Prompt: You return to the house where you grew up, only to learn it has been condemned.
Once again, you’ve made the Your Story competition a success. Thanks to everyone who participated in the competition (either by entering, reading or voting).
Out of more than 800 entries, readers helped us pick “Homecoming” by Greg Linden as the winner. For winning, Linden’s story will appear in an upcoming issue of Writer’s Digest.
by Greg Linden
He stared at the X on the wall; the bright orange spray paint in stark contrast against the faded blue of what had been a home, his home. The marking wasn’t new to him. He had seen it on every house they had passed on their way through the city. Seven months on and hardly anyone had bothered painting over them. They were a morbid curiosity for a few and a soul cutting reminder for the rest, and for him they just simply hadn’t been real until this very second.
“Honey?” He felt her hand give his shoulder a tentative squeeze. “I know where the boxes are. You don’t have to come in if you don’t want to.” He shook his head as if to answer no, but the tension in his body remained. Her hand slid down until it found his sweaty palm. He squeezed, took a breath, and with a large exhale pushed the door open.
The stench was overwhelming. It rolled over him in a wave of putrid heat, penetrating the cheap masks that the news reports had suggested they buy. His stomach rebelled and attempted to relieve itself of its contents. He swallowed back the vomit. His wife did not. As she retreated back to the outside world, he found himself drawn forward and fought through the wall of foul and into the living room.
The plaster on the walls fell away like diseased flesh to reveal beams of decayed timber. Fungus grew out around the room like so many varicose veins, throbbing color tracing the lines of a deeper sickness. The room’s title was now a misnomer. There was nothing alive here, just rot. The roof had collapsed on the far side of the room. The special spot where his mother insisted that they place the Christmas tree year after year was now filled with rubble. There was no sign of the couch where he had stolen his first kiss. He wondered pointlessly what might have claimed it: the storm or the flood; the rescuers or the looters.
He continued onward through the debris and into the master bedroom. It was a task easier said than accomplished but after a few minutes he was there climbing over his parents upturned mattress and his father’s spare oxygen tank. He had smoked for forty years; from the day he joined the army to the day he got that tank. His father, the toughest bastard he had ever known.
The closet wasn’t in any better shape than the rest of the house but the boxes where there. The moldy cardboard held together long enough for him to get them down before they succumbed to their own flimsiness. He could feel strain throughout his body and realized that he was clenching his teeth. There were a half dozen of them, leather bound, with the words “Our Family” hand stitched with the corresponding volume on each album. He could already tell that they were water damaged. Silently, with tears rolling down his cheeks, he prayed to God that he was wrong and that what was inside had fared better. They had not. Generations of photographs were just gone.
He gathered up the albums in his arms anyway and made his way back outside. His wife had cleaned herself up and was waiting for him. Letting her take the albums from his arms, he turned again to look at the orange X on the wall.
They had done a news special explaining these after the storm. The writing on the left indicated who had done the searching and the date at the top let others know when they had safely exited the building having completed that search. The right quadrant contained a list of potential hazards that the searchers had encountered while inside.
The bottom quadrant held two numbers. The first was the number of survivors found inside. It was a zero. He stared at the second number. The tears came again and this time they were not silent. He sobbed uncontrollably as his eyes refused to look away from it. The second number, it was the number two.