Daria had driven past the house many times but actually entering it was a struggle.
It may have still looked like Casa Lane on the outside but the illusion was shattered the minute she stepped through the front door. It felt like everything was frozen in time, stuck and waiting for owners that would never return. She hugged her jacket closer to her body like a shield as she paced the length of the living room. There were several of Jane's paintings stacked against a wall and she forced herself not to let her gaze linger. Seeing them only reminded her of the countless times she'd watched Jane paint, somehow carefree and serious at the same time. She could craft a masterpiece in minutes, her paintbrush weaving patterns that Daria could barely follow. No matter what Jane made, it was always beautiful in its own way. Even the pieces that were dark and sinister, full of monsters and nightmares, held a charm that was uniquely Jane. She didn't want to relive those moments. She'd been doing just fine in the city, where she was so consumed by work that she didn't have time to rest let alone reminisce. It was the constant movement that kept her focused and it was the focus that kept her steady. Lawndale always reminded her of all the things she left behind. It was her kryptonite and even short weekend trips were enough to drain her energy. Sometimes, she felt horrible for not visiting more often but, when she was there, she remembered why she couldn't.
For the millionth time, she wondered why she offered to do this.
Trent came bursting through the door, his arms loaded down with boxes and bags. He had to empty his Jeep of whatever supplies he'd brought with him, which looked to be enough to pack up an entire warehouse. She couldn't fathom why he'd leave the comfort of his home and trek all the way here just to clear out a bunch of junk. If it was her, she'd let it rot.
"That should be enough to get started down here", he muttered as he dropped the boxes near the couch, "Most of this still will get tossed but I wanted to save a few keepsakes".
She never saw the Lanes as the type to assign sentimental value to things. They all hoarded items, sure, but most of them ended up broken or shoved in the back of closets to be forgotten. All of their rooms were more like storage units than livable spaces. Even Jane's room was filled to the brim with everything from scrap metal to frayed old pajamas. She held onto anything she deemed worthy of her artistic expression which usually ended up being enough to clutter up every square inch of their tiny apartment. No matter how many times Daria tried to break through to her, she wouldn't get rid of anything. The mess was chaos forced into the organized calm she tried to create for herself and it agitated her every single day. She stopped pacing to recenter herself before she could continue down that path any longer. That was all over.
"Pictures, mostly. Maybe some of the stuff in the basement that's still salvageable".
"I know you think this is crazy. Maybe it is", he shrugged off his coat before tossing it on the back of the couch, "Do you ever just need to do something? Like, fate?"
She let herself take in the tattoos that covered his arms now that she could see them fully. They were full of vibrant colors and interesting shapes that she immediately recognized as Jane's handiwork. She could picture her painstakingly sketching the designs out on paper before she allowed Trent to transfer them to his skin, ever her own harshest critic. She swallowed hard against the lump in her throat but it stubbornly remained. Everything felt like it was rushing at her and she wasn't at all prepared to deal with the onslaught. She sought comfort in knowing that she'd be back at her hotel soon enough; hopefully with a bottle of rum to soothe her nerves.
"You know I don't believe in fate".
"Why is that?"
"Things happen. There's no underlining meaning to it all. People drive themselves crazy searching for some message in the stars instead of accepting reality".
He didn't respond straight away as he busied himself with tossing old, water-stained magazines into a trash bag. She recognized the way his eyebrows knit together and the way the corner of his mouth twitched, ever so slightly. She'd thrown him for a loop and now he was trying to reorient himself in the moment. He spent a lot of time thinking about only god-knew-what before he spoke, which usually made people think he was dense. She used to believe it herself until he'd proven her wrong.
"I can't believe that", he didn't look at her, he simply continued throwing away piles of paper, "It's too easy".
She carefully placed her jacket next to his before she rolled up the sleeves of her sweater and started to collect dusty pieces of pottery. It was easier having something to focus on, at least then she didn't have to think about how uncomfortable the tension in the room was. She carefully placed them in a cardboard box, arranging them by relative size and shape. It occurred to her that most of them would end up sitting in the back of Trent's trunk, forgotten once again.
"Do you really believe that everything happens for a reason?"
"I have to believe it if I want to keep going. I can't tell myself that she died for nothing".
It was a statement that almost stopped her cold but she pushed through it, forcing her trembling fingers not to drop anything. She felt deep shame for judging him but, as soon as it came, there was that tiny voice of self-righteousness in her head telling her that he was wrong. He could choose to delude himself by believing in fairy tales but he was setting himself up for failure. Bad things happened to good people and there was no rhyme or reason to any of it. If there was a real message out there, why couldn't she find it? She'd spent a long time begging for some sort of sign, anything, and she'd continually turned up empty handed. Nothing was going to be whispered by the wind or delivered to her in her dreams. All she had was the knowledge that the world would, stubbornly, keep turning.
"Do you think it's coincidence that you ended up here?"
"I'm here because you called me".
"Yeah", he craned his head in her direction, "But why did I call you? What made me dial your number? Why didn't your number change through all these years?"
"Trent, none of that means anything", she didn't want to argue with him but that nagging voice in her head wouldn't let up, "It's like asking why I had eggs for breakfast instead of pancakes. Sometimes, it's just black and white".
"What if it isn't? What if there's something we're supposed to figure out and every decision we make either pushes us forward or sends us back?"
"There's nothing to figure out. Jane is dead and eating chocolate cake and cleaning up all of this shit isn't going to make a difference because she isn't coming back".
He doesn't look away and after a few seconds of his gaze burning into her, she has to shift her attention to the floor. It was an awful thing to say but an apology doesn't slip out. The seconds turned into minutes and there was nothing to focus on but the heavy silence and the occasional passing of a car outside. There was no setting back the clock and Trent was only making things tougher on himself by searching for something that didn't exist. He could search through every square inch of space in that house and he still wouldn't find answers. There were none. After what felt like an eternity, he spoke.
"You never did call. After the funeral. I always thought you needed time but I figured it out eventually".
"Don't", she snapped, all of the anger she'd been swallowing down finally threatening to spill over, "Don't sit there and try to analyze me".
"You didn't want to think about what happened to her, what happened to me. Hell, what happened to you. You just wanted to...forget".
"Is that such a bad thing? Yes, I wanted to forget, Trent. I didn't want to spend every day thinking about why she died. I didn't want to end up back here on some quest to find enlightenment. I wanted to move on with my life".
"But you haven't moved on, have you?"
"Have you? I mean, what the hell are you doing? What's here for you?"
Again, the silence persisted. She felt her initial anger subsiding until she was left with nothing but confusion. She never thought she would have to see Trent again and being face-to-face with him after so many years was jarring. It was hard to fit the pieces of the past and the present together in a way that satisfied her. They weren't the same people anymore but there was no new framework established. It was the same as crashing into each other, the experience just as sudden and painful. She felt as if she was still speaking to the Trent she knew so long ago but here was a man that she really didn't know at all. She could still see the essence of the Trent from before, hidden in his eyes and in his laugh, but when he was sitting next to her with an expression that she couldn't read...she felt like she was conversing with a stranger.
She wanted to stand up and leave. Get in her car and drive. Maybe keep going until she'd made her way back to New York. It would've been easy to leave this all behind her and pretend it was just another bad dream. But she didn't move.
"Nothing", he let out a laugh that was dripping with acid , "The house is in foreclosure; I should let it go. I don't know, maybe I'm here for selfish reasons. Maybe cleaning all this shit up will make me feel better about myself".
"It's no more selfish than me driving out here to put flowers on a gravestone because I feel obligated to".
"Kind of thought you'd stop showing up".
"So did I", she sighed before she leaned her head back against the arm of the couch, "It's a habit, really. I don't even realize I'm doing it anymore".
"How is it that we've always managed to avoid each other?"
"Probably because we wanted to".
She went out of her way to visit the Lawndale Cemetery when nobody else would be around. It was always early in the morning, before most sensible people were even thinking about getting out of bed. She'd leave the warm comfort of her hotel room and spend an hour standing in front of a gravestone with a bouquet of lilies. It was always a quiet affair and, after some time, she'd eventually leave the flowers and go back. She wasn't sure what she was trying to accomplish but, every time, she left feeling numb.
"She wouldn't want it to be like this".
She bit her tongue to prevent herself from going off again. What Jane would or wouldn't want wasn't something she wanted to spend time dwelling on. It wasn't like Jane was around to weigh in on the subject herself.
"How long are you going to be in town?", she asked instead.
"I don't know. I haven't really thought about it. Could be a few days, could be a month".
"A month? Where are you staying?"
He gestured to the area around him with a shrug. The thought of him staying there was deeply disturbing to her. She could picture him lying in bed, surrounded by dark shadows and echoes of what used to be, unable to lull himself to sleep. Besides that horrifying image, she couldn't say the house was even habitable. The dust was one thing but the telltale sign of mold was visible on areas of the ceiling and the walls. There definitely wasn't any working electricity or water and the chill that persisted would only get worse by nightfall.
"Look, you know where my parents live. I'm sure they'd be happy to see a familiar face".
"I couldn't do that".
"Trust me, they'll love the idea. My dad's been taking real cooking lessons since he retired and he's been dying to have a dinner guest".
"Are you sure you want me staying there?"
She wasn't sure how it would be to have him around again but she knew that her parents would be ecstatic to know she'd run into him. At the very least, it would be enough to prevent her mom from going on another tangent about how she needed to get out more. She was thirty-two and, still, nothing had changed in that department.
"It's not like they don't have the room. You can't stay here".
"Alright, fine. Guess I'll take a rain-check on that Chinese takeout I was going to order".
After a minute, he went back to throwing things away. It didn't take long for her to follow suit.