder around the rustic and cosy interior, the floor to ceiling glass window beside the sliding doors that welcome in a wealth of warm light that emblazes the living room. The lounge holds beige English rolled arm couches: tight back with large, plush, loose seat cushions. An elaborate plasma tv stand in the corner. All the fixtures flatter the glazed walnut wooden tiles.
A wide straight path interspaced between the four-seater, dark Bordeaux dining table and the living room. A few steps further on, an oak laminate countertop kitchen tucked in a round crook. In the short distance, a string of hooked keys embedded in the wall beside a shadowy passage, houses three closed doors and an open archway.
“Wow.” She looks up at the light metal pendant with geometrical lights that hang from the ceiling. “I guess a lot has changed.”
Gran smiles and thoughtlessly tugs on the thin material of her cardigan to wrap it around her, arms folded. “Your gramps and I had the house redone a couple years back. You would know if you ever visited.”
Litha snickers. “I have a feeling that you’re not going to let that go.”
“Smart and handsome, quite a package you are.” She quickly pinches his cheek and rotates on her heels to strut to the kitchen. “You two go in your rooms, settle in and I’ll prepare lunch. I’m sure your starving, forced to eat tin-canned airplane food. My poor babies.”
Litha and Cece pickup their luggage and roll it with them as they cautiously walk to the passageway.
“First door on your left,” gramps directs.
Continuing, Litha flashes a thumbs up to the ceiling. They arrive at the room and Cece pushes the door open and walks inside and shakes her head with a bewildered grin. Her eyes bounce from left to right at the single beds on either side. Both pressed against the walls with a pristine cream duvet covering layered on top. Narrow wooden closets on either flank of the door.
Cece slowly steps inside, ankle boots clicking on the furnished floorboards.
She swivels and looks up at Litha with a quizzical expression. “So, which one do you want?”
Litha grumbles a sequence of incoherent words. He moves to park his luggage at the foot of the bed on the right. Wordlessly, he walks around and collapses on the bed, shifting irritably for a while until he faces the wall with his back towards her.
“I guess that jetlag is starting to hit, little bro.”
Once Cece’s head hit the pillow she instantly joined her brother in the land of dreams. What was supposed to be a quick power nap turned into an afternoon nap, and lunch became an early supper.
Involuntarily hauled back to reality. Litha wakes, he flops unto the other side and sees the bed opposite him, empty. The only proof that someone was there is a human-size dent and a few corner creases. He forces himself upright, unlaces his black doc martins and kicks them off to freely walk in his thick woolly socks.
Shortly, he leaves his shared bedroom and returns to the living room. Cece and gramps sit together, heartily trading stories, whereas gran hustles in the kitchen. His senses awakening, he’s greeted with a cheesy, mouth-watering aroma that easily fills the house.
“Litha,” gran calls from over her shoulder, back towards him standing in front of the stove. “Please be a dear and set the table.”
Rubbing the sleep from his eye, he shambles to the kitchen and rounds the island, only to realise he doesn't know where anything is. His eyes aimlessly darting to each cabinet and draw.
Gran barely twists her torso to face him. “Table mats, last draw on your left and utensils are in the first door on your right.” Her gaze lifts and she pokes a slender finger in the third cabinet’s direction. “And the white porcelain plates are up there.”
Litha does as commanded and starts the quick process of setting the table. Once he is done, only then does gramps and Cece migrate to the prepared dinner table. The siblings sitting opposite from each other. Gran only visits the table to make a drop off, setting down two steel platter stands before returning to the kitchen.
“So,” Cece begins and places her folded arms on the edge of the table. “On our way through, we saw a glimpse of Lakeshore and it seems that the town went through a serious upgrade.”
A look of untainted pride shines in gramps’s eyes and he places a hand on the small bulge of his belly. “The town underwent a life-altering gentrification, we even a few worldwide stores. But it still doesn’t overshadow its natural beauty.”
“I don’t mean to sound like a typical teen, I really don’t,” Litha says, sitting slouched against his chair. “But what is there to do around here?”
Gramps’s hand thoughtfully lifts from his stomach and falls back down. “Much to do, many lake water activities.”
Litha arcs a brow. “Grandpop, I don’t know about LakeShore but out there, everywhere else.” His index finger twirls in a circle to gesture universally. “Only white, boojey people do lake water activities.”
Gramps lets out a throaty guffaw and it fades peacefully, lapsing into a short-lived silence. He straightens. “I’ll tell you what, if one of you has your licence. You can take my car and take a drive into town.”
Litha and Cece automatically bolt upright. “I’ll drive!” They say simultaneously.
“No, no, none of you will.” Gran walks to them with her hands protected in heat resistant mitts. A large rectangular glass dish in her hands. She walks to the corner, extends herself, and sets it down on the one stand in the centre. Homemade lasagne with a thick coat of bubbling cheese, layered with sheets with: Ground beef mince, Italian sausage in between, crushed onion, tomatoes and cloves of sliced garlic. Garnished with green specks on top.
“Not until you two reorganise the storage shed out back,” she says and waltzes back to the kitchen.
Litha drags out a groan. “We’ve literally only been here for several hours and you already want us to clean?”
“Not clean, reorganise,” she firmly corrects, “besides its mostly for you than it is for me. A way for you to look at the past, see what you two left behind when you were last here. Look at some old photo albums, see your mom’s old belongings. It will be fun.”
Litha snorts. “Said literally no-one, ever.”
Gran returns with a round dish, placing down the pie with golden puff pastry brimming with braising steak and lamb pieces diced inside, stewing in Worcestershire sauce.
“Make fun all you want, but there’s a lot of history in there.” She captures Litha’s gaze. Her dark coffee-roasted eyes stare back at him penetratingly. “Your history.”
Making one last round trip to retrieve the chef’s knife for the pie and the serving utensil from the lasagne. She finally plops down at the head of the table and releases a content sigh.
Litha’s arm stretches to reach for the spatula and gran twitches. She swats his hand away.
“Uh, uh, you animal,” she scolds. “Did your mama, my daughter, not raise you with basic manners?”
He casually falls back into his chair. Cece shakes her head at him disappointedly and he flaps a flippant hand at her.
“My bad, where are my manners?” A mischievous look sparks in his eyes and a smile carves itself on his face. “My dear sister, will you lead us in prayer and say grace?”
Although Cece showcases a charming smile. Her eyes slay him a thousand times over.
“I would love to.”
Soon each plate is filled with their preferred serving, both gramps and Litha’s plate is dominated with lasagne and large slices of pie, the white of the plate is barely visible. Whereas Gran and Cece match with reasonable and decent size portions.
“Grandmaaa,” Litha moans and he closes his eyes for several moments. “This is pwobably the best lasagne on planet earth,” he manages to say with an entire mouthful.
Cece forces herself to lessen her speed, munching slowly and savouring each delectable taste that seems to tango with her taste buds. “I thought mom’s lasagne was good, but it clearly doesn’t compare to the master’s.”
Gran laughs, irritated by an itch. She lightly beats the side of her head with a flattened hand. “I hope you two will be just as excited eating as you will be washing them dishes.”
Both Cece and Litha blare out a twin groan.