The following work by Ignacio Peña was written during their time in the Creative Writing Masters degree programme at the University of Edinburgh. This campus-based course is a one-year degree with dedicated strands in fiction and poetry. (There is also a Writing-for-Performance degree as well as an on-line Masters in Creative Writing for part-time students). An animator by trade, Ignacio Peña decided to take a year away from the movie business to focus on his fiction.‘Where We All Belong’ is an excerpt from his novel-in-progress. His writing is featured in the inaugural edition of our annual Creative Writing anthology, From Arthur’s Seat, which is published by Egg Box.
“I’ve been saving up some money,” Ellie had whispered to Greg as they sat on the edge of Three Mile Creek a year ago. “I’ve been keeping it from folks cuz I don’t really wanna raise a fuss, but I know you’d keep quiet about it.”
Greg tensed at that. “You know I’d never let slip what you don’t want out there.”
“Course I know that. It’s just I really don’t want word getting round to Mitch. He’s still sore about everything, and the last thing I need is for him raisin something that’s none of his concern.”
Greg pulled at reeds around his feet and wrangled them in his hands. “So what’s the money for?”
He thinks about it often, how long she kept quiet then. That silence sinks his stomach every time he holds it in his thoughts. He thinks about how the sun that day looked, not like it was setting, but shrinking into that coming night.
“I’m leaving next week.”
It seemed to Greg that the world became quieter in that moment, that even the water running through that creek had lost its breath.
“What does that mean?”
“I’m leaving my folks a lot of my things. They’re gonna take care of my stuff. Been slowly getting rid of things, consolidating and such.”
“What does that mean you’re leaving?”
Ellie began wrangling reeds of her own, looking down at her own hands doing it. “I’m going away Greg. I’m gonna have a look around. Someplace that’s not here.”
“Just like that? You’re not actually serious, right? You’re just gonna leave and not tell anyone?”
“I’m tellin you, aint I?”
“That’s not what I mean and you know it Ellie.”
There was something twisting at her face then. Greg was unable to read what it was and as he walks now thinking about her then, he still can’t figure it. She said little after that and he asked just as much, because he knew how much Ellie had loved Mitch despite the fact that they had never been right to begin with. He knew how alone she was in Ohio.
“I gotta see the ocean, Greg,” she had said. “Not the creek. The ocean.”
She left Ohio. Greg sat often on that same bank on Three Mile Creek, thinking of the nights that followed since. She wrote to him with measured frequency for a brief time, until the time between words from her grew longer. He wrote her emails; she replied with postcards. They came from cities stretching further east. Each new postcard traveled further, and like a distant echo, fewer words came. The last postcard arrived from New York three months ago. It was the last he heard from her.
The autumn air bites into his skin as he treads through the grass. The sun hangs weakly in milky clouds, leaving the blades of grass underfoot sparkling with last night’s dew. He crosses the park and allows the movement to melt the thought of Ellie away.
It’s midday when he turns back into the empty street of his father’s shop. The broken-down Chevy is mounted off the ground, a cannibalized husk, picked clean of life and abandoned to its corrosion. His father’s legs sprawl out from beneath the car, an uneven clanging sounding out from underneath.
The sound stops as Greg’s boots scrape by.
“Greg? That you?”
“Thought you said you were going over to Jimmy’s.”
“Well you sure took your time. I got started on the carburetor.”
Greg leans over the open hood, looks at his father through the gaps. An oil-stained face peers up at him through the open engine.
“Wait, what?” Greg asks. The old, weathered face of his father’s stares back, guilty as charged. “You started on the car?”
“Yeah I started on the car. It’s in my shop isn’t it?”
“Pop, we were only gonna look it over and give the guy an estimate.” He looks up shaking his head in disbelief. “We’ve never had to turn over a car this bad, if we get started on it now—”
His gaze is held by the bench on the far wall. An open hip flask of whiskey sits by the tool box. Greg walks away from the car. He takes the whiskey and closes the cap.
“What?” his father calls from underneath the Chevy. “Come on Greg, what?”
“I’m going inside Pop. Go for a walk, I don’t want you under that car right now.”
Silence swells through the garage before his father responds. “What are you talking about kid? Come on, we’ve got work to do here—”
“Go for a walk! Or go drink in your room, just get out from under that car for fuck’s sake,” he calls out as he walks into the hallway and into the house.
The wood creaks underfoot as he steps quickly through to the front door. He looks around, feeling trapped. The living room sits cold; blankets lie piled on the couch in front of the television where his father fell asleep last night. He moves to collect the linen but stops short of the couch when he sees the photograph on the table. His mother, holding him as a child by a sculpture of a giant tin boot at an outdoor cafe. A heavy breath escapes as he bends over to pick up the photo frame and replaces it back on the shelf by the cold fireplace, its seat amongst his father’s shrine of memories.
A noisy rummaging sounds out from the garage. His father is sifting through the toolbox on the workbench where his flask of whiskey had been. Through the commotion, his voice floats in, “Greg—” he stops, scuffling about in the garage, looking and looking. You’re not gonna find it there, Dad. “Hey you didn’t bring anything into the house did you?” he calls out. Greg drops the flask into his back pocket.
“Go on! I’ll have a cup of coffee waitin for you when you get back!” he yells. “Go on,” he says. A whisper now.
He hears his father scrape out of the garage and into the sidewalk. The living dead he thinks as he stares at the photographs of his mother. He collects the rest of the linen and walks out of the living room to the stairs in the hallway. As he begins to walk up the steps he hears the mail slot clatter open and shut, spitting out the day’s circulation. He turns to see the pile on the floor.
Coupons, bills, the regular junk. Unmarked envelopes addressed to Thomas Hatfield. Bank statements addressed to Greg. Except, he sees a thick card tucked in between two white unmarked envelopes. Greg lowers the linen onto the stairs and carefully navigates over the sheets, down to the bottom of the stair. He reaches for the pile of mail. One postcard.
Greg sets the mail pile on the side table, holding the postcard in his hand. On the front of it sits an old, faded cabin sitting alone in a green field. The field is flat, receding into a heavy silver mist, and beyond, two tall mountains peek through, distant and shadowy. A limp clothesline stretches from the left end of the cabin out to an uneven tree, leaning over a still silver pond. He turns the postcard over and instantly recognizes Ellie’s handwriting.
Where we all belong.
Greg flips the postcard over, scanning the image for any other clue. He finds none. There is no location printed anywhere on the image or on either side of the card. He sits on the bundled mess of blankets on the steps and stares at the four words written by Ellie, the blank space surrounding it, at his name and address, neatly written, pressed down in blue ink. A single black line divides the space between the address and her brief message.
Light drips into the hallway through the windows of the front door as the sun lowers away from its noon perch. It’s not even a message, he thinks. Not even a complete sentence. He sits there in silence, dedicating long moments to examining both the image and the writing for anything which might reveal to him where she might have sent the postcard from. He sits, quiet, his thumb running over the postage on the card. Three stamps. Somewhere far.
Greg feels a tight pull in his stomach grow stronger as he stares into the shafts of light breaking through into the hall. He gathers the linen from the steps and goes upstairs, throwing it into a cabinet, and leaves the postcard in the desk drawer in his room. A numbness overtakes his thoughts each time he looks at the cabin in the field. Something compels him to keep it hidden. He closes the door to the shop, leaving it unlocked in case his father returns; he doesn’t trust his father to have taken his keys.
Greg only met Ellie’s parents once before. As he drives down highway 42 he wonders if he should just call instead of traveling to their house, but as he thinks of the cryptic postcard he is filled with an urgency to move. Surely they must be in contact with her. Perhaps they know where it is she’s writing from. This alone would put him at ease. He drives in silence. The air inside the truck is thick with some ghost of a passenger.
He turns into a quiet street and parks, the crackling of the engine clicking as it rests from its journey. There’s a large tree in the yard by her parent’s home. Two children hang off branches while a toddler circles the base of the tree, rhythmically hitting a stick against the trunk. Greg studies the children. A memory of when he was a child returns to him. He thinks he was maybe five. He sat on a high brick wall dividing his house from his neighbors, looking down into the backyard. The girl next door leaned against a tree, tossing a tennis ball at him while he kicked his legs against the brick. He can’t remember her name anymore, or where they went to after they left Ohio. They moved, he thinks, maybe to Arizona, but he can’t be sure. The girl in his memory had short hair, but as his thoughts grasp at the details of that tiny girl’s features, Ellie’s face begins to take shape in it.
He frowns at that. In the years since those neighbors left he had completely forgotten about that little girl, but as he examines that fragment in his head, he feels a spiraling thread he can’t follow unspool from it. She was important to him once. Now she is only a nameless whisper. He pulls on the door handle, the hinges creaking under the weight of its own metal, exits the truck. He walks slowly to the porch as he stares at the young boy, still circling the trunk, still rhythmically tapping his stick against the wood, as if it were a task that would eventually tear the whole thing down. Slow measured steps lead him up the footpath and onto the porch, drawing out the time, trying to remember who that girl was. He stands frozen at the door, his thoughts clawing through his memory for her name, until all he can see is Ellie and he releases a long-held breath of defeat.