I was fourteen when my parents divorced, and my dad moved back to France to lick his wounds and be with his family. I never really saw my dad much after that. In high school, he existed mainly as a conversation piece when we had to “tell something interesting about yourself” during a new class introduction.
“My name is Aurelie, I’m fourteen, I love to play the piano and one interesting fact about me is that my dad is French and lives in Paris.”
Then followed the “Oh my God how cool, do you ever see him? What’s Paris like?”
I opted out of the truthful answer which would have been something along the lines of, “He’s an alcoholic who cheated on my mom and when things got rough he ditched us to go booze it up in Paris. What’s Paris like? Well I’ve seen it once, when I was seven, on a family vacation with my grandma. I think it was nice, I don’t really remember much because I was seven.”
I just told people it was lovely, smelled like rain, city of romance. French teenage boys propose to you on every corner. They just love Americans, and worship me when I go there.
In High School, everyone expected me to take French. I kept up the lie and told them I could already speak it, so I took German instead. Passed with a C, which wasn’t so bad. It was the best of my grades Sophomore year.
Without my dad to keep her occupied, my mom sort of forgot she had kids and left my sister and I to fend for ourselves. I made it to graduation day and finally found the balls to call my father and tell him that I needed him.
“I’ve got to get out of here, dad. Mom’s crazy, Anabel is moved in with some guy and I barely passed High School. Can I come and stay with you?”
It took a year before he said yes. I was nineteen, thin and pretty, long dark hair. I took after my father’s Mediterranean side with my extremely olive skin and brown eyes. I probably would have been prettier if I didn’t look so sour all the time, but life and teenage hormones had put a bad taste in my mouth I just couldn’t seem to get rid of.
My father had a little flat in Paris with his painter girlfriend. I thought it was extremely cliché, a painter girlfriend in the heart of Paris. It was, in fact, very movie-esque. Her name was Mary. She was tall and thick, her hair was red and curly and very long. She had these bright, expressive green eyes and she spoke more with her hands than she did with her words.
She was excited to have me in their flat, though there was no real room for me since their second bedroom was her painting studio. She, as was not really a surprise to me, loved Monet, and it seemed like everything she painted was a copy of his. It wasn’t hard to like her, though.
She made me breakfast every morning, fruit and toast and the strongest coffee I’d ever had. She got me a job working a tourist stand selling little figurines of the popular French landmarks, along with copies of her paintings which, oddly, sold like wildfire to Americans.
About six months into my stay with my dad, he decided to bring me with him to deal with some property issues at my dead aunt’s house. The house was in this little village just outside of Versailles. The village itself was ancient, but the old houses had all been leveled and huge, multistory homes surrounded by huge gates and extremely manicured lawns.
My aunt’s old home, however, was not one of those. The property was worth a ton of money, but they had never sold. We pulled up outside of a massive, black iron gate that was covered with layer upon layer of thick vine.
“Why don’t you just sell this place?” I asked as we got out of the car.
My dad shrugged. “The family wants to keep it. So do I. I spent all of my summers here as a boy, running through the orchard and tending the garden. It’s hard to sell something you’re attached to.”
Funny, I thought. He could run away from his wife and kids and forget they existed, but an old, broken down cottage he held on to for sentimental value. I was, needless to say, a little miffed with him as we walked up to the gate.
I could see that the wheels on the gate which once had rolled smoothly along a track, were now rusted in place. The only thing that moved was a small door just tall enough for me to duck through. Inside the gate, my breath caught in my throat.
It was an entirely different world. The foliage was wild and overrun the entire garden, but it was beautiful. There were cars that had been sitting for so many decades they had become part of the Earth itself.
The cottage stood barely a story high, old stone walls, a wooden roof with obvious holes. There was no real path to speak of, but there was a worn spot on the ground that went right through a bush which stopped growing because it had become such a well-used path.
Outside the front door stood a long, weather worn table that still had a few dishes left on it. A path wrapped around the house to the left and I could make out the tops of the cherry orchard that I’d heard my dad speak of many times as a child.
“I’m going inside to speak to my brother,” he said. “Why don’t you take a walk around?”
I nodded and headed off towards the orchard. I was feeling a little cheated as I made my way through the intensely alive, miniature forest of white cherry trees. I couldn’t believe my father had kept this from me for so long. I couldn’t believe he didn’t give me memories of growing up here. How different I might have been, I thought.
I was making my way through the trees when I spotted a tall, dark haired man standing in the far corner of the orchard. I yelped and jumped a little, and he turned sharply, his dark eyes fixed firmly on me.
“Who are you?” I asked. I assumed it was some family member, but I couldn’t really be sure.
He frowned and took a couple of steps towards me, stopping a couple feet away. “Who are you?” he repeated my question in accented English. It was funny though, because the accent was definitely not French.
“I’m Aurelie,” I said and nodded towards the house. “I’m Rene’s daughter.”
“Rene’s daughter,” he repeated.
“Do you actually speak English or are you just repeating what I’m saying?” I asked a little crossly. I took a couple steps towards a tree and sat down on one of the tall, gnarled roots sticking up from the dirt.
“I speak English,” he said.
“So who are you, then? A cousin, or something?”
He shrugged, but didn’t answer. He continued to stare at me, his face a mix of wonder and fear. “You’ve never been here before.”
“Nope. And you’re not French. What’s your name?”
“Thomas,” he said. “Crowe.”
“That’s not a French name.”
“My father is English. My mother is German,” he said. “I live just down the road.”
I noticed his voice was a bit funny, reminded me of the wind, in a way. He looked young, but also very old. His hair was trimmed just above the ears, and he was wearing some sort of brown sweater over dark slacks. The weirdest thing was, I couldn’t really seem to focus on a lot of detail when it came to his face.
“So you’re not supposed to be in here then?” I asked. He looked a little more frightened and I laughed. “I’m not going to tell anyone. I live in Paris with my dad. He’s the property owner here, but no one lives here, as I assume you know.”
“People used to live here,” he said quietly. “Little girls and little boys. They used to sit on the swings near the garden and play.”
“Did you grow up here?” I asked, ignoring how strange he sounded when he talked.
“My friends lived here for a little while,” he said. “Do you want to go and swing?”
I shrugged and squinted my eyes towards the garden. Sure enough there were a couple of swings tied to a pair of trees on the North side of the garden. “Why not. How old are you, Thomas?”
“I turn eighteen in October. What about you, Aurelie?” he asked.
He began to sound a little more normal now, a little less lost. “Nineteen. You’re just a young thing.”
Thomas laughed a little. “I haven’t heard anyone say that in a long time.”
We made it to the swings without anymore chatter. I sat down and pumped my legs, swinging gently in the breeze. Thomas sat, too, but he didn’t swing. He watched me with his impossibly dark eyes for a long time.
“It’s nice to see someone back here with some life in them,” he said softly. “It’s been a long time.”
“It’s been a long time since I’ve felt alive,” I said, swinging a little higher.
“Be careful,” he said very softly.
I slowed just a bit. “What do you do, Thomas?”
“Do? Nothing, really. I sit in the orchard, and sometimes in the garden. When I was young I wanted to be a doctor. What do you do, Aurelie?”
“I work at my dad’s girlfriend’s art stand in Paris. I sell shit to tourists. I want to go to school but dad says it’s too hard to get me a visa right now. I might go back to America if my mom ever remembers she has kids to take care of. Who knows, maybe I’ll get married.”
“I’d marry you, if I could,” Thomas said, and strangely sounded a little sad. “You look like someone I used to know.”
“I don’t want to marry someone who only wants me because I look like someone they used to know,” I said, somewhat offended.
“Someone will marry you because they love you.”
I smiled. “I hope so.”
We continued to sit in silence until I heard my dad calling my name through the back window. I slowed and stopped and turned to look at Thomas. “Well, see you,” I said.
He nodded. “Be careful on these swings, Aurelie.”
I, of course, thought that warning was bizarre, but I hurried off into the house and found my dad and uncle sitting at a table. “Have a nice time?” my uncle Bernard asked me. He was the spitting image of my dad, except for the hair. My dad had my thick, black curls, but my uncle was a ginger.
“It was fine. I met your neighbor,” I said.
Bernard frowned. “What neighbor?”
“That kid, Thomas something or other. He said he comes here and hangs out in the orchard sometimes. You’ve got to have seen him before. Tall, dark and kind of creepy. Black hair? Not ringing any bells?”
Bernard and my dad looked at each other in confusion. “Not really. This neighborhood doesn’t really have any teenagers, Aurelie. It’s full of old people who don’t work.”
“He said he grew up here,” I argued. “We were just sitting on the swings talking.” I walked to the window but the only thing out there were the swings, swaying slightly in the breeze.
“There wasn’t anyone out there with you, Aurelie,” my dad insisted.
I turned to him and shook my head. “I swear to god. It was this kid, he said he was seventeen. He said he wanted to be a doctor, he grew up here. He said he remembered kids playing here.”
My uncle sighed. “There haven’t been any kids here since your dad and I were little.”
“I’m not making this up!” I insisted. “He kept warning me about not swinging too high.”
My uncle suddenly frowned. “What did you say his name was?”
“Thomas,” I said and struggled for his last name. “Thomas something. Something different. Ummm… Crowe! Thomas Crowe!”
My dad gasped, “C’est impossible!”
My uncle looked at me with dark eyes. “That is not possible.” His voice was so finite it frightened me.
“Why isn’t it possible?” I demanded, sounding a little hysterical now.
By way of answer, my uncle stood up and walked out of the room. He returned a minute later with a photograph. “Describe the boy again.”
My hands were shaking a little and my adrenaline was pumping. “Tall, dark hair, dark eyes. He was wearing a brown sweater and dark pants. He said he was born in October and wanted to be a doctor. That’s about all I remember.”
Bernard handed me the photograph. It was very old and worn, but there was no mistaking the person in the picture. It was Thomas Crowe. On the back was written, Thomas Crowe, Born 15 October, 1935 died 12 November 1952.
“Not possible,” I gasped.
Bernard took the photo back. “Thomas Crowe was Engaged to our mother, your grandmother. They were outside on the swings and he fell. His neck was broken. They tried to save him, but by the time they got help he was gone. She was already pregnant with me when he died. She met your grandfather a few weeks later and married him out of fear of being a single, pregnant woman in 1952.
I bowed my head. “Tell me how I just talked to him,” I whispered.
“You probably just imagined it,” my dad said, but his voice was shaking. “Come on Bernard, let’s go close up the back house and go.”
They left me alone and I walked to the window. In the corner of the garden, I saw him again. Thomas Crowe. He raised a hand to me, and despite the fact that I was utterly petrified, I waved back.
Thomas Crowe. C’est Impossible.