The people always lasted longer than the places.
That was what Linh believed, without even realizing it. Places were temporary. They were designed and built and lived in, then torn down when they were no longer in use and replaced with something newer. (But not necessarily better—just newer.)
But the people—the people stayed, more or less in the same place. When you lived for an eternity, you expected to see dozens, even hundreds of buildings fall during your lifetime. You watched from a safe distance, and moved in when the rebuilding was complete.
The people lasted longer than the places, which is something Linh no longer believed.
When the war ended, so many people were gone. Not just the Neverseen, but civilians too. Some of them Linh knew—the dwarves whose homes she had lived in, the medics who had tended to her brother after he returned from the Neverseen. But there were more whose names she didn’t know, who had died while their houses had watched from a safe distance.
The houses were empty now, and Linh unlatched the front gate of Choralmere alone.
The first thing she heard were the wind chimes, softly ringing the same shimmery notes that they had for hundreds of years. Then the birds, whistling a familiar melody. Even the rustling of the trees sounded the same, as if nothing had changed over the last decade.
But then again, everything had changed.
The wind chimes had been playing the day she and Tam had moved out. (Moved out was a nice, gentle word for what they had done, Linh thought. It made it seem as though they had left Choralmere because they had wanted to, as if they had simply outlived the need for their house.) They had been playing their cheerful tune when Tam looked up from the fireplace, his newly-silver hair reflecting in the firelight, and he had hated it. The house had always been so full of music, day and night, and Tam had just wanted silence. At least silence didn’t carry the memory of their parents.
She remembered him running outside, his face dripping with silver and sweat. He had reached the maple tree where the wind chimes hung, and he had torn them down.
Linh stood under the maple tree and looked up.
The wind chimes were the same. She could tell they hadn’t been replaced. The only thing new about it was a knot, ugly and conspicuous, tying the cord together where Tam had broken it into two. Linh could imagine her mother bent over the grass, fumbling to piece her beloved chimes back together. (Her father would have been present, but not participatory. He would have watched from a safe distance.)
But her mother wasn’t there anymore. For now, it was just Linh.
She reached up and let her fingers brush against the wind chimes. They knocked against each other in a different pattern. The new tune sounded less cheerful (less grating, Tam would have said). She lowered her hand.
She wasn’t going to be here for long, she reminded herself. She was just here to collect her things. Then she would leave.
Linh continued down the tree-lined path toward the house (her house, she tried to think, but she hadn’t been back for so long and too much had happened here for it to ever really be her house). She took her time as she went. Uncomfortable as she felt being there, it was a nice day and she liked being outside. And she didn’t believe she quite had the capacity to hate Choralmere as much as Tam did (that was why he had refused to come with her today), or even at all. It was just a place, after all, and places could be torn down and rebuilt.
She reached the front steps and stopped. Even the scent of the front door was the same, woody and wild and generations old. She took a deep breath, then turned the doorknob.
Linh kept her head down as she worked, doing exactly what she had come home (home? That seemed like very much the wrong word to describe it) to do. She looked up only to see if any belongings of hers were on a high shelf. She stood on her tiptoes and found a hand-sized doll on top of the mantel. Her father had put it there, she remembered, promising to give it back after she passed her midterm exams. She hadn’t been able to reach it then, even if she had jumped.
Without much effort, she plucked the doll from the mantel and placed it in her bag.
She collected some of Tam’s things too, although she took less of them. She started to question what he would want to keep and what he would prefer to leave behind. (His old clothes? Too small now, and he wouldn’t want them for sentimentality. The buckets of black paint in his closet? Dried up and useless, and he has his own paint now. The cut cord of his registry necklace, half-burnt and missing the pendant? Definitely not.)
It’s like their parents didn’t even touch the house after she and Tam were gone, Linh thought. Everything was exactly the same, as if the people had never left, never grown, never changed. As if the war had never happened.
Linh visited her mother’s studio next. That room was untouched too, and the smell of paint still hung in the air. There was nothing in this room to take. She drew a tarp over the portrait in the middle of the room, the one her mother had started and Biana had finished. She didn’t want it.
The rest of the clean-out progressed quickly, and in no time at all Linh found herself in the courtyard again, breathing in the scent of the front door. The tide had come in while she had been working, and the woody scent was now mixed with the salt.
She felt the ocean calling her, like it always did. Sometimes it shouted to her, and other times it whispered. It flattered and threatened her in equal measure. Occasionally, it tried to seduce her. But today, the ocean sounded like music, and Linh was having a harder time keeping away.
So she stopped resisting. Still holding her bag of belongings, she took off her shoes and waded into the shallows. And there, standing ankle-deep in the saltwater she had been so afraid of for years—that was when she realized. (That was when she knew.)
Her parents had clung to old things for so long, so desperately that they had refused to clean out her room and Tam’s for a decade. And Linh wasn’t going to do that. There was a war separating her parents’ generation and hers, a jagged paint stroke cutting the timeline of history into two. And if the war had taught her anything, it was that people and places were both so temporary (and the echoes they left lingered like wind chimes on a windless day). And if nothing else, she was glad she had come home.
She laid her bag in the sand by her feet. At midnight, when the tide was highest, it would be washed away. Maybe some of it would wash up elsewhere. Maybe it would all sink to the bottom of the sea. Linh didn’t know (and that, she realized, was what was so beautiful about it all).
She put her shoes back on and started walking back toward the gates. She didn’t look back at the ocean; she didn’t want to watch the waves swallow up her childhood, even from a safe distance. But she did stop to collect one item on the way.
Linh tugged the wind chimes down from the maple tree, her mother’s knot splitting right down the middle. She shoved it into her pocket and left.