This is the first story off of the City by the Sea series I am planning on dishing out here. Since this story is a bit too long to publish all in one go, I will be releasing it in small chapters so y’all can enjoy the story without having to scroll a whole lot. This is one of the longest chapters in the story, so don’t worry, they shouldn’t be any longer than this. Anyway, I hope y’all enjoy it. Comments are always welcome. Neophytepunk, over and out!
This story begins in sunlight and ends in twilight. You have been warned. -N.P.
It wasn’t like any other day.
The cardinals didn’t chirp or leap from tree to tree, dusting off the nightly doldrums from their red wings. The spring wind, usually soft and cool, stood still and let humidity settle in, wrapping its sticky fingers around everything. The sun was slow to rise over the dull river birch trees surrounding the dewy lawn and gravel driveway. The backyard was empty of curious brown rabbits eager to stretch out their legs after a long night. Even the battered two-story house, haughty and close to 80 years old, always anxious to creak and groan in the morning light, remained silent.
Not a single sound was heard.
The kitchen didn’t reek of bacon and eggs or that green juice he liked to drink every morning. Momma’s humming didn’t echo through the halls. Shouts about who used up all the hot water didn’t run down the stairs either. Idle talk of weird dreams and whose turn it was to wash dishes weren’t huddled by the breakfast counter. The screen door in the kitchen didn’t slam shut and car engines didn’t rev up, racing to see who would make it out the driveway first. There would be no lunch or dinner. No late night chatter outside on the porch filled with stifled laughter and clouds of cigarette smoke. No doing it all over again tomorrow.
There was nothing now.
Curled in bed, the silence was consuming. Alma couldn’t stay there anymore, though she knew she’d only get up and scuffle around for a while before crawling right back in.
The sun finally found its way over the top of the trees and into her room. It spilled through her window, falling on her hand, coloring it gold. But its rays felt flat and opaque like it was only doing what it had to do–get up, give light, then go away to somewhere else. Like her for the past week–get up, look after Momma, then try to sleep. She was only doing what she had to do to get by.
If she had it her way, she would run forever, then sleep forever.
But she couldn’t leave Momma. Leaving was what Manny did, and she was not Manny. She wasn’t going to leave her Momma like everybody else had.
Well, sleep wasn’t good. Every time she closed her eyes, she saw…
(his pale face and the marks from the rope on his neck)
Well, it was easier to not sleep. She would just do what she had to do to get by.
The covers felt heavy like bricks, but she threw them off and got out of bed. Tiptoeing to the window pane by her bed, she glanced at the huge willow tree that rested outside her bedroom. It was soulless, without giddy squirrels running up and down its wooden limbs, without wind shaking life into its wispy leaves. Swinging softly from one of its branches were two mental chains, red with rust, connected down to a withered swing chair. It looked about ready to break apart if anybody even thought of sitting down on it. She inched closer to the window and, through the curtain of leaves, saw him down below. He sat on the swing chair, pushing himself lightly with his feet, staring out at the dense woods that marked the end of their backyard. She couldn’t see his eyes, but she knew they were sad like they so often had been lately. He looked up and waved at her, but she thew him the finger and back away.
She walked to her dresser, pulled out a purple tank top and changed out of the black dress she slept in. She didn’t bother putting pants on, plain underwear was fine for the day. She caught of glance of herself in the mirror above the dresser. Her brown, wavy hair was still pulled back in the half ponytail she wore yesterday, but bits of it spilled out around her face. She ran her hands through the rest of it and stopped when she couldn’t get the knots out. She didn’t feel like combing her hair, so she just left it and walked out into the hallway.
She tip-toed down the hall, past closed bedrooms doors and stopped in front of Momma’s room. She held her ear against the closed door. It sounded deaden like everything else. She must have finally fallen asleep after the fit she had earlier. It was better not to wake her.
Sensing movement behind her, she turned and saw him walk into her room. She closed her eyes and sighed, leaning on the door.
“You should get back in bed and get some sleep,” he said from her room.
She ignored him and headed downstairs.
“You should at least try and get some sleep, cuata.”
She stopped midway down the stairs and sighed again. It annoyed her when he was right, and he was right. She already spent half the night in the family room watching late-night exercise shows and old cop dramas and the other half outside on the front porch, smoking the last of her cigarettes. She could go sulk in the dining room or the living room but both places were clustered with flowers and wreaths. Their scent drowned the downstairs area like some saccharine-saturated swamp lurked nearby. Even from the stairs, she could already pick up their sickening sweet smell. She could clean the three guest bedrooms up stairs again, but they already reeked of bitter cleaning products and weak air fresher. She could rearrange the two closets upstairs, but she had done that two nights ago, and there were only so many ways to fold old bed sheets and covers and towels. She wasn’t about to go inside Momma’s room. There was the kitchen, though. She hadn’t gone in there.
But the kitchen meant going through the hallway to the left of the stairs. That goddamned hallway with that goddamned light fixture where…
(where I cut him down, but his face was so pale and he had those marks on his neck)
If she went through the hallway, he would be there. Just like he had been for the last week. She didn’t want to see him. Not like that. Not again. Not ever.
“Puta vida.” She reached the bottom of the stairs and went for the front door. Stepping outside, the humidity was stifling but it still felt better than being near that hallway. She sat down in the same rocking chair she had during the night. A small mound of cigarettes stood by her right leg. She rocked gently, staring out at the front yard, at the driveway. She could get up and run. Run down the driveway and take a right to the road that lead into town then hook a left turn out of town, out of all of this. She could feel the concrete and rocks beneath her flying feet. She could see the town and that stupid high school long behind her. Long forgotten.
But there was Momma. She wouldn’t leave Momma. And no matter what type of running she did, it was like running on a track. Sooner or later, she would end up back at the beginning, full circle.
Alma stepped off the front porch and walked around to the back of the house. The grass felt cool and damp under her feet. She wanted to lie down on it. Maybe then she’d get some sleep, but the mosquitoes quickly ruined her dream. She smacked a few of them from her thighs and walked faster.
He walked quietly behind her wearing what she had found him in–faded blue jeans, brown boots, and his high school baseball shirt that had a growling bulldog on it with the words “We Take A Mean Bite Out Of The Competition” below it.
“You gonna walk outside every time you need to go into the kitchen now?” he asked.
She threw him the finger again, walked up the back porch steps and opened the screen door to the kitchen. He was already sitting on the kitchen counter, biting at his right thumbnail (a habit of his when he was worried) and flipping through some of the “our deepest sympathy” cards that lay scattered there.
“Vas a salir por todas partes que vaya a partir de ahoro, o que?” she asked annoyed, catching the screen door before it slammed shit and woke Momma.
“I don’t know,” he answered. “You tell me.”
She closed her eyes and sighed again. When she opened them he was gone. She pulled back the curtains of the windows on the right side of the kitchen and morning light lit the place up, highlighting yesterday’s event.
The circular kitchen table in the middle of the room had every square inch covered in food–half-empty sandwich trays, cakes and cupcakes, bags of bread, gourmet crackers, bags of chips, and a few cookie trays. The L-shaped counter to the left of the screen door had consolation cards stacked in several large piles, but when the counter met up with the sink, things really got messy. The inside of the sink had empty, watery jars of condiments with knife handles sticking out of them, and in the other side of the sink was the semi-empty bowl of yesterday’s spiked punch. The end of the counter had stale bread and warm deli slices spread out, ready to be assembled and eaten. The stove a few feet across the sink was clean and bare because Momma hadn’t cooked in a week. And to the right of the screen door, the refrigerator hummed quietly while five large trash bags leaned against its side, stinking up the kitchen with its rancid stench.
She walked over to the table and grabbed a cake that was melting off its chocolate icing, but when she opened the fridge to place it inside, there was no room. It was also full to the brim with deli meats, more condiment jars, red, green and yellow jello cakes, three different kinds of casseroles (that she could see of so far), three giant bowls of soups, two lasagnas, fruit cocktails, potato salads, and even more food jammed in the back. She sighed, closed the fridge door and put the cake back on the table.
She went to one of the cupboards above the counter, pulled out a small coffee cup and poured herself some punch. It was warm going down her throat, but she didn’t mind. She poured herself another cup and sat down in front of the cake. She picked at it with her fingers, not really wanting to eat it. She licked a few pieces from her fingers just to have something to do. He sat down in a chair oppose to her and told her to eat something more than bits of cake and spiked punch.
“I’m not hungry.”
“Just to keep going, then. Come algo.”
“I doubt eating is going to help me do that.”
“Just try, please.”
She looked up at his brown eyes, always sad, even when he laughed. She was almost tempted to smile, just to make him feel better, but then she remembered.
“What do you care if I keep going? You didn’t.”
“That’s different. Muy diferente.”
Movement came from the second floor. Small noises at first. Somebody rummaging around, looking for something. Drawers slammed. Frustrated grunts. Then it sounded like small beads falling and bouncing off the floor. Finally a thud shook the light fixture above the table slightly, making it swing back and forth gently.
He was gone again.
“Momma’s up,” he shouted from upstairs, worry in his voice. He was hovering by the door, not daring to go in. “She sounds upset.”
“Why don’t you go in and check on her?” she scoffed bitterly.
“You know I can’t,” he said, appearing behind her. “Go check on her.”
“Don’t tell me what to do. I have been! That’s all I’ve been doing since you puss–”
Soft sobs came from Momma’s room.
Alma looked up, closed her eyes and ran her hand over her forehead. The wrinkles from the past week felt etched on there. And she hadn’t even cried. They were worry wrinkles. Worry over Momma who hadn’t stopped crying. Worry over him. Worry over everything.
She found a clean glass and searched through the fridge until she found the orange juice. Momma always gave them orange juice to calm them down. Something about the sugar helped to not let nerves settle in. She thought about it for a moment then pulled the vodka out of the freezer. She poured a hefty amount into the glass and took a huge swig from the bottle. Triple distilled. She took another swig, put it back, then grabbed the glass and headed outside to the front of the house, stirring the drink with her finger.
In the hallway, Alma saw him pacing in her room. She felt like telling him to get out, but Momma was up. She might hear her talking and worry. A tumbling came from behind her. He had tossed her her boots.
“Trust me, wear them,” he said. Alma reluctantly slipped them on and hoped he would be gone when she looked up. He was.
Curled fingers knocked lightly on the door. “Momma?”
“Momma, I’m coming in.”
The room reeked of perfumes, overly scented and bittersweet. The usually bright and sunny room had a dark and gloomy tint to it. The maroon-colored curtains to the left of the bed only let in a thin horizontal line of low-spirited light. It grazed softly over in the middle of the bed and across a single wall, not daring to go any further.
Alma stepped in and felt something crunch beneath her foot. Broken perfumes bottles. She broke all of them, all five liquids mixed and soaked into the rug their grandmother had left them. What wasn’t in the rug, pooled in puddles on the wooden floor. The lamps that rested on the bedside table and dresser were shattered on the floor with light-bulb dust sprinkled all around them. The top of the dresser–home to Momma’s make-up, facial creams and jewelry– was also bare. Everything was on the floor. To the right, the closet was in disarray. Her entire wardrobe was thrown about on the floor, creating small hill-like bundles. All the shoe boxes that rested on the closet’s top shelf were spread out around the room, their contents spilled across the floor as if they had been thrown. Tax returns soaked up most the perfume puddles. Their father’s will and old business contracts soaked up the rest.
Moving around the biggest pieces of glass, Alma searched for Momma. She wasn’t in bed. Only tossed-around-in blue bed covers and tissues scattered like snowflakes lay there.
There were things underneath the tissues. Flicking them aside, Alma saw their old report cards, school photos, finger paintings from their elementary years, and family photo albums.
“Watch you feet, mija.” Momma’s voice was weak and watery and came from below the window. “I might have broken some stuff last night. I can’t remember.”
Alma set the glass down on the dresser in front of her and walked around to the left side of the bed. Momma lay there on the floor, between the bed and the wall, staring up at the ceiling.
“Mija, have you ever stared at light coming in through a window?”
“No. I brought you some orange juice.”
“It’s beautiful,” Momma said. Her face was blotchy with puffy, crimson-strained eyes. Her brown hair was tattered and frizzed. She was staring at the thin light coming in through the window. “You almost feel like you can slip in there and not have a care in the world.”
“It’s got vodka in it.”
She handed it to her and then sat down in front her. She grabbed a strand of Momma’s dirty hair and combed it with her fingers. Alma looked up at the light. Momma was right. It was beautiful, but Momma couldn’t slip into the light anymore than she could run away. “There’s a shitload of food downstairs. We’re gonna have to eat about ten times a day if we don’t want anything to spoil.”
“You eat, mija. I’m not hungry.”
“You know, I got up and I was about to go down stairs and make him his juice for when he came back from his run. De verda, I got up and was about to open the door when I…I remembered…it was like a wave.” Momma’s voice quivered. “It’s too strong. Remembering everything, it’s too strong.”
Alma balled her hands into fists and dug her nails into her palms to keep from crying. She wasn’t going to cry, not for him. Momma could cry for him, but not her.
“I tried to get this thing open.” Momma held up an empty orange pill bottle. “Dr. San Miguel said I should take one or two if I really needed to, but I couldn’t get it open. And everything is so goddamn strong. I spilled them all when I finally clawed it open. And now I can’t find…I can’t find any of them. And it’s so strong. I feel…oh, Alma, me estoy ahogando. I’m drowning. I can’t breathe.”
Momma sobbed into her hands. Alma caressed Momma’s hair and kissed her forehead. Momma controlled herself and grabbed Alma’s hands and kissed them over and over again. “My baby girl, my beautiful baby girl, how are you holding up?”
Alma looked into her mother’s eyes and lied. “I’m fine. I’m fine, Momma.”
“Have you cried yet?”
“No,” she sighed. “Please, don’t make a big deal about it. Estoy bien. I don’t need to cry.”
Momma kissed her hands again. Alma bit the inside of her lip to keep from losing it. “My Alma, you’ve been so brave with everything. Helping me plan everything and picking out his clothes. You’ve been so brave.”
“Whatever. Don’t make a big deal about it.”
“So brave, but you can’t keep it inside, mija. What you saw, what you feel, you can’t keep that inside.”
“But that’s the thing…I don’t feel anything inside.”
Alma looked up at the light again and swallowed hard to get rid of the knot in her throat. “Really.”
“You can’t run from feeling, Alma. You can try, but it catches up on you and it becomes tenfold. That’s what happened with your dad. I never cried for your dad until one day I was driving and it couldn’t hold it in anymore.”
“Momma, please, don’t make a big deal about this.”
Momma stared at her very closely like she noticed something and felt guilty about it. “You know, I always knew you two were so different from each other. Even in my womb I could feel you two were so different. Desde ese momento…from that moment, I knew you were the strong one, Alma. Emmanuel…he was…even inside of me…el era tan callado. He was so quiet. Maybe it’s my fault. Maybe I didn’t know how to carry twins. Tal vez yo no sabia como darle a los dos la fuerza. Maybe I didn’t know how to give you both strength.”
“No, Momma, no digas eso. No fue to culpa.”
Alma saw movement out of the corner of her eye. Manny was sitting on the bed, looking at Momma with those sad brown eyes. When he caught Alma’s eye, he disappeared.
“No, Momma, it’s not. What Manny did was not your fault. It was his.”
Momma looked up at the light again, sobbing. “Mi hijo, mi Manny. Mi Emmanuel. I don’t know how to survive this. No puedo soportarlo! I can’t…maybe if I call his name he’ll come to me again. Emmanuel! Emmanuel! Emmanuel!”