The paint on the house was peeling, falling to the mix of dust and dying grass that was once a lawn. Dirty windows glinted gold in the fading sunlight. Her reflection was smudged, distorted. She pressed the doorbell once and Owen answered after a moment, phone pressed to his ear. He looked surprised but quickly hid it in a smile. He led Angela to the kitchen, indicated that she should take a seat at the table.
The scent of summer rain clung to the house. The lights were off. Plates with mismatched patterns were piled in the sink. Swirling blue lines and little red flowers. The kitchen opened into a living room, white walls with pink flowered stenciling scrawling across the top. His sister was curled on the couch in front of the TV, motionless, sleepily mesmerized by the bright flashing images of red-painted lips and high-heeled shoes and bodies sheathed in gauzy fabric. The light gave her face an eerie radiance, simultaneously bright and pale, her dark hair a shadow. The graceful, flowing accents and pitchy, short articulations and velvet murmurs coming from the TV blended with music playing in another room.
It was strange being back here. Angela felt like she didn’t belong. She and Owen were too far apart, stretched to the axes of different worlds, never colliding.
In such a small town, it was surprising that she hadn’t encountered him earlier. Sometimes they passed each other in the halls at school, but they never spoke, never made eye contact. Secretly, Angela had always dreaded being reunited with Owen, a combination of guilt and the uncomfortable feeling that he somehow knew a side of her that she kept tucked away at the corners of her heart. Sometimes, in retrospect, the days that they spent in his backyard together seemed like more than a simple summer friendship at five, but at other times she thought she was simply remembering it as more than it was. Maybe it was because something about it felt unfinished, abandoned without clarity.
Angela looked around the house as Owen continued talking on the phone, pacing the length of the kitchen. It sounded like he was giving someone directions. His parents didn’t seem to be home. Angela imagined them as they were all those years ago. His father, cold and intimidating. His mother and her strained smiles. There was always an absence here, the kind of heavy empty space that Angela’s five-year-old mind could only notice but never fully comprehend.
Now, years later, she noticed a different absence, lighter somehow. Looking around the house, Angela noticed that despite its exterior appearance and the kitchen’s untidiness, it was a lot cleaner than she remembered. The walls had been repainted, no longer flaking to the scratched floor. The empty dented beer cans that previously littered the living room were gone, replaced with picture frames. Three people stood on a sunlit shore in the closest frame, smiles no longer weighed down by shadows, and then Angela remembered why Owen’s father wasn’t here anymore.
Owen’s voice cut across Angela’s thoughts. He was off the phone, addressing her as if she hadn’t ignored his existence for the past twelve years. “Sorry about that. Thanks for coming.”
“No problem,” Angela answered, even though she could think of dozens of other things she’d rather be doing.
“You’re the last person I was expecting to show up,” he commented.
“Joan asked me to. My parents just made me join the committee.”
Owen smiled. “You’ll have fun.”
“I doubt it. So why are you doing this?”
“I’ve always liked history,” he answered. “I think it’s important to understand the place you’re from.”
Angela shrugged. For a silent moment, they stared at the bright images on the TV.
“Alright, I just have to get a few things and then we can leave.” Owen half-motioned to the stairs.
Angela nodded and followed him. His room was messy, bed unmade, desk covered in crumpled papers with cross-outs and smudged ink. One wall was covered in maps, squiggling lines inked across crisp pages to detail the intricacies of cities and continents, the Earth’s busiest squares and intimate corners sketched out in coded colors. A canvas of rivers and roads taped across a space in a middle-of-nowhere town.
“Sorry about the mess,” Owen apologized, extracting a backpack from a carpet of inside-out clothing. He stuffed a stack of papers and folders from his desk inside.
“It’s fine.” Angela glanced at her phone, uninterested. She had a series of text messages from Dillon, her boyfriend. Ignoring him, too, she tossed the phone back into her bag without reading the messages.
She wandered over to Owen’s mirror to check her hair. Tucked between the glass and its wooden frame was a faded photograph. A girl, curly-haired and smiling, lips stained with Popsicle lipstick. She was wearing a bathing suit splashed with flowers in shades of coral and amethyst, hugging a shirtless boy in mud-stained denim. The sprinkler behind them shot glittering jets of water into an arc across the cornflower sky.
“It’s us,” she said, surprised.
Owen seemed slightly embarrassed. “My mom found it a few weeks ago and gave it to me. It’s a nice reminder of how simple things used to be. I miss the innocence of being a kid sometimes.”
“I know what you mean,” Angela confessed. “Life was so much easier back then.” She wondered why she was telling him this. She wasn’t here to reconnect or reminisce.
“There are a few more, I can show them to you later if you want,” Owen offered.
He joined her at the mirror to look at the picture. Angela looked at their reflections. Her own appearance hadn’t changed much; her hair was lighter and her curls had fallen into loose waves, but the shape of her face was the same. She hadn’t really looked at Owen in years, though. At school, it was just stolen glimpses of a tall boy in a sweatshirt, baggy jeans, always listening to music to block out the noise of the busy halls. He was so much taller than her. Over the years, his eyes had changed from bright blue to a dull, almost sad shade of gray. His hair was slightly too long, falling almost to his shoulders in a messy way that was somehow graceful. His face was longer, barely shaven, jaw more structured.
Looking at him this close, for this long made Angela feel uncomfortable. She hated being close to anyone in any way. She tore her gaze away from their backwards faces, breaking the connection their eyes had forged through glass and sunbeams.
“Let’s go,” she told Owen.
Owen called goodbye to his sister as he and Angela made their way downstairs. He closed the front door behind them as they stepped outside. The sun was slowly beginning to set, staining the leaves on the trees gold.
“I can never decide whether or not I like this time of year,” Owen commented, filling the silence as Angela fumbled for her keys. “You know, these last few weeks of summer, before it really becomes fall.”
“I don’t like it. Fall’s always been my least favorite season. I’ve always hated going back to school. I feel like I spend all year waiting for summer again.”
Owen laughed quietly. “Look around, though.”
Angela’s fingers brushed against her keys. She hooked her finger through the silver circle keeping them together, drew them from her bag. The keys chimed as they collided.
“Look,” Owen said again. “Everything’s gold. It makes the whole town look different.”
Golden rays of light slanted across the driveway. The windows sparkled. Shadows blurred against the house, erasing the dirty paint. Even the dying grass glowed with gold. Everything about the house’s exterior looked different than it did when Angela pulled into the driveway alone fifteen minutes ago. Better, more beautiful than it really was. It was like she was suddenly seeing through Owen’s eyes. No one had ever imposed their own way of seeing the world upon Angela. She never let them. It was unsettling.
“It’s beautiful,” Angela admitted, unlocking the car. “I’ve never noticed it before.”
“I think,” said Owen quietly as he settled into the passenger seat, “that when you live in a place for too long, when you know all of its secrets and scars, it’s easy to forget that it can be beautiful.”
He was right, thought Angela, even with his pretentious attempts to wrap his words with poetry. The setting sun glared and gleamed against the windshield. As she pulled out of the driveway, Angela squinted through the sunlight and looked back at Owen’s house.
It was still gilded in gold.