She was filled with memories as they drove up the long driveway to the house. It had been such a very long time since she’d been there. The war had kept them away. She’d been practically a child before, she realized. She pictured herself running all about the grounds of the large manor with Mark, her older brother, or their dog Rene, a black border-collie. They would hide behind hedges, jump out, tag each other. They’d gather piles of leaves in the fall and jump into them. So many memories came flooding back. All the events of her childhood. Now she was back. And yet, she knew it would not be the same. The war had changed her; had changed everything. Mark’s injury, towards the end of the war, had somehow robbed him of some aspect of his former self. Some sense of cheerfulness, optimism was gone now. As for their father, the war had aged him. He was, suddenly, an old man now. He limped, he squinted, and he could hardly hear anything. All he liked to do most days was sit and smoke his pipe in silence. She missed the days when he would amble about the grounds with her and Mark, chase them across the lawns, catch them, swing them up in the air, everyone laughing. She missed the way he used to whistle as he made coffee in the morning. Much of that had disappeared even before the war though, when their mother had passed away. It had affected all of them, her sudden illness and even more unexpected death. Rachel shook her head. She didn’t want to think about her mother just then.
The car stopped in front of the house and they climbed out. Mark handed her her suitcase and she made eye contact with him, hoping to share a brief moment of mutual sentiment about their returning home. But his steely look ignored the appeal in her gaze. He was shut off from her. They walked up the wide steps, stopped before the great oak doors, where Mark slid a key into the lock and opened them. Inside she looked about. Nearly everything was as she had remembered it, only a bit smaller and covered in a layer of fine dust. In a way it was a miracle that the place had survived through the war unscathed. So many houses had been bombed. Others had been converted into temporary housing or offices for military personnel, and had been ransacked in the process. Still others had been robbed by starving civilians or squatted in by those whose homes had been demolished. But somehow, this place, her home, had survived all of that. Nothing touched, no windows broken, no furniture or even the fine silver pilfered. Even the grounds weren’t in too poor of shape, considering it had been the better part of a decade. It really beggared belief. She repeated it to herself: It was miracle. She even raised her hands in a silent prayer.
"Oh Mark, it really is incredible. It’s all still here. And just how I remembered it!"
He looked at her, smiled, and for just an instant the smile lit up his eyes, his whole face, as in the good old days. Then just as quickly it vanished. He looked away, picked up his suitcase, and began marching up the stairs. She followed with hers.
By evening they were all settled in to their old rooms. Her bed was a bit too small for her now, but that could be fixed. Their father would be joining them the following day. He’d encountered an unexpected delay with the transportation of their belongings. Rachel and Mark had a light supper of food they’d brought with them from the store near the train station. Rachel tried to discuss the house some with Mark, to interest him in memories of their childhood, but he had remained mostly silent while they ate, and then had gone upstairs to bed. She’d stayed in the darkening kitchen for a little while longer, sitting, thinking, sipping tea. Then she went upstairs and to bed as well. She fell asleep almost as soon as she had climbed beneath the sheets and quilted blanket.
She woke in the middle of the night. All was dark. Yet she felt that someone was in the room with her. She strained her eyes looking about. Yes, there, near the door, there was a human shape almost imperceptibly brighter than the surrounding darkness. As she stared her eye must have adjusted, for it became more distinct. Her heart was beating quick and skittish and her mind was racing. Who would come into her room in the middle of the night? Her brother? He was the only one here. Unless. They hadn’t thoroughly searched the house or anything. They’d merely moved in, eaten some food, and gone to bed. The door was still closed, she could see. How did the person get in and shut it again without her hearing the loud creaking sounds that would have made, or the noise of the latch? She wanted to fumble for the switch to turn on the lamp by her bed, but she would have to turn; she would be unable to keep her eyes on the figure. She debated what to do. Should she scream? But what if it was just a strange trick of the light? She couldn’t be sure. Mark would think her silly, fragile, a grown woman screaming at nothing the first night back in their home. Then the shape began to move toward her. It came around the side of the bed. At this she pushed herself into a seating position with her back to the headboard. She raised her fists, ready to defend herself from the figure. At this it stopped. It was still for a moment and as she watched it she heard her own harsh breath, felt her heart beating. Seconds passed. And then it spoke.
"Rachel. Rachel, dear, it’s me." It was the voice of her mother. A sob caught in Rachel’s throat. Another sob came and she let it out. The shape came forward, a patch of paleness still only barely visible in the dark room. But as it drew nearer Rachel could feel the presence of her mother, could almost make out her features.
"Mom!" She whispered.
"Oh, Rachel!" the voice replied. It was filled with love and longing. "I waited and waited for you, for you and Mark. I stood watch. I kept the house for you."
Suddenly a thought occurred to Rachel and she gasped, for she knew at once it was true. Suddenly she understood. She understood the reason why the house had remained as it was, safe from soldiers, burglars, even from bombs throughout the long years of the war while houses all around had been ransacked, trashed, demolished.
The shape that was her mother came forward again, seeing that she understood. She reached and embraced it.
"Rachel. I will always love you."
"I love you too, Mom." She sobbed. And then she realized that the shape was gone.
In the morning she wasn’t sure if it had been a particularly vivid dream brought on by the emotions of returning home. But at breakfast her brother made eye contact with her like he rarely did anymore. Even stranger, he smiled. Genuinely smiled.
"I had a strange dream last night," he began. And then she knew. She rushed and embraced him before he could speak any further. He laughed, puzzled. She hadn’t heard him laugh in who knows how long. But here he was, laughing with her in the kitchen. Things were going to be alright again.