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John Corey Whaley

• • •

Kansas City looked pretty much the same overall, save for these strange electronic billboards all over and a new gigantic building downtown that looked like two side-by-side shiny metallic spaceships half submerged into the earth and slanted upward.

“Kaufman Center for the Performing Arts,” Dad explained on our drive home from the airport. “They have concerts, plays, you know, that sort of thing.”

“It looks so strange there.”

“A few people got all in an uproar about it looking so modern, but they eventually settled down.”

“It looks like it came from outer space.”

“Yeah,” he said. “It is pretty alien, I guess. But I love it. I think it’s interesting.”

Our house was the same in all the obvious ways, same curtains in the living room, same couch, same dining table, though it had a new centerpiece. The television was much larger and flatter than the one I remembered, no doubt something my dad had waited in a ridiculously long line for on some Thanksgiving weekend since I’d left. My first thought upon seeing it was the hope that maybe they’d put the old, still rather large TV in my bedroom.

I couldn’t help noticing how walking up the stairs felt different. All the same family photos still hung on the wall, ascending up to the top. But it used to be that I couldn’t see my whole face in the frames. They were just high enough so I’d see the top of my head. Now, with Jeremy Pratt’s body holding me up, I was taller and I could see all the way down to the scar on my neck in every single reflection. It’d been a while since I’d taken this walk. I’d been carried up a few times after I got sick, until they decided that moving me down to the guest room made more sense, right around the time we all concluded that this thing wasn’t going to go away. The hallway bathroom was terribly white and shiny clean, like it had always been, but with new towels and an automatic hand soap dispenser by the sink. I immediately stopped to use it, my parents looking on from the doorway.

“Is this a common thing now?” I asked, pulling my hand back and then placing it underneath again, and then doing that again until green soap was almost pouring over the sides, completely covering my entire palm.

“It’s catching on,” Mom said. “It’s better for germs, I think.”

“I can get behind that,” I said, rinsing off my hands and wondering if this was it. Was this the furthest we’d come in five years? Where were the jetpacks? The hoverboards? If they could bring me back from the dead, why wasn’t a robot greeting me at every door and asking what I needed?

Then we got to my bedroom and nothing was the same. I should say that the old TV from the living room was there, but nothing else looked familiar at all. There was a bed I’d never slept in, there was a dresser that hadn’t held my clothes, and there was a desk where I’d never done my homework. Even the walls were different, not the green-and-white-and-maroon plaid wallpaper that had always made my friends so jealous. No, this was a light gray–colored IKEA nightmare, and I was expected to live with it.

“What happened?” I was barely able to ask.

“Travis, it’s been so long,” Mom said.

“Did you throw everything away?”

“It was just too hard to look at it every day. You understand?”

“We’ll go shopping this week,” Dad said. “We’ll get you whatever you want to make it feel like home again. Okay?”

“I’m so sorry, Travis.” Mom turned to walk down the hallway and into their bedroom, closing the door.

“Sorry,” I said, sitting on the edge of the bed.

“This is weird for all of us,” Dad said. “So weird but so amazing, too. She’s just sensitive. I know you haven’t forgotten that.” He chuckled a bit.

“It’s okay,” I said. “The room, I mean. I guess I understand.”

“We can make this work, huh?” he asked, looking around us at the empty, unwelcoming space.

“When did you guys know I was coming back?” I asked him.

“About two weeks before they did it,” he said. “Didn’t have too much time to prepare.”

“She gonna be okay?”

“She’ll be fine,” he said. “Let’s get you some dinner. You hungry?”

• • •

The kitchen smelled the same as always, like clean clothes and vanilla with just a little touch of something else—citrus, maybe—like someone was always standing around the corner peeling an orange and doing laundry.

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