Fiction by Zachary Kocanda
I joined a lot of Facebook groups after Theresa got sick. Our daughter Katie helped me download the app on my phone. It took an hour, but I did it. First, I joined a group for spouses of cancer patients, then a group where folks chatted about growing up during the Eisenhower years. The other day, a group member shared a picture of their first car, a red ’57 Ford Thunderbird. Remember this car? they asked. I did remember. I joined a group for local news, and a Facebook friend from primary school invited me to a group for our classmates, mostly obituaries and funeral information. And then, I found the Illinois Abandoned Images group. It showed up on my newsfeed one day. While my wife slept, I scrolled through images of deserted sites throughout the state. I spent hours there. I “liked” every post. Farms, houses, schools, churches, even cemeteries. All forsaken, returning to nature.
One day, I saw a picture of an old Victorian house. The person who posted it wrote: Old picture. You can’t see it this time of year because the trees completely cover it up and if you didn’t know it was there you would drive right past it. It was the house where I was born. I couldn’t believe it at first, but I remembered all the trees. I was born there. Right in the living room.
I saved the picture to my phone.
I commented: Where is this?
I put down my phone. Theresa napped most afternoons, so I quietly entered our bedroom. I found an old photo album in the closet, but there weren’t any images of the house where I was born.
I flipped through pictures of Theresa and me. At the diner. On our wedding day.
I put the album away and fixed a snack in the kitchen.
I checked Facebook. There were more comments.
The first was: Read the rules, dumbass. Another: Did you read the group rules? Another: No one reads the rules anymore. And another: McHenry County, right by Richmond. I “liked” this last one.
I replied: I was born here.
They replied: You better be from here, old man,followed by an American flag sticker.
A moderator closed the comments, then made a new post: This group is not for political spews. This group is for enjoying photos of abandoned places that were legally obtained.
I commented: Is the house from the other post truly abandoned?
Seconds later, my comment was deleted. The moderator closed the comments.
I received a private message from the person who gave the location.
He had been banned from the group for sharing that.
That’s too bad, I wrote.
The group rules suck, he said. Fuck the mods.
Is that house truly abandoned? I asked. I lived there years ago. My father died when I was three. My mother had to sell the house, and we moved into a motel.
He didn’t answer the question. Instead, he asked: Aren’t you going to say sorry? You caused this.
I apologized, then asked: Do you know the street? No reply.
I checked Facebook hours later, and he still hadn’t replied. His name was Craig. I added him as a friend. A day later, he hadn’t accepted my request. I checked his profile. He didn’t even live in Illinois. He lived in Indiana, not even northwest Indiana. He had no right to be in the group in the first place.
I couldn’t find the original post, so I couldn’t message the person who shared the picture. McHenry was only two counties over, but it was sizeable. I’d drop dead before I could drive up and down all the county roads.
The next morning, Theresa’s sister drove her to the doctor. I offered, but she said her sister hadn’t visited in weeks, and she owed her. Her sister was taking her out to lunch afterward, so she said I should let her know if I wanted anything from Bob’s Diner.
Theresa’s sister always took her to Bob’s Diner.
Theresa and I had our first date there. The food never disappointed.
“Anything that travels well,” I said, and she said, “You goof,” and kissed me goodbye.
Theresa asked me to clean the house while she was out. She said start with the pantry. Last year, for our fiftieth anniversary, Katie gifted us fifty mini bottles of assorted alcohol she had spray-painted gold. Katie’s a flight attendant, and she collects them.
Theresa and I split one bottle at our anniversary celebration, so there were forty-nine gold-spray-painted mini bottles left. That’s a lot of pantry space. I called Katie.
There’s a Facebook group where people give things away to their neighbors.
I asked her to help me write a post about the booze.
It was late where she was, across the world. I could hear her coworkers partying in the background.
Katie said she couldn’t help me because she was about to go to bed.
I heard her shush her friends.
I asked when she would be back to visit her mother.
Then she offered to help me write the post.
Katie always knew what to say. She was her mother’s daughter. A quick wit.
The post read: Would you like to play Russian roulette with your gut? An assortment of mini bottles of unknown liquid that requires you show an ID for pickup.
Katie said it was time for bed, and I said goodnight.
My Facebook post was immediately popular. I received lots of comments. One encouraged me to raffle the bottles. Another suggested I give two people twenty-five bottles each, or five people ten bottles each, or ten people five bottles each.
I clarified there were forty-nine bottles, and someone replied: Seven bottles to seven people each. Spread the love!
I checked my messages. One request. Maybe Craig had replied. Craig hadn’t replied, nor had he accepted my friend request. The message was from a person named Jen, who asked if she could have the alcohol for her housewarming party: As the host, I’ll be completely sober at this small get-together, but I would like my friends to enjoy themselves. Her profile listed her as a community college student, and she graduated from high school last year. Jen reminded me of Katie, who also lied about drinking responsibly when she was younger.
I will raffle, I commented on my post. I received another message from Jen. Please, she wrote, followed by a smiley face. I clicked on her profile. Her hometown was a small town in McHenry County. Richmond.
When can you pick up the bottles? I typed to her.
Jen knocked on our door an hour later. I asked for an ID, as requested in the Facebook post, but she gasped, buried her face in her hands, and said she forgot her license at home.
I asked if she drove here without a license, and she said her boyfriend drove.
She pointed to a small Toyota idling in the driveway.
I asked if her boyfriend had an ID, and she said, “I think he forgot his too.” The party planning was making them forgetful, she explained.
I invited Jen and her boyfriend inside.
I told them to wait in the living room. I packed up the bottles. I slipped one in my pocket. They wouldn’t count them.
I met them in the living room with the plastic bag with forty-eight gold-spray-painted mini bottles.
Jen and her boyfriend sat on the couch. Then I sat in my armchair.
I showed them the picture of the crumbling Victorian.
“Do you know where this house is?” I asked.
Jen said she didn’t.
I asked her boyfriend, and he said he didn’t either. Her boyfriend’s name was Ryan.
Ryan asked if he could have a drink.
“This is where I was born,” I said. “Near Richmond.”
“It looks familiar,” he said. “I could use some help.” He pointed at the plastic bag.
I handed him one. He opened it, then emptied it into his mouth.
“Tequila,” he said. “Can I have another?”
I handed him another, and he drank it. “Tequila again. What are the chances it’s three in a row? We have to try.”
I handed him a third bottle. He drank it. “That was Bailey’s,” he said, with a milk mustache.
There were now forty-five gold-spray-painted mini bottles left.
“That’s by my parents’ place,” he said.
“Are you serious?” Jen asked.
I had the same question.
Ryan nodded. “That’s the county fairgrounds in the background,” he said. “We used to set off fireworks there.”
I asked if they could tell me how to get there.
He pointed at the plastic bag again, and I handed it to him. A deal was a deal.
“Can you send me the directions?” I asked.
Ryan said he didn’t know the names of the roads, but he remembered how to get there. He tapped his head. “It’s all up here,” he said.
“That’s on your way home, no?” I asked.
Jen nodded, then Ryan excused himself to use the bathroom.
“I can follow you in my car,” I said. I stood up to get my keys.
“We can drive you,” Jen said. “No need to take two cars.” I sat down.
Ryan returned to the living room. He was still zipping up his pants. He bumped into an end table.
“We’re going to drive him to the house,” Jen said.
Ryan whispered to her, and she whispered to him.
“Fine,” he said. Then he drank another bottle. “Another tequila, finally.”
“Don’t you have a party going on at your place?” I asked them.
They both looked confused.
“Oh,” Jen said. “They can entertain themselves.”
“I don’t want to take too much of your time,” I said.
Jen said not to worry about it.
“He can’t drive,” I said. I pointed to Ryan. He had drunk three mini bottles. That adds up, I explained.
Jen said she could drive.
“You don’t have your license,” I said.
“I just found it in my wallet.”
The three of us hit the road. I sat in the back. Jen put on the oldies stations, for me, she said. Theresa and I did listen to that station all the time.
“My grandpa loved it,” Jen said. “He always had it on when we visited him.”
I heard Ryan mess with the plastic bag, then he opened another bottle and drank it. Then he handed a bottle to Jen, and she drank it.
“Excuse me,” I said, then Ryan handed me a bottle.
“Sorry, old man,” he laughed. I put the bottle in my pocket with the other one.
“No, pull over,” I said. “I’ll drive.” Jen pulled onto the shoulder, and I got behind the wheel. Jen sat in front with me, and Ryan moved to the back. I started driving.
Jen finished another bottle, offered me one, and I shook my head. I patted the bottles in my pocket. “I’m saving the party for later,” I said.
Ryan leaned forward and asked Jen for the bag. Jen selected a bottle for herself, then passed it to him. Ryan drank one more, then another. Maybe a third.
“Do you live alone?” Jen asked.
“I live with my wife Theresa,” I said. “She’s at the doctor, or maybe the diner by now.”
I wondered what Theresa would bring back for me. I smiled at the surprise of it. I asked Jen how long she and Ryan had been dating.
“I don’t know if I’d use the word dating,” she said, and she left it at that.
Ryan nodded, emptied another drink. There had to be fewer than forty left now.
“How long have you been with your wife?” Jen asked.
“More than fifty years,” I said. “High school sweethearts.”
“That’s cute.” Jen smiled at me. That’s where she and Ryan met too. Then she turned to him. “Isn’t that cute?” she asked. Ryan nodded.
I asked Ryan about the next turn, and he said we had to stay on 172 for a long time. He put on a pair of sunglasses, then fell asleep. He snored.
I told Jen she could change the music, but she turned up the volume, said she liked this song, one I hadn’t heard in my seventy years.
“If you can believe that,” I said.
Later, we passed a sign that Richmond was ten miles away.
I asked Jen if she should wake Ryan up.
Jen said she’d been to his parents’ house. “I know how to get there from here.”
Soon, following her directions, I exited, took a left, then took another left. This part of the state was even more rural than where Theresa and I lived.
Jen said she wanted to move to a city after college. A new start.
I said that’s what my daughter did. Chicago. Katie loved living there, but she complained about O’Hare every time we talked on the phone.
We were in Richmond. I saw a sign for the fairgrounds.
Jen said we were close. Suddenly, she said to pull over, and I did. Jen pointed to an area overgrown with trees across the road.
“That’s it,” she said. I saw a mailbox and a dirt driveway. I couldn’t see a house, but it looked like what had been posted in the Illinois Abandoned Images group.
I thought about pulling up the picture on my phone, but I didn’t.
I got out of the car and started walking. I forgot to close the door. I made it to the other side of the road. The trees hid that house good.
How many decades had it been?
And this whole time, it was this simple to come home?
I didn’t want to do this alone.
I turned around. Ryan was still asleep in the back. Now Jen sat in the driver’s seat.
I waved to her. She didn’t wave back.
Zachary Kocanda’s fiction has appeared in Joyland, Oyez Review, Another Chicago Magazine, and elsewhere. He’s the author of the fiction chapbook Self Defense for Gentle People. He lives in Chicago, Illinois. Find more at zacharykocanda.com.