The house was bigger than I remembered it. I stood on the sidewalk listening to the echoes of days long past. My luggage sat on the ground beside me and the scent of freshly cut grass wafted in the air, tickling my nose. The taxi pulled away leaving me to the thoughts and ghosts of remembrance. It had been years, too many years, but I had not forgotten the important things.
I dragged my bags to the door, fumbled in my purse for the key and unlocked the deadbolt. Inside, the air was cool and filled with the musty odor of tumultuous memories. The floorboards creaked under my weight. I closed the door and looked around. White sheets covered the old furniture. Heavy drapes covered the windows. I flipped the switch and the lights flickered on with a haunting dimness. It was not quite the happy home it had been. The pieces were all where they belonged, but it was empty, abandoned. It was a feeling all too familiar and painful.
Beckoned by the echoes of better days, I ascended the central staircase. I turned to the right and faced my former bedroom’s closed door. The upper level moaned with my every step toward the room and the door’s hinges squeaked when I pushed it open. I pulled the sheets from the furniture, discarding them to a pile in the center of the floor.
It was all there, every possession I had left behind; The porcelain figurines marking the first sixteen years of my life, the plush friends I had often hugged and cried into, all of it remained in their familiar places. I sat on the bed and recalled the day I left; the fight, the tantrum, the shallowness of my youth. Tired, I snuggled against the pillows and my old, plush friends.
Come morning light, my memory had improved. Things were more the way they had been, but the house remained too quiet. I found my way to the bathroom I once shared, where the over-sized tub flooded back memories of long hours soaking in its silky confines. The soaps remained on the shelf by the door, illuminated by a trickle of sunlight from the window high on the wall. I stretched up on my tiptoes and slid the window open, allowing a cool breeze to whisper inside. The faucet handles turned with ease and my hands remembered the exact positions for the perfect mixture of hot and cold water. I poured in the lavender and watched the bubbles foam on the rising surface.
I slipped off my robe and night clothes, hanging them on the hooks behind the door. Cautiously, I dipped an experimental toe in the water and satisfied, I stepped entirely into the tub, sliding down until the froth covered me to my neck. I reached out and shut of the water. Comforted by the warm water and the familiar scent, I closed my eyes. Images drifted inside my eyelids; my sister’s smiling face, my nephew’s jovial laughter and my brother in law’s judgmental jaw. We had parted on such bad terms. It had been my fault, not theirs, but I had never told them. Now, they were gone and I never could.
A creak on the stairs, snapped my eyes open. I held my breath and listened for anything more. Beyond the quickened pulse of blood in my ears and the straggling drips of water droplets from the spout, there was only silence. I dipped my hands into the water, spontaneously splashing myself to wash away frivolous tension. My laughter rang out with a youthfulness I had thought to be long lost. I felt eighteen again.
The bathroom door burst open. I sat up, covering my chest with folded arms and turned my head to the door. The intruder stood there staring at me. I gazed back at him, speechless and confused. Stanley Roth was dead, just like my sister, his wife, and my nephew, his son. There had been no survivors of the accident. I had already lived through the nightmare of futile hope and come out the other side. He could not possibly be standing in the doorway. Yet there he was, wearing the same white polo shirt, the same black slacks, and the same familiar, disapproving expression on his face. It was absolutely him.
Stanley glared down at me, his voice all too real as he asked, “What do you think you’re doing?”
“Go away,” I whispered.
I closed my eyes only to find him still standing over me when I reopened them. He grabbed my wrist. His grip was as solid and firm as it had ever been. He pulled me up until I was standing in the tub. I stared into his eyes through his black framed glasses and watched him look me over. He was exactly the way I remembered him. His dark, penetrating eyes still made my heart tremble. I would have tried to cover my nakedness, but experience assured me he would not have allowed it. Stanley liked to make me blush.
“This is what I get for taking you in?” he asked, waving his hand to accentuate my wet, soapy and naked body. “I ought to take the door off its hinges and then we’ll see if you still waste so much time in here.”
I tried to pull my wrist free of his grip to no avail. “I don’t understand,” I said.
Stanley scowled at me. “You don’t even know what time it is, do you? Your behavior is beyond ridiculous. I’m sick and tired of you disappearing up here and pretending the rest of the world doesn’t exist.”
“The world exists,” I said while continuing to struggle against his grip, “but you don’t.”
He released me and I stumbled backward, nearly falling in the slippery tub. His hand sailed through the air, striking the side of my face. My head turned, stung by the impact. I gasped and blinked with tears burning in my eyes. It was a page from the past, turned, and apparently, turned back. The scolding words falling from his lips and the callous ones dripping from my poisoned tongue were old parts being played new again. It was our constant dance, each inflicting pain on the other with selfish disregard. Either of us could have ended it all with a kind word, but that was not our way.
Stanley wagged his finger at me. “You may be my wife’s baby sister, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to baby you. This is my house and I’m through putting up with your bad attitude and irresponsible behavior.”
“I’m a grown woman,” I said.
He turned his back to me, looking at the rack on the wall behind the door. “I’ll believe that when you start acting it.”
My legs splashed in the water as I backed away from him until the wall and tub would allow me to go no farther. “You don’t even know me. It’s been years.”
Stanley looked over his shoulder at me. “Stop with the nonsense. You’ve been living here for six months and just because I didn’t see much of you in the two years prior, doesn’t mean I don’t know you. I’m married to your sister after all and believe you me, she had some of your same selfish tendencies when I married her.”
He turned back to the wall and said, “Now, you were supposed to pick up your nephew from football practice an hour ago, but you forgot, just like you always do. To top that off, the kitchen is still a mess from your breakfast. Of course, I’m sure you’ll promise to clean that up later because there is always a later when it comes to anything you should have done.”
I recalled the incident with clarity and the repercussions that followed. It had started us down a slippery road from which we had never recovered. I looked at Stanley’s turned back and considered the possibility fate was giving me a second chance, a chance to make things right. He turned to face me with the heavy strap lifted off the rack and dangling from his fingers. Trepidation surged into my throat and my limbs trembled.
“I’m sorry,” I whispered.
“I’m sure you are and if not, you will be soon enough,” Stanley said. “Turn around and bend over, because we both know you’ve earned this.”
He was right and probably more than he knew. I turned around, pushing myself away from the wall with my hands. My feet slid smoothly on the silky wet surface of the tub. Water dripped from my skin and the window’s breeze brought with it a chill and goosebumps. I leaned over, laying my hands on the tub’s lip and bracing for the imminent strapping. Stanley took his time, taking up position behind me and aiming the two-tailed strap at my wet and naked buttocks.
My eyes fluttered closed. I bit my lip and wondered if I would soon awake in my old bed to find it was all nothing more than a dream. The strap whistled as it cut through the air. At the loud slap of leather crashing against my wet bottom, my eyes sprang open and wide. I blushed scarlet knowing the open window would carry the unmistakable sounds of my spanking out into the neighborhood. A second strike of the strap left my bottom burning in sync with the double lines left by the strap’s two tails. Stanley waited for the echoes of my yelps and the strap’s impact to fade into silence before sending the strap singing anew.
He took his time striping my backside with red welts from top to bottom. I yelped and splashed in the water after each stinging impact. Against the incredible odds set by inflicted pain and protective reflex, I held my position. It was different than that first time when Stanley had been repeatedly forced to put me back into position. I had not wanted to accept it then, but with years of regret weighing over me, I had a new understanding of the discipline’s worth. My distaste for the pain was easily outweighed by my need to make amends. Tears dripped from my eyes into the tub’s soapy water. It was cleansing, just like the sharp sting emanating from my heated, damp buttocks.
Stanley concluded the spanking and dangled the strap next to his leg. “Stand up and face me.”
I turned to him and wiped the tears from my cheeks. Our gazes crossed and I felt his observance of the real sorrow gleaming through my eyes. His own eyes softened with forgiveness and unabated love. My cheeks flushed with embarrassment under his gaze, just like they always had. I looked down at the floor and his feet, still wondering how it all was happening and if it would last. It felt real, my bottom burned with the proof of solid reality.
“If you start acting your age, we won’t have to do this again,” Stanley said.
Stanley handed me a towel. “Dry yourself off and get downstairs. That kitchen won’t clean itself and we’ve got guests coming in less than an hour.”
I took the towel and stepped out of the tub. The towel was more abrasive than soft against my burning buttocks, forcing me to dab at the water rather than rub. Still damp, but no longer dripping wet, I hung the towel back on the rack. Stanley stood by the open door watching me. Though his eyes made me self-conscious, his intention was more likely to ensure I did not slip back into the tub pretending it was all a bad dream. That is what I would have done long ago, but not now. I stepped closer to him, intending to grab my robe. It was my reflection in the mirror that caught my eye and froze my hand. The face staring back at me was of my eighteen year old self.
“Stop wasting time,” Stanley said with that old familiar edge in his voice.
“Sorry,” I said and reached for my robe.
I descended the stairs with Stanley right behind me. The front door swung open and my nephew walked inside followed by my sister. They were all back. It was just like it had been, before I had ruined everything. I stopped at the bottom of the stairs and shared that ‘freshly-spanked-and-deserved-it’ look with my sister. Unlike before, I gave her a wry smile, letting her know I was fine. I made my way to the kitchen where my mess still waited to be cleaned. However it happened, it felt like a second chance and this time I was going to do things right.