Mike Constantine still lived in his mother’s house.
That shouldn’t have been surprising. It was his childhood home, it was paid for, and it was a sight better than the apartment he’d lived in when Fin was a kid.
Except that even eight years after her death, it was still obviously Lucia Constantino’s house.
The exterior was unremarkable. It looked like any one of its’ neighbor rowhouses. Marble steps lead up to narrow, two story red brick edifice. The screen door had a silhouette of a horse-drawn buggy on it, as did four other houses on the block. The difference was in the details, and the details, Fin thought to herself, were tragic.
Her Nonna’s flower boxes were gone. The once pristine marble stoop looked like it hadn’t been scrubbed once since her death, a weekly chore Fin and her sisters had been regularly corralled into helping with.
And yet her breath caught painfully when she stepped inside.
The first floor was a time capsule. The same family pictures hung against familiar blue and white pinstriped wallpaper. The living room was still cluttered with china cabinets and Nonna’s sprawling collection of porcelain figures – animals, angels, ceramic flower baskets, and romantic figures in period costumes. The couch was new, as was the flat screen television. But the green rug edged in roses that spread between them was the same.
The dining room was similarly unchanged. Too many cabinets, filled with dining sets that were never used. A too large table that dreamed of a bigger family. Her dad was obviously using it as a make-shift office. Papers and stacks of folders covered the table top, and a cork board hung on the far wall: Fin thought there might’ve been a painting of the Last Supper hanging there last time she visited.
The kitchen was the most changed, but all that meant was upgraded appliances. The floor was still checkered black and white tile. The cabinets and drawers were still a cheerful buttercup yellow. The door to the basement was chained shut as it always had been, but Mike assured her that it too was unchanged. The washer and dryer were still down there, and the Christmas nativity the sisters had always insisted on playing with like a peculiar dollhouse. A few more boxes had moved down there over the years, but that was all.
Father and daughter stood together at the back door and surveyed the yard. It was a small, cement covered rectangle of land. Always had been, as far as Fin could remember, but there were pictures in the Constantine family album of green grass and a honeysuckle bush. The only green to be found now was Pop-pop’s old tool shed/garage cowering in the far corner, and the scraggly climbing roses that clung to it. The shed had always been that hideous shade of avocado, painted so in a superstitious effort to ward off Nonna and her meddling. As if ugliness alone could thwart her.
Fin had always loved the sad, stooped building for that reason, though it had been locked up for most of her life. She loved it a little more when Mike slid a key across the kitchen table to her and said the shed was hers.
“For your art,” he said. “Your moms said some of your projects are better done out of doors. And there’s nothing in the shed but your Pop-pop’s tools and stuff he knew better than to bring around your Nonna. You can use whatever you want.”
“Cool,” she said. And that was that.
Upstairs, the bathroom had been entirely redone. Mike still slept in his childhood bedroom at the back of the house, though a quick glance inside revealed there was nothing childish within.
For a moment, Fin feared there was something wrong with the master bedroom. Maybe there was damage he’d forgotten to mention. A leaky roof. A collapsed roof! Termites! Maybe Fin would have to sleep in the small middle room. It had been a sewing room, once upon a time, then a nursery when Fin was little. But what was big enough for a toddler and what was big enough for a teenager were very different metrics, even if Fin was short for her age.
The worry was for naught. The middle room was full near to bursting. Furniture and boxes and picture frames – the Last Supper was probably somewhere in there – and all the other debris of a life packed up and put away. There was no chance Fin was expected to sleep there.
Nonna’s room was the only place left.
Fin had only been in her grandmothers’ room a handful of times. It sat at the front of the house, looking south over Patterson Park. The view alone was a temptation. All those trees seen from above. Nonna valued her privacy, though, and the girls had the rest of the house to make trouble in. But any closed door demanded exploration, and so Fin had tried to sneak in over the years.
She remembered it. The wide bay window, curtained with white lace that softened the afternoon light to something dreamy. The window seat covered in little cushions she knew Nonna had sewn herself. Powder blue walls hung with religious paintings and photos of Italy. An Art Deco waterfall bedroom set. The full bed stretched into the middle of the room, facing the view and the sun. A thick Latin bible on the vanity. Dried flowers and Catholic red glass votives sat at the feet of the Virgin. The scent of baby powder and roses. Nonna sitting in the window, ready to scold her for intruding.
She remembered it all.
Fin took a breath and saw the room.
The walls were white and bare and blinding in the afternoon summer sun. A wrought iron double bed was pressed in corner to her right. A dresser, wardrobe, and two desks lined the walls, all of them mismatched. Boxes she’d packed and labeled in New Orleans were stacked in the middle of the floor. And by the window, her easel stood open and waiting.
Something unclenched inside. The rest of the house was a weird, distorted walk through a half remembered childhood. This room, her room, was a blank canvas. She could work with that.
Fin brought up her bags and set to work. If she was going to live here for the next year, she had best start settling in now.
Later, with her stuff halfway unpacked and exhaustion setting in, Fin thought about asking Mike about the upstairs arrangements – why he stayed in his old room and not the larger master bedroom, with the wide window and beautiful view – but that would just lead to more questions. Like why was the house so unchanged? She knew he’d rented it out for a few years after Nonna died; there was no way the renters had just lived in Nonna’s stuff, had they? And how had he decided what to leave out and what to pack away?
But she’d been in Baltimore less than a day, and already this was the most time Fin had spent with her father in nearly ten years. She could ask him later. Much later. Baby steps.
For the moment, she would enjoy the pizza he’d ordered and the buzz of police radio chatter that blessedly filled the silence between them. All awkward family bonding, Fin decided, should happen over cheese and bread and someone else talking.
Of course, that was when Mike pushed away from the table. “I’ve gotta go. Gotta put some face hours in at the precinct tonight. Do you need anything before I go? You know how the tv works? Know where the food is? I left the number for my cell by the house phone if there’s an emergency. Oh, and I got a computer for you from work – we’re upgrading and getting rid of some older desktops. Didn’t want to set it up until you get your room sorted the way you like, but I can move it in now if you know where you want it. Might put your moms at ease if they know they can reach you without calling me.”
“Sounds good,” Fin assured him. “I’ll start hooking that up tonight. Um, I can’t think of anything else I need. I guess I’ll just call you if I have questions about anything?”
“Alright. We can get you a new cell phone this weekend. Those detectives said your phone was no good?”
Fin nodded and stuffed another slice of pizza in her mouth.
Together, they cleaned up the kitchen and moved the bulky computer from the corner of the dining room it was hidden in to one of Fin’s desks. Fin had positioned them on opposite walls: the one on the left wall for the computer and school work, the desk on the right wall for small art and tools. Mark wrote out the wifi password and showed her the router downstairs. With nothing left to do, he spent a moment hovering uncomfortably near the door.
“Right,” he mumbled and shuffled his feet. “Well. Don’t burn the house down while I’m out. Don’t stay up too late. No wild parties. I should be back after midnight.”
“Have a good night,” she replied absently, studiously unknotting a tangle of wires. There was a jingle of keys, the sound of heavy footsteps moving, one last awkward ‘bye’ half muttered from the bottom of the stairs, and the opening and closing of the front door.
And just like that, the house was quiet, and Fin was well and truly alone for the first time in months and months and months.
It didn’t feel like she thought it would. Not the way it used to.
The silence was an open field, waiting for combat. Everything she couldn’t see, a hiding place for enemies. There was no one to shield her. No cannon fodder. And God, what a stupid thing to think. She hurried downstairs, grabbed a pizza and 2 liter from the fridge, the house phone out of its’ cradle, and shut herself up in her new room.
She still had a life to set up.