Chapter 1: They Say You Can Never Go Home Again…
Rowan sighed as she made her way up the front steps, pulling her luggage behind her and slung over her back as the taxi drove away. Her finger hesitated in front of the doorbell just long enough for her to take a deep breath and then let it out. The familiar chime was familiar in such a nostalgic way, but of course it was supposed to be.
This was the house where she’d grown up.
While she waited for someone to come to the door, she raised a hand to smooth the intentionally rough bangs of her dyed red hair. They fell just in front of her light brown eyes, making both the luster of her hair and eyes stand out from the contrast.
Just before she could let out another long, slow breath the door opened, and standing in the doorway was a younger woman with long blonde hair that fell over her shoulders. Her hazel eyes looked up to Rowan’s, and her lips shifted into a smirk. “Hey, sis. It’s been awhile, huh?”
“Always is, Zoey… but you know how it is! School on the other side of the country, can’t really be home as much as I’d like… especially not with how busy I am in my PhD program.” Rowan smirked back, staring directly into her sister’s eyes. Even with Rowan’s obviously dyed hair, the family resemblance was obvious in so many small little details that people would have difficulty easily articulating at a quick glance. “Mom home?”
“Mm-hm. She’s just working on dinner.” Zoey sighed. “You’re late. She was getting really worried about you, you know.”
Rowan’s smirk shifted into a soft, smooth smile as the tension built up in her shoulders drained away and she fell into a calmer posture. “Can’t do much about turbulence. Tell her that I’m here and I’ll drop into the kitchen after I toss my things in my room?”
It almost seemed like Zoey wasn’t planning on moving out of the doorway. Even when Rowan grabbed back up the handle of her luggage and took a step forward, Zoey didn’t step out of the way. She maintained her expression, and her position, until Rowan took another step forward.
At the very last moment, Zoey stepped out of the way and gestured inside of the house.
While it was well furnished, and decorated with an eclectic assortment from framed pictures of the family, to the occasional houseplant, and even a framed replica of a painting, nothing about it was especially fancy. More cozy and comfortable than especially large or impressive, it was the sort of home that felt like it had everything that someone could need but was hardly everything that someone could want.
Being back again instantly affected Rowan’s smile, widening it further even as her heavy luggage strained to make it past the door. The familiar smells of her mother’s cooking were welcoming enough.
With the sight of the familiar picture of her mother standing behind a younger Zoey and herself, Rowan felt like she was right where she should be.
“Don’t take too long. You wouldn’t want to disappoint mom!”
Zoey’s voice was sweet and sing-song, but the saccharine tone did nothing to hide its barbs. Rowan didn’t tense, nor frown. She didn’t even force her smile. “You know I’d never want to do that!”
Chuckling quietly under her breath, Rowan hauled her things upstairs. Every step was a moment of strain, but it wasn’t long before she was dropping one bag down on top of her bed and then collapsing beside it as the rest of her luggage rested nearby on the floor. Her room was precisely the way she’d left it, the walls covered with unframed posters of bands leaning towards the electronic.
She stayed on her back for only a few short minutes before rising up and rifling through the smaller bag she’d been carrying over her shoulder. After unzipping the wrong compartment twice, she pulled out a bright green jewel case, and opened it to extract a minidisc.
After a brief moment of being a showboat and twirling it between her fingers, she pushed it into her stereo and carefully adjusted the volume. The track it played was quiet background, more mood than anything else. It was just soft enough to easily tune out, but focusing on revealed carefully layered rhythms and a soft beat with a pleasingly predictable progression.
It was the perfect music to passively enjoy, or to ignore completely.
Once she was satisfied adjusting her equalizer just so, Rowan made her way downstairs. The music followed her down while remaining just quiet enough to be easily ignored—the perks of having installed the house’s extensive sound system.
Possibly the one extravagance of Rowan’s shared home, none of it was especially fancy or expensive. There were visible wires and rather ordinary speakers perched at the corners of walls that wouldn’t have provided half of the effect without Rowan’s careful acoustic planning. With it, the introduction of the quiet song permeated the house without being startling, or overpowering the low level noise coming from the kitchen.
“I’m really proud of you, Zoey.” Rowan hesitated just outside of view as she heard her mother’s voice. “You really have put a lot of work into getting along with your sister, even though she can be so difficult to deal with sometimes. I appreciate it a lot.”
Rowan’s face didn’t even twitch. Instead, she simply smoothed her dyed hair one last time, tugged at her t-shirt to try vainly to pull it down to her jeans, and sighed when it rose back up. The strain between her breasts made it obvious why one of her favorite t-shirts no longer fit. A growth spurt meant it needed to go further out, and couldn’t reach further down.
Stepping into the kitchen, she was reminded that her mother was to blame.
“Hey, Mom. Sorry I’m late, the plane needed to slow down in the air. Nothing I could do!” Rowan gave her best smile as she watched her mother stir up a complicated looking recipe with a wooden spoon. “It’s nice to be home!”
“It’s good to have you home!” Her mother didn’t look up from the stove as she continued to carefully stir. “Did you thank Zoey for getting the door? I would have, but I don’t want this to burn… I’d been expecting you home a little sooner, you know.”
Their mother had the same blonde hair as Zoey, only it was cut short and fell just below her ears. While no one would say that Rowan lacked curves or an especially round shape, her mother took all of those things to the next level. The divorced woman kept herself in good shape, but even with the frilly apron tied around her waist there was no hiding the way her large breasts and her full hips had passed on to Rowan.
Zoey was sitting not far away from her mother, idly chopping a carrot in the laziest, most smug way she possibly could. She was still growing into the family curves, and the long, loose maxi dress she wore hung loosely enough to give her the appearance of a more average shape.
When her eyes met Rowan’s, all Zoey did was smile.
“Thanks for the welcome earlier, Zoey. I appreciate it.”
“Don’t mention it!” Zoey’s voice was just as sing-song as before. Their mother smiled, visibly pleased by the interaction. “We’re just glad to have you back! I might be going into a master’s program while staying in town, isn’t that great? It would really beat needing to be stuck in the air for ten hours every few months.”
“I bet it would. I’m really glad that’s working out for you. What are you looking for exactly? I know you weren’t sure for a while there.” Rowan moved through the kitchen to grab a glass from the cupboard, filling it with water from a filtered pitcher in the fridge.
Before Zoey could answer, their mother chimed in. “She almost has her bachelors in business administration. Going for a masters just makes sense, especially when the university in town has such a good program. I can hardly believe she’s doing so well… I’m so proud of you, Zoey!”
“Thank you, mom…!” Zoey beamed, chopping a little faster. “Plus, an MBA sounds really good! I’m too short for the NBA, but that’s only one letter off, right?”
Their mother laughed, and after a moment, Rowan joined them.
Every time she was tempted to stiffen up or frown, Rowan heard just the right part of the beat, or a subtle hint of the melody that was carried into the kitchen just as much as it was the hallway outside of her room.
Much of the sound was obscured by chopping and stirring, but it was still there for someone who knew what to listen for.
Rowan looked around the kitchen as she took a sip from her glass. Everything was still so much the same as she remembered it being ten years ago. The microwave was new, and they’d replaced the old compact florescent bulbs with LEDs, but so much was the same. “Would you like me to help, mom?”
“No, dear. Your sister and I have everything taken care of down here… why don’t you unpack a little? You must be tired after your flight!” She smiled over at Rowan. It was a warm, loving smile, and her words were just as genuine. “I’d give you a hug, but I don’t want this to burn…!”
“Good idea, Mom.” Rowan moved behind her mother, giving her the quickest of hugs before she moved out of the kitchen. “Don’t have too much fun down here without me…!”
Neither Zoey nor her mother laughed, but they did give her a brief smile.
As she stepped away, Rowan could hear them continuing to talk but she decided it was best to not listen in and made her way back up to her room. There was plenty to unpack, and she really was exhausted from the trip.
She was soon emptying out her luggage, hips swinging to a beat that only she had even noticed.
Neither of them noticed the song playing through dinner, through the brief conversation afterwards, or even well into the night. At one point Rowan stepped away and lowered the volume under the guise of needing to visit the bathroom, but neither of them remarked on it. The gentle, dulcet tones filling the house were omnipresent but largely ignored.
The sound still helped Rowan navigate through a complicated dinner, and a brief conversation about how her sound engineering program was coming along that segued into Zoey’s plans for an MBA.
Everything remained amicable enough. Zoey’s jabs were as omnipresent as the music, but two women recognized those as opposed to the one woman who noticed the other sounds in the air.
“I really am feeling entirely too exhausted tonight…” Rowan groaned, stretching her arms high above her head. In the process she naturally arched out her chest.
Her smile subtly grew as she caught her mother’s glance briefly following the motion.
“You should get some rest, dear. We have plenty of time to catch up, and I’d love to hear some of what you’ve been working on if you’ve kept up with your music.” Her mother smiled up to Rowan from her place on the chair near where Rowan rose from the couch. “I imagine trying to pursue a PhD doesn’t leave a lot of time for that kind of fun, but I hope you’re making the time for yourself when you can.”
“I promise, soon? I’ll let you hear a lot of what I’ve been working on. Things have been busy, but… I’ve done my best to make my independent music part of my thesis!”
Zoey yawned, waving her hand lazily at Rowan as she made her way towards the stairs. “Catch you tomorrow, sis! We’ll need to catch up more!” The words almost sounded like a threat, but there was just enough of a hint in Zoey’s tone that she wasn’t very interested in that possibility.
Their mother appreciated the gesture, and that seemed to be what mattered.
Rowan kept her smile, waving back to both of them. “You bet…! Music, catching up…” She pursed her lips, and then gave a firm nod. “We’ll find the time. Goodnight you two…!”
“See you tomorrow!”
Rowan made her way upstairs slowly, listening to the sounds of their resumed conversation without listening to any of the particular words.
Though neither woman realized it, they were falling subtly in line with the rhythm of the song still filling the room. It didn’t affect their word choice, or their attitude, or anything so dramatic, but to someone with a sense of meter it was obvious.
Smiling wider, Rowan kept her door open as she waited for the chatter to settle, and the night to grow later. She was tired, but there was more work to do on her thesis before it was time for that.
Once both Zoey and their mother grew tired and dispersed to their individual rooms, Rowan found it harder to stay patient. The song was still filling the house, and no one had commented on the looping noises and the way they made an already pleasant atmosphere just a little softer.
But she needed to wait a little longer, until her mother and her sister were asleep.
She busied herself on her phone, tapping through various bits of data to confirm that she hadn’t overlooked anything in her analysis of the home’s flow of sound. The walls weren’t especially thick, but they still dampened enough that she needed to keep various angles and sound distribution in mind.
It was important for the music to be heard the right way from more than just the most common areas Zoey and their mother might remain for an extended period of time.
Eventually when Rowan peeked out of her room she saw no lights from under either door.
She hid away in her room for another hour confirming her analysis, and then pulled a pair of small devices from her backpack. Barely much larger than a small thumb drive, they were little more than enough room for a wireless antennae, a battery, and a speaker.
Moving to her mother’s door first, she attached it to the hinge and angled it towards the crack in the door. Briefly she froze when she heard movement inside, but when it was followed by a snore she sighed in relief, and proceeded onwards to her sister’s door to place another device on the hinge of her door in sequence.
Even standing close to the door, Rowan could only quickly spot the device with her eyes because she knew what to look for.
Sound invaded both rooms, permeating their dreams with a song too soothing to disturb but too intriguing for their minds to ignore. It wasn’t a very long loop to be played for hours and hours and hours, but it was long enough to be catchy, and to make their minds wait for the next time it began again.
Back in her room, Rowan turned up the volume on her stereo a notch at a time every five minutes over the course of half an hour. The volume was still soft, the presence of the music still subtle, but raised so carefully neither woman would even notice.
Curling up in her bed, Rowan soon fell asleep with a soft smile on her lips.