CNF: The Birth, and Death, of Iris Giana

 

The Birth, and Death, of Iris Giana

(Also titled The Questions We Ask)

 

 

5:30am I wake up with a deep searing pain that spread from my pelvis up over my rounded belly and nestled just under my ribs. Rocking to my side (as somehow during the long night – or perhaps after the fourth trip to the bathroom – I’d ended up on my back), I take one, two, three deep breaths in. Trying to send the pain away. Tony, who is sleeping next to me, grunts questioningly and I pat his arm to tell him I’m ok. I roll out of bed, half bent at the waist from the pain, and get ready for work. 

 

6:45 am  I pull open the door to my compact car and swing my left foot out. Gingerly, I move my belly to follow, place my right foot on the ground and struggle to pull myself from the small space. At 19 weeks, my low slung belly is just big enough to make moving difficult and the pain is making it nearly impossible for me to be as nimble as I usually am.


Lately, I’ve been careful to step as lightly as possible because my water broke very early, at 15 weeks. They already warned that I would most likely have the baby early. Too early for her to survive. That I must be careful and drink enough water so that I’m continuously replenishing the sac. I hear them and I get it but I’m optimistic. I won’t terminate her little life, as they pressure me to do. I must endure. I reach in the car to grab my water bottle and purse and happily tiptoe toward my office. Everything was fine. Everything is fine. Baby Iris Giana is fine. 

 

7:30 am I can’t take the pain. Everything is not fine. I’m useless at work. I can’t answer messages, decipher data, or pick up the phone. Over and over, the searing pain stabs me from front to back. I lean forward to breathe through it and immediately lean back to hold my breath.


“Oh my god,” I huff and the heads of my coworkers swivel toward me. “Something isn’t right, something isn’t right, something…” I pause to pant as the pain returns. I close my eyes as if that might help. 

“Honey,” the older woman, that sits across from me, says as she wipes at the spilled coffee on her desk. “I’m really sorry but I think you need to go to the hospital. Right now.” I turn away from her, away from the pity in her eyes. My own are wet with unspent tears. ‘I must be strong. I’m stronger than this’, I chant it in my head.

“I’m ok, I’ve been in a lot of pain lately. It comes and goes. It’ll pass, it’ll pass, it’ll pass.” I’m chanting again and I have no idea why.

“No,” she pauses to get up from her chair. Her thick body swaying to remove itself from the plastic arms. “I’ve had 6 children, Jade. I have even more grandchildren. I’m sorry but it sounds like you’re in labor. You need to go to the hospital, right now.”

I shake my head at her but I know she’s right. Everyone told me I wouldn’t make it. That Iris Giana wouldn’t make it. But I had to try, didn’t they see? I couldn’t just give up on her. I shake my head again, this time the tears fall hot and fast. I suck air in through clenched teeth as another wave of pain passed through me. I shoot out of my chair and brace my hands on the desktop. My manager immediately grabs up my purse. She searches for my phone and hands it to me. We aren’t supposed to have our phones at our desks but everyone does it. I keep my eyes averted, a rule breaker I am not. Usually. 

“Here, call Tony. Tell him to meet you at the hospital. I’ll take you,” she says as she pats my arm then turns to look for her own purse and phone. Also out on the office floor.

“No, I’m ok. I promise.” One breath in, long exhale out. I thumb over the phone and call my guy. Once, Twice, then a text message. Please, meet me at Winnie. Baby coming now. Too much pain. Coworker says possible labor. The rings must have woken him because immediately he messages back: Damn. If you can’t drive, call an ambulance. I’m on my way. How silly. Of course I can drive myself. I am a strong, black woman. I am a strong black woman who can take care of herself. 

 

8:45 am I could not drive myself.

I’m waiting at a red light but I gotta get out. I wipe a hand across my forehead and it comes away wet with sweat. I’m too hot and I can’t sit down for even one more minute. Stepping on the gas, I swing into the parking lot just at the edge of the street and I whip the door open so fast I nearly fall out of the car. Was I wearing a seatbelt? 

I make sure to snatch up my phone and, as I walk my first pass around the car, I call my mother. No answer. I hang up and call again. No answer.

“Mom, please. I need you,” I say out loud. Or I try to. I’m crying too hard to get words out. Another wave of pain hits and I double over the hood and do one, two, three squats. I think to call Tony but stop myself. He’s already on his way. So, I muster up all the strength I have left, round the car another three times, and do my squats. The whirring sound of traffic speeds past me and slows at each the turn of the light. No one stops. Life goes on. Does no one care that I’m losing my baby over here? Does she matter to no one but me?

 

9:30 am – 2:00pm I arrive at the hospital and am admitted into triage. Within the next few days I will be a completely different person. I will no longer be pregnant. Iris Giana will no longer be alive. I will, once again, no longer be a mother. 

Tony holds me as I weep. He holds me as I take the medicine to slow down the contractions. They are much too strong and I’m not dilated yet. We must be careful, the doctor said but I don’t know why. I’m already losing the baby, what else can I lose? Tony helps me to the restroom. There’s blood. He helps me back to the bed. We do this two more times. I’m crying all the while. The doctor comes back. It’s time to move me to my hospital room.

They tell me when I get to my room I’ll need to take a pill for the abortion. I feel attacked. I don’t want an abortion. I want my baby, I cry and say. Please let me keep her. I turn away from their long faces, their looks of pity. They tell me I can’t.

“There’s nothing we can do,” they say. I hate them. Despite all that has happened in my life, everything I’ve been through: the attacks, the abuse, the searing cigarettes against my skin and scalp, I have never hated in my life. It’s filled with too much evil and eats you up. It poisons your soul. But, in that, moment I hate them. I turn my face away because I can’t bear to look at them. I am ashamed, because of this, and I can’t look at Tony. He might see the hatred behind my eyes and think less of me. He loves my light, how it shines from the inside. Hatred dims your light, I know it. 

“It’s just the scientific term for it,” my nurse soothes me. “We know that you aren’t having an abortion,” she says softer and touches my hand. “It’ll help you dilate and the contractions will start back up. It takes almost 4 hours for the first pill to start. Then, if you haven’t dilated further, we’ll give you another.” I don’t want to meet her eyes so I keep mine trained on her manicured fingers. The nails are rounded and clean. EMPLOYEES MUST WASH HANDS BEFORE RETURNING TO WORK and I can tell she’s a rule follower. Like me.

Her fingers are small but they cover most of the words on the paper. I want to snatch the paper from her fingers and tear it to pieces. I don’t want to sign it. Yes, fine. I take it from her, softly. With shaking fingers I sign on the line saying they can give me medicine to abort my baby. I want to ask questions. I always thought, should the occasion come, that I would ask questions and advocate for more myself but I am deflated. 

There is nothing I can do. I have done it all. There’s no way to save Iris. We’ve done all that we could and it didn’t work. 

 

2:25pm I’m transferred to a new hospital room and I’m crying again. “I’m not supposed to be here. This is a delivery room.” I can’t hold my head up. I’m ashamed. I’m letting Iris down and I can’t be here in this room.


“It’s ok,” Tony pats my hand and I’m wheeled in. I can feel the wave of pain passing through again but it’s muted by the loudness of the room. It calls to me. You’ve failed, the big delivery bed says. You couldn’t hack it, the floor to ceiling windows scream. You did this, sounds the closed door to a hotel grade bathroom.  

After settling me into the bed, Tony says that he will be back. He needs to run back to the house to get something that needs a signature. Why is he leaving me? Why would you leave me alone? But I understand, I guess. Maybe he needed a break from all of this. Maybe he would go and cry in the car, because he’s a strong black man and he needs that strength for me.

 

2:45pm The pain is back. My room is set up, I’ve taken my horridly named abortion pill, and I’m wrapped in a new hospital gown, one designed for birthing. I take a quick trip down to the terrace area, some semblance of normalcy. A place that is supposed to fill mothers-in-labor with tranquility. It pushed me over the edge. I’m not supposed to be on this terrace until I’m 9 months. I blubber into my tissues and lean my head back and my soul cries out. The terrace is empty, ironically, and I don’t try to hide my grief.

The walk also pushed my body over the edge and the contractions speed up with an intensity I can’t take and nausea rolls through me. I have to stop in the hallway to take deep breaths. I nearly fall when I step toward my room and I’m angry.

I’m angry at god, for putting me here. How dare he? I gave him my wishes, I put my soul – and Iris Giana’s soul – in his hands and he destroyed them. I’m angry that I came out to this stupid terrace, pretending like I was one of these girls with their healthy babies and their family members that love them enough to answer their phones. I’m angry that the contractions are back and I can’t walk to my room without help and I’ve been walking on my own for 23 years and now I’ve reverted back to infancy and, and, and, and. I’m filled with hate and anger and I can’t stand it because this isn’t me. 

 

3:00pm The nurse has led me, like a sheep, back to my room and is getting the line started. I need the pain medication because I’m not a strong black woman. Not anymore. I’ve dissolved and devolved. My old tears have dried on my cheeks and new ones are threatening to fall. I can barely stand, barely sit, barely breathe. 

“It’s been less than an hour but I think the baby might be coming soon,” the nurse says to me like I don’t know what’s fucking going on. I know what’s happening to my body, I’m not a fucking child, I scream in my head but I hold my tongue. I nod and attempt a smile when she looks at me, waiting for a response. Resentment for her swirls in my belly, around the tiny baby waiting to come out.  

I text my sister, telling her the baby is coming. Asking her if she’s spoken to mom. She replies immediately, yes, she’s spoken to mom, and ‘oh my gosh, I’m just so so sorry’. So it’s settled then. My mom has time to talk to my siblings, and whoever else, but she can’t pick up the phone to speak to me. Her only daughter that’s going through a traumatic experience at the moment. She can’t even send a text. Hatred and hurt vie for space in my heart. One will eventually take over. 

 

3:05pm I call out to the nurse. It’s no guessing game now. The baby is definitely coming. I tried to sit on the bed but the pain is so bad I can’t sit my bum against the soft mattress. I turn toward the back of the bed, my knees digging into the pillows, and hold the handrails along the sides. I scream through my closed mouth as another contraction tightens my belly. Stab, stab, stab at the button to call the nurses. Stab, stab, stab to my uterus. 

“We’re coming, we’re coming,” I hear frantic voices call out through the intercom. I try to reply but only a jumble of moans and screams come out. I can’t think. I need help. Please. I try to say, again, but I can’t form the words. The pain medicine never worked. 

Two new nurses come charging into the room and take in the scene. Me, on all fours facing the back of the bed, pillows kicked to the foot, the hospital gown pulled up around my thighs. “Oh honey, if you can’t sit down that baby is definitely coming.” The nurse says, this time I don’t feel anger for her. I feel relieved. Thank you, thank you, thank you, I whisper as I turn around. She helps me ease onto my back and holds my hands in hers as the other nurse opens my legs. I look into her eyes, her only job to keep me steady. The tears come again as another contraction tightens my belly. 

“I can see the sac here,” pushing against my vagina, it hurts but not as bad as the contractions so I breathe through it. “Ok, I’m messaging the doctor. We’re having the baby now, ok?”

My hatred is gone. The first time I’ve truly felt it and I’m happy to see it go. Gratitude fills me and I thank her and I thank the nurse holding my hands. The two nod to me and rush about the room getting things ready. I watch them, in between breaths.

Where’s Tony? Am I going to have to do this alone? Oh, there he is. Coming in just as my legs are being spread wide. He’s seen this before, not during my first loss, but when he was the one opening them. This is different than that, I think with a bit of humor despite the pain. His eyes are wide open and I want to laugh but I can’t. I wonder if he sees the baby though. Can he see her coming out?

 

3:10pm Push! Push! The nurse’s soft voice calls out and I bear down, “like you’re going poo, and a one, two, three…” My legs are pulled back, five nurses – one doctor. The pain meds don’t work, something is wrong with the line and I ask for it. I ask for it again and again. I’m not a strong black woman. ‘I’m not. I’m not. I’m not,’ I chant in my head. 

The doctor looks up at me with beautiful blue eyes, staring straight into my soul and, as if she can read my mind, says “You can do this”. I can’t do this. I’m so sorry. I don’t want to lose my baby. I’m shaking my head at her. The smell of copper fills the room. Have you ever smelled copper before? Does Copper smell like blood or does blood smell like copper? Why am I thinking of this when I’m having a baby? I’m only 19 weeks! Why am I having a baby?

 

3:15pm Iris comes out at the end of a long chin to the sky, eyes open wide, breathe into the pelvis push. 3:15pm will forever be on her birth card. It’ll forever be in my mind. There’s an instant feeling of relief. I look up at Tony and he looks down into my face. I can’t read him, his eyes are red, slight widening at the corners. I wonder if he’s afraid to look anywhere else.

They put Iris on my chest and although it hurts when they push on my belly, I try to lean forward to see her. I want to sit. Can I sit? Can I see her? No, they tell me to stay where I am. Everyone is rushing about, sponge after sponge goes between my legs but at the time I don’t know what’s happening. I catch the Dr. (or was it a nurse) saying “it’s stuck’ but Iris is in my face and I’m overtaken and weeping. Her small translucent fingers wrap around mine. Her chest goes in and out as she struggles to breathe. One, two, three, four.

“I love you, I love you, I love you, Mommy’s so sorry. I love you,” I chant. I want her to know. I want her to understand.

I ask Tony if he wants to hold her and I see the fear in his eyes. I wonder if it’s because she’s just too small, only 8 ounces. Later, I wonder if it’s because he knew I was dying, that something was going wrong. He looked me in the eyes, a smile twitching his lips, his palm against my forehead, fingers stroking my hair back.

If I could ever name that one moment when I truly felt someone loved me it’s this. The way his eyes wet with tears, the way they didn’t move from my face, my hair, Iris Giana’s tiny body, my lips. I want to bask in that love. I close my eyes to it and I breathe into the moment. I think this is the last time he’ll love me. When it settles in that Iris is gone, he’ll remember that it was my body that failed us for a second time (and will again for a third time a year later) and he’ll hate me. He’ll detest me and not be able to look at me. So I bask in the love and I send it right back at him. I send it to Iris. I package it tight and keep it for later, when the love will be gone. 

 

3:….something “What’s happening with my OR?” the doctor yells out and brings me out of the safety of love.

I open my eyes, feeling as though I had been sleeping. I look down, beyond Iris’s tiny moving body and see my legs. Somehow I hadn’t noticed but they’re shaking. I see the bed beneath them, blood is everywhere. Wet and thick like rich molasses. My mouth falls open and I look up at Tony who is still staring down at me with that slight smile. He gives me a soft nod and I don’t know what to say, or do. I can feel the blood coming out now, in gushes as each of the – still continuing – contractions tightens and releases my body. 

That’s something they don’t tell you. Just because the baby is out, it doesn’t mean you stop having contractions right away. Almost as if a switch was flipped, I feel the pain spear through my belly. It’s deep enough to feel in my soul. I say ‘I can’t stop shaking’ and my doctor, bent to work between my thighs, shakes her head and tells me it’s alright. It’s alright, the shaking will stop soon.

 

3:35pm Maybe? I can’t remember how much time has passed since Iris was born. It feels like the minutes are ticking by and I’m counting each breath Iris takes in rounds of four. One, Two, Three, Four. One, Two, Three. One, Two. One…I don’t notice I’m doing it and, to this day, I can’t figure out the reasoning behind it. 

My legs are still shaking and at this point the nurse has pushed Tony out of the way. They’ve lifted the bed and I’m unable to keep the whimpers of pain from escaping. I’m trying to be strong. Everyone told me I must be strong and hold on. I have to be strong.

All my life, strong, strong, strong was pounded into me by everyone who didn’t matter. In this single moment I give into the pressure. I want Iris to know I’m a strong woman. I am a strong black woman. I feel no pain. I endure it all. But she doesn’t seem to notice, her tiny mouth gaps open and closed with each inhalation. Somehow her lips are thick and her nose stretches in the shape of her father’s. Her tiny face boasted fat cheeks like mine. As fat as they could be on such a little person. One, two, three…

My head begins to swim and I pull it through mud to lean forward. The smell clogs my nostrils and I turn my face away to try to get a clean breath. I see black spots behind my eyelids and I try to blink them away. Where’s Tony? Did he leave? Where’s Iris? Oh yeah, on my chest, one, two, three, four. I hear them calling my name as my head falls back and hits the pillow. This hospital really is like a hotel, I think as I unwillingly stare up at the ceiling. A hard push to my belly reminds me of the pain, I gain a surge of adrenaline and my head is back up again. Or did they just sit the bed up? I’m not sure.

I try to find Tony and oh, there he is. Standing behind a faceless nurse. His head is bouncing around the room: to me, to Iris, to the doctors and to the nurses at work between my legs trying their best to mop up the blood. I make eye contact with the doctor and notice she’s talking to me. She waves a hand in front of my face and I see a light. A pen light? 

“Listen, we are going to surgery. Ok? The placenta is stuck. See, what happens when you deliver too early and you’re not fully dilated is that the baby is big enough to come out but the placenta might not fully detach. And whomp, whomp, whomp, whooo,” I shake my head, my ears are filled with cotton. I shake my head harder, almost as hard as the uncontrollable movement of my legs.

“Did you hear me? I must say this, legally. The risk of this surgery is that I could puncture the side of your uterus. This could cause an issue with future pregnancies leading to…I could puncture…” the tears are falling, I don’t want to listen, I can’t fully understand anyway, and I turn my face away. I turn down to Iris on my chest. I can barely look at her either. I’m shaking my head.

“I won’t be able to have any babies? If you puncture my wall I won’t be able to have any babies?” I repeat this several more times although I can see she is trying to comfort me. She tells me it’s rare. That it’s something they have to warn me of before we go to surgery, but that we really must go. We can not wait even a second longer, and I feel the bed already moving toward the door. We can not wait even a second longer and none of it will matter if I bleed out. All I can think about is that I’ll never be a mom. She asks me if I consent to a blood transfusion. It doesn’t matter. I’ll never be a mom. Who cares if I get blood or not. Who cares? Does anyone care?

 

Time is moving. Later, I ask Tony if he knew what time we went down to surgery but he doesn’t know. He didn’t stop to clock the time. All he knew was that I was being rushed to surgery and he had a sick feeling in the pit of his stomach. I wonder if he thought maybe he wouldn’t see me again but I’m too afraid to ask. Even now, as I’m writing this, I’m too afraid to ask. I don’t want to open all of this up for him again. 

God hates me. He really does. The one thing I’ve always wanted. The one thing I know I was biologically made to do and he took it from me, repeatedly. Take and take and take and take and take. “We really must go.” The doctor says something to a nurse about the OR. “Can we…” I nod to her.

They transfer me to a new bed ‘hold on to her tight’ they say and I pull my arms in so Iris is safe. Her tiny chest still struggling to breathe. One, two, three, four. I feel like I can sense her energy waning. Or was it mine? I try to hold her as we get moving but I can’t.

My arms slacken and I look at one of the nurses in fear. Save Iris, I want to demand but I know she can’t. Can you save Iris? I want to ask but I know it’s not fair for me to expect her to answer. Noticing my distress she gathers Iris into her arms, tiny square of a swaddle blanket and all, and then she’s gone. That tiny body held all the warmth I needed and I begin to panic as I am cool. Or at least I feel cold on the inside, or is that from the saline drip? I’m shaking.

I don’t want to go. I don’t want to leave her. Please, let me stay until she’s passed. I try to ask but my mouth is dry. It’s loud in the hall. They wouldn’t be able to hear me anyway over that sound. Wait, is that me? That keening sound filled with pain? I try to close my mouth in embarrassment but I can’t. It’s too great, my pelvis is on fire and then my head is falling again and I can’t pick it up. I try to keep up with the nurse holding Iris but I can’t. 

“Status on my OR?” the doctor practically yells into a small phone held by the nurse. Somehow she’s on the bed with her feet up on the wheels, or something. We’re moving and she’s up off the wheels and leaning in front of me. Both knees pressing into the white of the soft bedding. The white quickly dampening with blood. Hands on my chest.

I try to look for Iris again, try bowing my back to get a glimpse of the nurse walking behind us. But my body doesn’t move. ‘You’ll have her with you when you come out of surgery’ says the nurse at my side. Her small hands grip the bar as she pushes quickly. What she doesn’t say is that Iris won’t be alive the next time I see her. 

Later, I will be broken. My daughter took her last breaths and I wasn’t there. Because of this stupid, worthless body, one, two, three, four. The thoughts overlap as exhaustion fills every fiber of my being. I didn’t realize how tired I’d become. One, two, three. I just want to sleep. I don’t want to sleep. One, two. But I’m so tired. One.

‘But you were losing too much blood’ my guy will later defend me to myself. ‘You had to get surgery,’ but I don’t care. I’m a bad mom. I worked so hard to keep her healthy, and she was. It was me, my body, that failed her. First, when my water broke at 15 weeks, and then again when she spent those last moments of her life without us. Alone. Unaware. Sterile. Unloved. 

There are so many questions we ask. So many things we want to know. I ask myself many of these knowing I’ll most likely never get the answer:

Does she even know how much I loved her?
How much I still love her?
How much I still think about her even years later?
Does she know I still love her despite healing and finding happiness after?

That losing a child and nearly dying didn’t keep me depressed, and angry, and frustrated at life, forever? Does she know I still loved her even though the pain of her passing got just a little better every day? That when I finally gave birth to a healthy baby girl, Naomi Kai, I thought of how much I loved her?

Does Iris find it unfair? That Naomi Kai is here and she isn’t? (Do any of my angels find it unfair?) Am I a bad mom for being happy with Naomi? Does she know that – even though I love Naomi – I still love her? Is she anywhere thinking of me? Is she anywhere thinking? Is Iris Giana anywhere at all?

At the time, I didn’t know the outcome. I didn’t know things would turn around. I was lost in that moment, in that pain, and I thought it would never end. And as I disappeared into the darkness, just moments after they rolled me into the OR, I thought one last question:

Iris, how can I live without you? 

 

 

 

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P: Nerd Nightly

Prompt:

Write a true story about your nighttime morning routine for NOCTURNAL MORNINGS

Eight p.m.

I need to wake up at twelve to attend a write-in.

I’m really excited to be around other writers, it’s not something I do often.

I think I can squeeze in a few episodes of my favorite TV show.

Midnight.

My need for cheesy drama, spirited car chases and stolen kisses is gone.

I yawn but doesn’t that just mean you need more oxygen?

I go to the living room and pull a book from one of the many stacks littering the room.

Six a.m.

At some point I meant to put the book down, it was just too good.

“One more chapter,” I said but who was I kidding?

This is a nightly occurrence for a nocturnal being, such as me.

CNF: I’m Toxic…No, I Won’t Change.

Prompt:

Write what you really needed to hear a specific person say to you… but they never did. Contribute it as a note to you, from them.

Dear Nearly Estranged Daughter,

I’m sorry that you feel that I’ve offended you somehow. You can tell, through my language, that I will never take responsibility for my own actions.

I’m sorry that I can’t be what you need me to be. I said you expect too much out of me as a mother but, really, I meant I will never take the steps needed to strengthen our relationship.

I’m sorry that I’ve left you waiting, and waiting, and waiting for my call. I know that I don’t care enough about you to value your time or your want for a mother.

I’m sorry that for years I’ve let you believe we could work this out. What I really should’ve done is shown you my truth: you are not what I wanted in an adopted daughter. You are not my blood. This will never get better unless I give up my stubborn ways.

Now that you know all this, please do the right thing. Stop waiting on me to stop being me.

I won’t. So, I set you free.

Sincerely,
Always Me

CNF: Cleanliness…

In fact, I think, from the twisted look on her face that she tries so desperately to hide that she is disgusted by me, in this moment, and by this.

 

Cleanliness is next to godliness. Or so they say. I loved taking showers, and I’m sure, had I been given the opportunity, I would’ve loved taking baths. My brother, however, did not.

It was as if dirt was his best friend, letting it stick to him like glue, hanging out on his clothes, clinging with every step. You might even say I grew more and more diligent about being clean solely because he wasn’t. 

Standing in the shower, letting the water run over my skin, cleaning me of doubt, fear, and shame. Cleaning me of the stink of expectations, of pressure, of stress. Cleaning me of abandonment, neglect, and what that child therapist said: anger. 

At first, there was nothing to stop me from staying in and taking all the time in the world. However, as you’ve seen, that’s now how my life works. Due to situations I’ll tell you about later, I still rush through showers, even now, as an adult.

***

I stood there, knees shaking no matter how tight I tried to hold them together. I didn’t want her to smell me. I did my job. I went under the water. I took my allotted time and made sure the liquid was so hot that it melted any bacteria away. It was like lava, burning my skin until I was sure I’d only be boiled bones.

She stood before me, waiting for me to drop my towel. I fidget, clutching the towel around my bony body. “I promise, I took a shower. I did,” I reassure her but she doesn’t believe me.

My adoptive mom has told her all these stories. Stories about dirty bodies, “fonk” so strong it stinks up the car, underarms caked in sweat. I want to say ‘it’s not me, it’s him,’ but I know I can’t tattle on my brother. Despite his continuous attempts to break my will, to remind me that I wasn’t ‘really’ his biological sister – that I was a dumpster baby no one wanted and no one could love – I stuck by him always. That’s what you do, when blood is thicker than adoption papers.

 I try to appear innocent although the mischievous look (that, now, I often see in my own baby daughter) is a permanent fixture on my face. I hope to buy a few more moments. I squeeze my eyes shut and pray someone will need her somewhere else in the house and she’ll have to go deal with it right away. It had never happened before but a young girl could dream.

“Let me smell,” with one long fingered hand she pulls up my right arm and inhales deeply. I imagine Yzma, with her bug eyes and stick-like lashes, scouring down at me. Repeating the same on the other side, she seems satisfied. This, I’m used to. This, I don’t mind. But then out comes two fingers that she uses to swipe between my little girl legs. 

Not in a sexual way, there’s nothing gratifying about this. With my lack of pubic hair, my ugly face – too out of proportion to be found beautiful, with my scarred knee and ankle from a rebellious bike ride, with my scarred head from cigarette burns; no, there’s nothing appealing about me. In fact, I think, from the twisted look on her face, that she tries so desperately to hide that she is disgusted by me, in this moment, and by this. Maybe even a little disgusted by herself. She brings her hand up to her nose and sniffs. “Good,” she says, dismissing me with a single wave.

All of this was pointless. Every single time she smelled me, swiping with stiff fingers, I’ve come up clean. No back alley, dirty water, soiled diaper smell coming from me. But I’m shaken, every time. I wonder ‘is this foreshadowing?’ Although, with my young-girl mind, I don’t know what foreshadowing is yet, or how important it is to the rest of my story; I mean, my life.

*** 

I teeter back to my room on nervous legs. My brother had been standing outside the room and we avoid each other’s eyes because I know what comes next. It’s his turn and I know he’ll fail. He’s the one who started this.

First, what with terrifying me so badly that I couldn’t wash my hair in the shower, and second my adverse reaction to unlocked doors. Back home, there were two doors going into the upstairs bathroom. Both doors locked but one always opened regardless. My brother thought it was the funniest thing ever, sneaking into the restroom, throwing back the curtain and screaming at the top of his lungs, poking and prodding at my body. He couldn’t hold back his laughter, giggling at my gangly legs. Legs that would never be long enough to make me a model.

I’d scream until I cried, then cry until I was numb. He didn’t understand but here I am, yet again, making excuses for him. I’m sure he wasn’t aware of all that had happened to me. All that had been done. I would never tell him. He already blamed me for all that had gone wrong, for us being in foster care in the first place – although I’d only been two or three when we were taken – and I’d never give him another reason to think me less than. So, what started as a playful game, became a terrifying world.

There I was teetering into my tiny room while he was behind closed doors, being checked for smells. I didn’t think there was more being done, if there was, he never acted as such and wouldn’t tell me even if I asked. But I feared for him and his fragile mind. (I was sure he was stronger than I thought but I couldn’t run the risk of telling him everything).

When I reached my weekend bed, I slid under the covers and I thought of flowers, big black flowers that could be painted on a yellow wall in rebellion. I thought of tiny boxes filled with secrets and heartfelt memories. I thought of times when my body was my own. When was that? I try hard to remember.

And not just in this, I lie in bed and wish my body was my own-  away from the Hims with friends that want to take me for ice cream (if that ever actually happened, or if it was a culmination of abuse that my young mind strung together like a movie), from foster sisters with things they want to stick in soft places, from eyes that wonder because I’m too young to really understand but old enough to know they’re looking, and from fingers looking for nonexistent smells.

So I’m sullied and clean. Washed and seared. My skin is pristine but crawls. I knew she meant well, at least that’s what I told myself, but I couldn’t help but wonder if she would do what she did if she knows what’d been done: to me.     

 

CNF: Dancing For the Lord

Tears streamed down my cheeks as I danced naked around the dining room table. I wanted to stop. I wanted to grab my clothes and run up the stairs. I wanted to be a ghost, floating up the wood case without making a sound, to be invisible. Invincible. 

 

My apparently lewd dancing during Youth Church that morning had gotten back to my foster mother. I knew I would be in trouble the moment I saw her. That hard look in her eyes, lips set in a thin line. She had shaken her head so hard I thought her wig would fall off. Hair piece, that’s what she told me to call it. A wig was a full thing with slick hair that had a net and an elastic band. A hair piece, hers at least, had two combs: one in the front and one in the back. Still, it shook so violently I could see the nest of natural curls at the nape of her neck.

In the parking lot catercorner to church grounds, I had come to a full stop and looked around. I didn’t want to be embarrassed here, in front of my church friends. I didn’t want them to see her snatch me up, nails digging in to the point where my skin breaks and slides up in small paper thin flaps exposing a fresh layer beneath. I didn’t want them to see how I’d fold in on myself, becoming as small as a mouse, still like an opossum.

I also didn’t want them to see me after. How I would keep my head staring straight, zoning out so I wouldn’t meet anyone’s gaze. I didn’t want to hear their snickers, as I’m sure they would laugh and pretend I was the only one bumping and grinding to the secular music. I didn’t want that one boy, that I let touch my vagina in the sanctuary, to see. He had crawled under the pews, reached under my skirt and touched my hairless flesh with curiosity and I didn’t stop him. I liked him, or I thought I did, but I didn’t want him to know the real me. The me that no one could love.

But all of that happened anyway. She marched me back to the car so fast I couldn’t keep up in my thin flats. They had no traction and whenever she dragged me about I slipped like a gazelle on a frozen lake. I tried to keep my gaze averted but I didn’t have to worry. The churchgoers were already moving away, not wanting, or caring, to see how The Foster Kids are treated. At least that’s what I presume. 

 

 

***

 

Once in the car no one spoke to me. Not mom – whose face was still angry. Not dad – who was clueless to what happened, per usual. And definitely not my other siblings – who hadn’t stopped me from making the mistake in the first place and had down right egged me on. They joked with each other and talked about which donut they wanted from Krispy Creme – our after Sunday service tradition.

I knew I wouldn’t be getting a donut or at least she’d get my favorite kind, glazed with sprinkles, and then let someone else eat it. We also stopped by Church’s Chicken, another Sunday tradition, and I impatiently sat cramped in my corner of the SUV, my stomach growled but I wondered if I would get to eat the juicy fried chicken with everyone else. If not, I’d be relegated to the kitchen table with a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and a longer sentence of the silent treatment.

When we arrived home she still said nothing. Everyone went their separate ways: the foster kids to do their many chores, my dad to his favorite leather chair that he slept in with feet raised, mom to her couch in the sunroom that she stretched out on from sun up to sun down, and then me – to the kitchen to clean up before dinner. 

 After dinner had been eaten, the dishes cleared, the table reset, the chairs moved back in place (as there were too many of us and extra chairs were always needed), and the food was put away, I was in agony. She was still yet to tell me what my punishment would be but I knew something was coming.

Would it be 12 licks with daddy’s thick leather belt? Mom saying “this hurts me more than it hurt you” followed by “as soon as you stay still I can finish”?

Would it be hours sitting in front of the fireplace? A punishment tailor made for me because I had books in my room and “Go to your room” wasn’t a punishment but a vacation and one I relished.

Would it be one thousand sentences where I’d write out my crime and promise to do better? Hands cramping with every “I’ll never gyrate to secular music in church again. I apologize. I apologize. I apologize.”

Would I be banned from the library for 2 months? The worst one of all, because the house of books was my only safe space, the only place I truly felt happy. 

 More punishments went through my mind as I made myself scarce. I even thought “maybe I should run upstairs and read as many pages as I can in case I have to empty my bookshelves into bags and leave my books before her door to be taken for an undisclosed amount of time.”

 On my way to do just that I heard her call me. She didn’t seem angry and hope bloomed in my chest. When I arrived at the dining room the other foster kids were there, but only the girls. It didn’t seem important at the time.

“Strip,” she said with a little smirk on her face. The others started chanting “strip, strip, strip, strip”. I fought it and the smirk slipped from her face.

“Take. All. Your. Clothes. Off.” She barely got the words out through lights pulled tight across her teeth. “You want to be exposed and be fast?” Being ‘fast’ was something all girls (regardless of race) were who had ‘sexual tendencies’ at a young age, switching, making sex eyes, showing too much skin, going through puberty early to where their bodies developed faster than their age and more. 

 “Go ahead and be like David. You remember him? He danced so hard his clothes fell off. Dance for the Lord,” she said. I stared at her and, in that moment, I wanted to hit her. I wanted to hit her so hard she’d never smirk again. I wanted to drive my fist into her face and pound until all my frustration peeled off like wet clothes. But I knew I couldn’t. 

 So, I stripped. I stood there with my hands blocking the soft folds between my legs. Despite my early puberty I hadn’t grown hair there yet, even though I knew I one day would, and felt they could see into me. See inside me. 

 “Move your hands and dance. Just like you were doing at church this morning. I want to see.” I dropped my hands to my sides and moved my hips like I had seen girls do in music videos. My knees knocked together as I bent and straightened and swayed from side to side. I tried to blink quick enough to keep the tears in but I could feel a wetness in my eyes welling up. Could hear the cries welling up inside me though my mouth felt glued shut. 

 “No, around the table. And move your arms more. Just like you were this morning. Don’t play games with me” she said. 

 I stepped around the table bouncing and popping my butt back and forth, shaking my chest that was just budding with breasts. Through the third, and fourth, and fifth lap around the table I danced harder. I closed my eyes and put my hands above my head, giving myself over as I’d seen the girls in the movies do.

“She has good rhythm” I heard someone say merrily, as if it were all a joke, and I kept dancing.

***

My cheeks are wet now. I stopped trying to fight the tears a few laps back and continue to let them flow freely. I’m sorry god. I’m not a good girl. If i was, I wouldn’t have danced like that in your house today. I don’t deserve your love. I never did. I promise not to do it again. I think as I continue to dance. I can’t lift my hands because my arms are so tired. My feet drug across the smooth wood floors, catching on the area rug everytime I passed by the frayed corners, and I could barely lift them.

There was no more laughter, no whispering heard from the table. The foster girls watched in morbid silence. My punishment didn’t seem funny to them anymore. I could see their faces, trying to avert their eyes. Shame was shown to me and I wondered if it was mine or theirs.

“Enough,” someone said. It wasn’t mom, though, and so I kept dancing.

When I was finally released from my punishment I grabbed up my clothes and darted up the stairs, struggling to take them two at a time. My room door was open and once in I closed it as silently as I could in fear of further punishment. I didn’t stop to pull my clothes on but climbed the ladder to my top bunk.

Beneath the thin cover I was safe, hidden, but all modesty left me that day. My body wasn’t just mine anymore. It didn’t only belong to me. Everyone had feasted on it with their eyes and their hysterical laughter. They’d stripped it of it’s purity via their sanctity. They looked into my void and I couldn’t stop them. I can never stop them because I bared my soul and, like my body, I’ll never be able to hide it again.   

CNF: “Don’t Talk to Her, She’s Black”

When I was fifteen I knew that I wanted to get a job. I wanted to make my own money, buy things that my parents weren’t willing to pay for and just live life on my own terms. You might laugh just a little about this but it’s true. In doing this, I went to Hyvee to get a job and there, because of my overall optimism and appearance of happiness (and the fact that the job had “A Smile in Every Aisle” as their slogan), I got hired on the spot.

I loved the job, despite its location. I grew up in Missouri, on a block that was ghetto-adjacent, as we called it. In Kansas City, Missouri you might find it’s a smorgasbord of races, cultures, and relationships. However, just a hop – skip- and a jump across the state border (about ten minutes from my house) is Kansas. 

In my own opinion, just across the way you might find yourself being called nigger (hard r) or being spat on. I knew this, when I got hired at Hyvee, however, I thought the grocery store was close enough to home to still be considered a safe space. It wasn’t. I can’t chronicle how many times I’d been racially attacked with verbal insults.


When I turned sixteen I was officially, and legally, allowed to become a cashier, instead of a stocker or sacker, and I was excited. I was filled with happiness at the fact that I could stay at the front, wouldn’t have to run back and forth, and when it was time for me to be off I could sign out without having to finish a checklist first.

That first day started more exciting than any other but by the end I was defeated, reduced to tears, and confused. 

 

***

It was my birthday, I had waited so long for this and I’d demanded they put me on the schedule. I waited behind my register, having completed all training weeks before, tapping my fingers against the screen. A woman came up, four to five things in her cart, with a little boy about three years old sitting in the basket. The young boy looked so happy. He bounced with joy as they stopped before my register and I punched in my code, returning the mirth. 

“It’s my birthday,” the boy told me proudly, puffing up his tiny chest. I grinned and leaned over the counter. Meeting his eye and giving a quick wink.

“It’s my birthday, too,” I all but whisper to him like it’s our little secret. He stood in the cart, putting his hands against the register and leaned toward me conspiratorially. 

“Are you old?” I laugh hard and carefree, in the way only a teen can, and shake my head. I ring up the items and smile down at him, then tell him my age. His mother is standing there smiling softly, happy that he’d found a friend I’m sure.

As I punch at the buttons to finish the transaction a man came up behind her. I looked up with a ready smile until I saw the seething anger on his face. As if she could sense his presence, the woman took a step to the side, away from me. She seemed to shrink in on herself, her shoulders coming up, almost touching her ears. I looked between the two but neither spoke to me. I leaned forward stretching to grab at the item he purposefully put as far from me as possible. As I was at the Express register, I didn’t have a moving belt to help move product toward me. 

“Don’t talk to her,” he spat out between tight lips, “she’s black.” I straightened so quickly my elbow hit the side of the register. My mouth snapped shut and I tried hard to keep the tears that immediately filled my eyes from falling. I looked at the man questioningly, at his hard eyes and his almost white lips. He stared back at me, daring, just daring me to say something. 

I didn’t. I couldn’t. I was frozen in place. I watched as he used the tip of his finger to push the item, a pack of gum, closer to me. Then he looked down at the boy in the cart, who mirrored his mother. His tiny body shriveled to a far corner, around the bags I’d swung over the counter, legs pulled up, small eyes averted, his own lip quivering.

I looked at the woman but she didn’t look at me. She stared down at her feet, having stepped out of the way, again, so he could pay, her hands clasped together over her belly in submission. I wanted to speak, wanted to deny my blackness. I wanted to tell him I was ok, that I was a “good person”, but I couldn’t speak. 

I looked at the boy again who peeked up at me from beneath long lowered lashes, his arms still crossed at the elbows, his hands grasping at his shoulders for comfort. He looked confused, sad, but I knew he truly didn’t understand. Then my chest tightened. I hurt for this little boy who would grow up with a racist father, a mother with no backbone, and fostered hate in his heart.

 

I felt sorry for him but, to be honest, I felt more sorry for myself.

My Angel of Death


A soft ssssnick woke me from my slumber and my eyes opened. There was silence and then the scraping of metal against metal. Gears moved, shifting, and turning like pieces of a puzzle coming to rest in place.

Slowly, I moved from the comfort of my covering and watched the door with apprehension. With a whoosh of air, it opened and swung back against the cream wall. With a kick of her foot, my angel pushed the wood back and appeared in the doorway.

She was back-lit by the lamp post outside, my angel was. Her head glowed like an effervescent halo, or maybe it was the way the light shot through the fluffy curls that hung around her head in strings. As she moved they were twisting in on themselves like medusa’s pets, coils pulled up in a high bun, some dripping down onto her shoulders. 

My angel was wider than I remembered. I’d only watched her since I moved to this new apartment and I’ve never seen her quite so…lumpy? No matter, I’ll take her however she comes. I watch, awestruck, as she struggles across the threshold. I want to help her, to reach out and take her in all of my arms and tell her how much I missed her. I want to remind her of all the times I kept her company, watching as she moved about. Day to night, back and forth, going along her daily routine.

I wanted to kiss her on her forehead, and wipe away any trace of the fear she might have upon seeing me in her apartment uninvited. For I am uninvited. But, I think, after all I’ve done for her, for them (my mind sours at the thought of the other two, as it’s only my angel I care about but I digress) I have just as much right to darken this door as they do. 

No, not lumpy. She’s just as plump as before. However, once she cleared the door she shed her skin like a snake. One after the other, skin became bags that became visible in the dim light and dropped to her feet. Reaching up, stretching her soft body until it could go no further, she tugged on the tiny metal string hanging from the fan. It clicks and light floods the room. I don’t need to block my eyes, as I’m watching through filtered lenses, but I close them anyway. 

When I open them again she’s gone. He’s there. He sheds his skin bags as well, though they are more hefty and heavier than hers, and then puts the tiny one down. The tiny replica of them sleeps in her plastic cage that keeps her safe and I feel jealousy stir in me. My angel dotes on her, always carrying and rocking and singing her sweet songs. I’d think there’s no way my angel could love me the way she loves her replica.

As I watch them come back and forth dropping their many skins before me, I keep an eye on the tiny one. It is my duty to keep her safe, though my angel would never know my esteemed position. The replica mews and reminds me of my angel again. Her tiny eyes flutter beneath their lids and my green eye fades away. She, like my angel, is beautiful. I see remnants in her. The purse of her lips, the slant to her sleeping eyes, the puffiness of her cheeks. I will not harm this one, I think. Had I been closer I could touch that tiny replica, hug her close with downy arms. But I am not, and she is sleeping and so I wait, patiently, until my angel returns. 

And there she is again, sweat moistening her brow as she lifts more skin through the door. Again, I want to help in any way I can, but I know I must stay out of sight. I’ve no fear of him, papa bear – the clear glass named him, for I heard he’d never harm me. What, with his soft heart and inability to kill. It’’s my angel I truly fear because this connection between us is not yet strong enough. 

She’s talked to me on several occasions unbeknownst to my presence, muttering softly beneath her breath, staring off into space, daydreaming about a blessed life. I would give it to her, if I could, but I cannot. I am the thing of nightmares, the cause of fear and pain and destruction. I wear this like a badge of honor, only except when it comes to my angel. 

I listen and wait, watching through several lenses as the door is shut, with a finality, and all three seem to sigh with relief. The comfort of home, security of being in control, untouchable by the dangers of the world on the other side of the doors. 

She laughs, a melodic sound. As she walks about the apartment tears sprinkle like liquid diamonds falling from her eyes. She motions here and there and there and says something unintelligible to him, and he nods, smiling in return. Then she’s waving her hands through the air again, pointedly, like dance moves to inaudible music.

As she gets closer to my hiding spot I shrink in on myself, afraid her radiance might blind me, or that I might be seen. She’s waving her hands again and I realize it’s not a dance. She’s determined, her mouth set, her eyes darting back and forth,  and back and forth, looking and searching, perhaps for me. 

“You know what they say,” she says, her voice clear as she gets closer. “Wherever there are cobwebs, there is a…SPIDER!” she yells out the last word as my hiding place is discovered. I am betrayed by my angel. I burst free from my confines. Desperation fills me as she slaps, slaps, slaps, left and right and then left again with her dainty hands. Angel’s hands. 

I race away, my surplus of legs no match for her size and agility. She smacks down right on my head and I’m immobile. I feel a shuttering in me, a fluttering like the replica’s eyes. One of my legs has detached and lies twitching an inch away. The other seven remain but are of no use to me. As the hand comes down again I hear him say “did you get it?” and I can do nothing but surrender. 

I have lived a good life. Found solace in the blessed angel no one believed existed. I have watched her day in and day out. I’ve stood sentry from my corner. I have been privy to her thoughts and I am grateful. Ever am I grateful to give my life so that she may live fearless and in peace.

Short Fiction: Ferrywoman of Souls

The Ferrywoman of Souls

 

Mid-afternoon, with a soft breeze and a light blue sky, is the perfect time to die. The soul seeps from the pores in a melodic lilt and rises toward the heavens and hovers just above its host. The body, having lost its connection with the physical world, loses its luster. Skin darkening, temperature falling, limbs grow hard over the passage of time. And the world goes on. The trees continue to breathe, branches swaying and leaves rustling. It’s a glorious moment, one you’d love to stay in forever, if you could.

Then I come and fuck things up. Fifteen feet away I stand on the edge of the curb, the balls of my feet balancing on the cement, my heels in the air. I look down and hesitate. The grass is bright green, well taken care of. I know what I’ll see the second I move and I close my eyes. I take a deep breath in and blow it out slowly. I step forward and an audible crunch comes from beneath my feet. I look down at the grass. It’s black, shriveled and hardened into the shape of my foot.

Almost all plants die when I touch them. It’s my thing. It’s the courtesy of being death’s best friend, employee, in my case, bringing the stink of the underworld with you. It trailing behind you like a poor sick puppy. It sounds so dramatic and, I guess, in a way it is. Bringer of death. Ferrywoman of souls. The strength of thousands of flesh eating demons. Alright, that last part is too much. For the most part, it’s probably just me. I’m a Reaper; a Grimm Reaper. And that is why I fill my apartment with succulents. Those fuckers are hard to kill. Cactus, Fantactus.

I step again and death to the ground spreads beneath me. Taking another deep breath, I lift my head and continue forward. The house is bright and happy. Eggshell white, pastel pink on the shutters, a pastel yellow front door with a large ruby red knocker, window flower beds with a dozen flowers and small perfectly trimmed hedges that surround the property. I almost feel bad for what I need to do but I don’t. It’s decreed. It’s for the best. It’s destiny and you just can’t change destiny. You can’t change your appointment.

When it’s your appointment time I feel a burn in my skin. It hums and vibrates until I pay heed. To make matters worse, I’ll be in the middle of showering, to get the stink of decay from beneath the epidermis, and then a gold glow will rise from my flesh. I’ll roll my eyes, because death never comes at the right time, then I swipe a hand down my forearm, where a built in map lays. It’s not like your normal map. It doesn’t show streets or lines or hills or lakes. It looks like a tree and shows energy, spirits, souls due to fade. It shows that nearby someone’s appointment is any day now. Another life passing by, going from here to the next place, never to be lived again. Then here I come, from Wherever, ready to take your hand in mine. Ready to reap.

I follow the hedges around to the back of the house, leaving a trail of dead grass behind me. Luckily, if I leave the area quick enough the grass will return to its former glory in no time. The body of an older woman, late fifties and grey hair, lay in the midst of a beautiful garden. I stood there for a moment to breathe in the beauty before I destroyed it. Tall, manicured, rose bushes lined the walk, don’t get too close to either side or you’ll get pricked. Grey stones lined the path with stubborn grass snaking between like puzzle lines.

A stone white love seat is mirrored on the first path. A vine overtakes one, not in the unkempt way, but intentionally. Curling up, up, up and over the seat and onto the arms and disappearing over the back to the hedges behind. The green looks soft, like spongy moss and I ache to sit on it. I don’t because I know it’ll crunch beneath my weight and I’d leave my deathly shadow behind. On the second path, a crowd of sunflowers gather beside stalks of tulips, making a painting of vertical and horizontal colors with green stretching between. Above the trees wave and I can’t tell if they are planted or natural, the garden was planted around them. It’s loud with nature and I take a deep breath in to immerse myself in the scent of life and listen. Bees buzzed and everything did what everything does.

I stepped gracefully onto the gravel path, narrowly missing a small collection of poinsettias, and tiptoed to the body. She looked almost peaceful. Her eyes gazing up at the clouds, mouth smiling on the left and slightly drooping on the right. One hand was twisted in a knarl of swollen knuckles. Beneath a frilly gardener’s smock she wore a pair of dark wash jeans, to guard from grassy stains, and a billowy yellow top. It flutters in the wind, movement against still.

Flipping my wrist to remove the long heavy cloak, I reached out with virgin hands. My fingers tingle from the tips to my inner wrist. The golden tree map begins to fade into my skin with my proximity to the awaiting soul. I lightly touched a palm to her ankle and close my eyes. Drinking in the left over power from her life source, I drew her soul to me before her last breaths left her lips. A glow follows the trail of my hand, taking the rest of the warmth with it. Her skin pales against the vibrant grass. For it’s the soul that holds all life and not the body.

Sometimes my job is easy, the souls rise to the surface on their own. Other times they linger, or get stuck, and I have to do the dirty work. She resisted, a positive, hopeful energy flowed through her bones, clinging onto the last shred of life. I gathered more power into my body and making a lasso in my mind, I gently tugged on the soul. The last hooks release and it withdrew from the body. There she was, standing before me, facing the garden she’s spent so long cultivating. It’s a beautiful backdrop for her ghostly figure.

“So that’s how I go?” she asked. Her body shimmered as the wind picked up. “A heart attack?” I rise and cover myself, virgin skin still pure. She was already dead, I could do no more damage, but I was so used to protecting others from my curse that it was second nature.

“I’m afraid so,” I say. I step toward her and look around. “Your garden is beautiful.”

“Yes,” she replies confidently. “You’re killing it.” She motioned down to my feet where not only was I trampling flowers but they were turning black and shriveling in rapid succession. It was an ode to the life I once led, to the life she once led, and I took the message as it came and stepped back quickly. My heels hover in the air as I tiptoe on to the small stone triangles of the walk.

“I’m sorry, it’s the…”

“The Reaper thing?” she finished for me. “Everything becomes so clear when you’re dead. I knew you would be there, you know. I could feel you calling me. I actually think I saw you last week when I was at the market. I was buying tomatoes and in my peripheral I could see this darkness. It hung around until I closed my eyes but when I opened them again it was still there.” She paused and looked at me. “At first, I thought it was just my eyesight going bad. That happens when you’re old. Things begin to fade away, things you once took for granted. Then I knew it was you. I knew you would come for me.”

I nod and she sighs. She did see me last week. I’m often drawn to those who are so close to death. My tree hummed but it didn’t glow, when I was near her, and it didn’t pulse with her location and date. Not her appointment yet. Sometimes they don’t always die, near death experiences do actually happen. That’s destiny as well. They still feel me though, see me. In her case, no such luck.

“I told my daughter about you, you know. She said you were just a figment of my imagination.” I don’t speak, this is common. They want to chat before they go. They want to know why; how, where, and what can they tell their family they’ve left behind. I placate them, there’s nothing I can say or do to make any of this better and I don’t try. I just listen.

We stand in silence and take in the garden. I wait for her to speak but she is waiting for me and so still we stand. A bird swoops down to the feeder and peck, peck, pecks until it’s found the prize and then off it goes, back into the sky and freedom.

“What did you say back?” I finally speak and reach out to her from beneath my cloak, with my gloved hand. She knows what to do. She puts her hand in mine, lets a finger brush over the thick leather, and lets me pull her toward the gravel path. I can feel her soul brushing against mine, know that this is how it goes. I take a piece of them and every time they take a piece of me.

“I told her I loved her. That I would always be with her. She cried. She asked me for his name. Her name. Whoever the doctor is that gave me the bad news. But there was no doctor, no paper to say this was coming, no tests with positive results. Just my intuition and a dark shadow on the corner of my mind at the market. The market. I loved that place, the comings and goings. The different cultures with their different spices. I only got into trying new things a year ago. Isn’t that funny?” she pauses and sighs and I think she’s going to make us still again so I don’t reply.

“Wait, you were at the market! Can other people see you?” She stops and I know what she’s doing. She’s stalling, I don’t mind. I’m also already dead, I have all the time in the world.

“Yes, but not when I’m doing this. When I’m doing this I’m virtually invisible to the living world. Can’t have others seeing the souls being ferried. They’d freak. Humans are not so…”

“Humans? Are you not human? You look human to me. Do you do this often?” her voice rose as she continued. I squeezed her hand, comforting.

“Listen, Anne. Can I call you Anne? I know you want to stay. You have your daughter and your garden and your market and so much to live for but I’m sorry. It’s come to an end. Your husband is waiting for you, should you want to go to him, some people don’t and hey, that’s neither here nor there, you know what I mean.” I rambled as I tugged on her hand again and led her to the curb where I’d appeared when I was pulled to the place.

“I know. I’m sorry. You’re right. My Gus is waiting for me, should he want to see me, of course.” I nod and chuckle along with her and with my mind’s eye – open the portal.

There’s no floating up to heaven when they actually go. No movie moment where the soul is a Casper-ish ghost that floats up, up, and up and touches the clouds and there’s a bright light that abducts them like aliens. And beautiful music fills the air and a choir of cherubs sings home going hymns. We open a portal to the afterlife and in they go. To the Inbetween, the place where they wait until their afterlife fate is decided. I think. I was there once but that is a story for another time.

The place they go on the other side of the portal is different than the Darkness. It feels lighter, more like a relaxing waiting room, and not a scary place where all things are dead and unferried souls walk around with their heads drooped. We’d reap those souls, if we could figure out how to keep our bodies alive in there. Nothing breathes, in the Darkness. Nothing grows. Nothing, and I mean nothing, emits light. The souls brush past you like cobwebs, and should you have enough energy to snag a soul and pull them through to the real world, you’re more likely to come out in a place you don’t want to. Like a jail cell, the middle of the ocean, or on the wrong end of a knife.

Only the Yanaris are bold enough to Reap souls from the Darkness. The Yanaris are reapers like me and unlike me. They have been doing this so long they’ve lost all sense of their souls. Their humanity. They reap without question and live without life. For them, there is no down time between appointments. They don’t need it, they reap unconsciously and are empty. So many reaped souls chipping away that there was nothing left of themselves to give. I hope I never become one of the Yanaris although I knew each of them had, one time or another, said the same thing. It is our destiny. Though that is also another story for another time.

“I’ll see you, Anne. May your soul rest in peace.” She smirks at my quip and I smirk back.

She turns to me and sighs again. I love her sighs. They are deep and final. They punctuate her life and I can tell she had been a thinking woman. She steps backward through the portal. I don’t try to look into it, seeing what I could see. In the beginning, when I was new to this, I’d crowd in behind them, trying to get a glimpse of hope and peace. Now I know it doesn’t belong to me and I stay in my place. She fades.

As it closes, I watch her eyes tear and brighten. That could be an indicator that maybe Gus is there with open arms. Anne will walk into them and they will stand there, souls reunited, hearts touching. She will lay her head on his shoulder as she always did way back when and he will close his arms around the soft curves of her back. They will sway back and forth, back and forth, like the eddies of time and nothing else will come between them. Not that I know. Once they go to the other side, they don’t come back and I don’t join them there. I never will. I’ve done my job and now I must move on.

CNF: Blades

With a small pink razor, stolen from another foster kid, I shave at the sporadic hair on my legs. I hear her voice, my adoptive mother’s, in my head with each down sweep of the blades, “if you shave your legs the hair will grow back thicker. Then you’ll have to keep shaving and shaving. Forever.”
I don’t care. Even at eight years old I want to be like everyone else, baby smooth skin that’s soft to touch. The way it used to be. I want to wear dresses and shorts without feeling the prickly spikes of embarrassment move against flowy material. I curve my hand slightly but it’s just enough for the blade to nick my skin.
Sucking in a quick breath at the sharp sting, I watch as a bead of blood wells to the surface. It slips down and taints my skin. I watch it still and I get an idea. It blooms in me like a rose. Its petals vibrant. I push on the nick and pause to watch more blood follow the path of the razor, down toward my ankle where it pools in the divot near my heel. I know what to do. I’ve heard about it from one of the girls that slept in the basement rooms of our foster home. She talked about a friend who found a way out. Of pain. Of fear. Of abandonment. Because, even this age, I know exactly what that word means.
I know what the word feels like. The way it wraps around your throat, each letter like fingers tightening as they mold to the contours of your flesh. I know what it sounds like. Rain pattering against window panes as you’re left behind. Watching the cars drive by, wondering if you’ll be remembered or if they will go on with ‘family’ day without you. I know what it looks like. The way it swirls in the air, red in the color of betrayal. It’s a word you’ll feel long after you’ve healed from it. If you ever truly heal.
***
I’m back in the bathroom a few days later and I’m ready. I’ve set myself up by announcing that I haven’t yet showered. My adoptive mother tells me she knows, without looking up from whatever is more important. She says that she can smell the ‘fonk’ on me. “You’re the first one to notice your own stink,” she’s told me so many times. This time, I wonder if it’s just another lie she tells.
I look in the mirror, a reflection that I can see only by standing on the toilet, and I nod. Then I’m smiling like a loon. Here we go. Climbing down, I grab the razor from the lip of the sink and dig my tiny fingers between the plastic sides. With much force, it cracks, but the part with the blades held fixed.
“I can’t even get this right,” I say in a low whisper. The hot tears come fast, welling and falling before I can blink them away. I’m grabbing and pulling and the sharp edge is slicing at the pads of my fingers. I feel the pain but am determined. I might even like the pain. The way with each slice brings up a paper thin flap of flesh.
Sitting on the toilet lid, I pull up my knees and yank until finally the blades are free. They are wet with sticky blood and I almost yell triumphantly. Dropping the rest of the razor to the floor, I bite the fleshy inside of my cheek, sit two blades on the windowsill and take the third in between my fingers. It’s a precious jewel that I cradle fondly, for a few seconds.
Then I’m cutting. Down and down, until I break through the skin and the lean meat of my small wrist. It’s hot, the area of incision, and I wait for the blood. It slips over my skin and drips onto my knee. It’s fascinating and I sit transfixed under the spell.
Next to the first line I make another, pushing until the skin is broken and then I’m frowning. It doesn’t hurt as bad. The initial shock – gone. Switching to my non-dominant hand, I slice into my right wrist and there the adrenaline is again. It fills me and I close my eyes. I roll back my shoulders and stand a little straighter. I’m in control. This is my body. No one can tell me what to do with my own flesh. They can’t take my limbs from me and I will do whatever I want with them. I am defiant, as everyone always tells me, and I’ve taken it in stride.
With the second cut I go deeper, longer than the other three, and I feel a jolt in my hand. A tingle that spears through each finger, then circles up to my elbow and round my shoulder. The shock of it sparks fear and I drop the blade to my feet, where it narrowly misses the bathroom carpet. I sigh in relief as it settles against the tile with barely a sound. A whimper escapes as the pain grows and I’m watching the blood fall quicker from this fourth cut. I scramble to gather toilet paper to the wrist, and it spins off the roll, spilling in white sheets onto the floor. My left wrist has caught up. It’s dripping profusely and I jump up to stand over the sink.
I didn’t want to end it today, I think. I just wanted to practice. I just wanted to see if I could. If it was easy. My chest is tightening, breaths a quick staccato against the silence of the bathroom. ‘She had a panic attack and…’ I remember one of my teachers saying, after I nearly passed out a few months ago, and I stand up straight. I hold my breath, hoping to stop the rising sense of relinquishment. Then I’m counting; One, Two, Three, Four. The blood has slowed, I see. I flick on the faucet and run both stained wrists under the cool water. It stings and I’m sucking in another breath.
I hear someone calling my name. Dinner! I’d completely forgotten. I’m turning the water on full blast now, hoping to wash away my sins. The water irritates the cuts and blood flows again. A vicious cycle. I feel stupid. Useless. Like the waste of space that I am. We have dinner every night. How could I forget that?
Finally, I cut the water to the faucet and then gingerly sidestep to the shower and cut the water there, too, and then I’m wrapping my wrists in wads of toilet paper. I quickly grab the blades from the sill and the one from the floor and wrap them too. I stick them in the small pocket of my jeans and the towel that is in the color assigned to me. Wrapping my wrists, doubly now, I make a quick exit into the adjacent bedroom. My name is called again and I yell that I’m putting my clothes on.
In my room, I change and put on a cropped jean jacket. It’s long sleeved and the material snags on the wadded toilet paper on my wrists. I slide the buttons closed and look at myself in the mirror. My eyes are wide and I know I look feral. There’s a thin line of wayward blood across my check and I’m wiping. Wiping, and wiping and scrubbing it away. I’m scrubbing and then I’m hitting. I’m smacking a small hand against my check for being so stupid. Then I know I must end it. Just not today.

***
At the dinner table, I sit with my hands in my lap, mock respect. My adoptive mother is going on about how it’s ‘just so rude’ for me to make everyone else wait while I lollygag. I know she’s thinking about why does she always have to punish me. And how I can’t be ‘more important than everyone else’.
“That’s not how the world works,” she says and continues on her diatribe of things Jade doesn’t know about the world. I do this so often, always so late, all the time. I know that when she winds down another punishment is in order. I fidget in my seat while thinking of what it might be.
Would it be 12 licks with daddy’s thick leather belt? Mom saying “this hurts me more than it hurts you” followed by “as soon as you stop jumping around and stay still I can finish”? Would it be hours sitting in front of the fire place? A punishment tailor made for me because I had books in my room. And “Go to your room right now and think about what you’ve done” wasn’t a punishment but a reading vacation and one I savored every moment I could. Would it be one thousand admonishments where I’d admit how stubborn I am, write out my crimes and promise to do better? Hands cramping with every “I’ll never waste everyone’s time by thinking I am more important than them again. I apologize. I apologize. I apologize.” Would I be banned from the library for 2 months? The worst punishment of all because the house of books was my only safe space, the only place I truly felt happy, the only place where I can cleanse myself of all the anger and the fear and immerse myself into another life.
More punishments went through my mind as I made myself smaller and smaller in my chair. I get it, at least, I think I do. I’m not important and shouldn’t make myself out to be. “You can’t be something you’re not’ was another of her admonishments. I nod and she corrects me ‘use your words’. I look up and she’s staring right at me. Everyone is.
My brother’s sitting right next to me and yet we feel so far apart. He is the only biological sibling that I have that still seems to love me and I can feel him slipping away. Everyday he tells me how I was ‘found in a trashcan’ and if I slip up one more time he’ll take me back. Next to him is the new girl who’s name I often forget. She smirks at me because she’s a hell raiser, at least that’s what my adoptive mom calls her when she’s on the phone with her prayer group. On the other side of the table, next to Mother, is my adoptive father. He’s my favorite person in the world but I can tell by the look in his eyes that he won’t save me and he won’t stop her rant. He never does. He’ll let her go on and on until my nods are not enough to placate her. I lower my eyes to my lap, submissive, and see a bit of toilet paper peeking from my jacket sleeve.
Can they see what I’ve done? I shove my hands further into my lap and depress the urge to wince as the cuts in my wrists grind against the now sticky toilet paper.
“Hello?” she says to me, sarcastically drawing out the O, and I’m looking around. My brother is smirking at me from across the table and I jump. He’s holding a plate of warm garlic rolls in my direction. I can see butter melting in the slits topping each one. Gingerly, I lift my arm to take the plate, and a roll, before passing it on. She has a screwed look, the one where her lips go to one side and her eyes narrow. I can see it from the corner of my eye and I think any minute. Any minute now and she’ll ask what’s wrong and that’ll be the worst.
I’m a horrible liar, I know. I fidget in my seat and then dig into my food that she’s already plated due to my tardiness. It satisfies her and she instead of dishing out one of her infamous punishments she begins her rounds of the table, everyone having their turn in the spotlight. “How was your day? What did you do? Did you learn anything?”
I take a deep breath around a bite of thick mashed potatoes and relax. ‘One day but not today,’ I think. I sit and listen as everyone tries to find something interesting to say and pretend they did. When it comes around to me I think of my wrists. I think of something I might say.
“I slit my wrists today. I didn’t want to kill myself, only see if it would be easy – should I want to. It hurt. It hurt so bad that it felt good. I still want to kill myself, one day. But for now I just want to revel in the pain that sears through my body. It makes me think of everything that has ever been done to me, will ever be done to me, and how this is different. It’s me, saying what goes. Saying WHEN,” Instead, I shrug and continue eating, slowly chewing so I don’t look like a chow. I remember to use my words and my fork hovers.
“I finished reading my new book,” I say.
“I thought you just got that book yesterday,” she says between bites of fried chicken.
“I did. And I finished it. It was fantastic. It was about…”
“So that’s what you were doing in your room. Didn’t I tell you not to spend all day up there reading? Those people aren’t real. How will you ever learn anything about making a human connection, about god’s creatures, about the true meaning of life, if you just have your nose stuck in a book? All…” I stopped listening. This is what she did.
I was selfish, embarrassed, angry, reserved, I liked books over people. Hell, I liked bacon over people. But it wasn’t until that day, sitting there listening to her explain how books will never make me happy, that I realize books can make me happy. Books can make me positive, optimistic, and light. They can teach me about human connection, about god’s creatures, about the true meaning of life. They can show me a full way to live.
As she goes on, I day dream of meeting a man who will love me for me and about creating a family that I can take care of and show what it means to truly be supportive – like in the romance novels. I think of the thrillers that keep me on the edge of my seat, what’s going to happen next? Who killed who? Why did they kill? Why do humans kill? I think of the adventurous books. How archeology opens you up to the world of old and teaches you that life’s a puzzle to discover. I think of the horror novels when bad things happen to good people and even though they die in the end a lesson has been learned.
I nod and look attentive and she gains her second wind. As she starts up again, telling me how I’m not the daughter she hoped for, I think of stories filled with dragons and vampires that are living and find love despite their soulless nature. I day dream and I wish and I hope and pray and think and decipher and enthusiastically appeal to the witches of fate and then, instead of the blades I used just twenty minutes ago to mar my body, I think of a different outlet. A different way to escape.
I’ll become…a scholar.

10 Years Late to University: I don’t Belong Here But I Belong Here

 
My first semester at UCF I cried on my way to campus.

It was 7:30am, the road was clear – as it always is at dawn – and so the drive from West Orlando was quick. I was so excited, the night before, that I couldn’t sleep. I barely ate, barely hydrated, and spent most of the day with the jitters. I’d always loved school, loved learning, loved brainstorming with my fellow students, and this was my time.

But I was also terrified. It had been 10 years, then a brief stint at Valencia College – via the Direct Connect program – since I had been at University. Before, I didn’t think I’d ever be able to go back to school, to do what I loved. It was finally here. There was so much fear surrounding the ideal of being an older college student. At nearly 28, it might not seem like I am so removed from the fresh-out-of-high school teens that are enrolling now but I am. We are in two completely different generations.

I’m a Millennial. For some reason, older people forget just how old Millennials actually are. They forget that we played outside as children, most of us didn’t have the internet when we were kids, and we got dirty. They forget that we, too, had catalogues where we picked out our favorite toys hoping our parents would order them for us. They forget that we had CD players and Walkman. They forget that most of us didn’t have these fancy smartphones or our necks breaking to watch TV on iPads all day. We didn’t get those cheapie pay-as-you-go Nokia’s until we were sophomores in high school (barely). Even then you had to get a job because your mom wasn’t going to pay for the by-text fees and waiting until after 9pm, when everything was free, was too long to make plans with your friends. We weren’t using Instagram, or Facebook or spending all day on Twitter. I had Myspace and only when I snuck to get on when my mother wasn’t looking.

So, it’s different. I’m late. I’m behind the curve. I have aspirations but am quickly realizing that there are 20-year olds going for these internships I would be applying for at 30. I’m a part of a writing group with a recent UCF MFA alum, who is in her early 20s, who currently living my life – had I gone straight through like I was “supposed” to.

I want to be strong. I want to feel like I’m not too late but I’m a Millennial. I’m a part of the “graduate high school, straight to college, graduate in 4 years and into a good job by 21 then a family, and a house,” group. We are pressured to do everything so quickly. No traveling, no taking years off, no breathers, no doing “what you love”. If our lives don’t fit into that timeline we’re stuck.

That’s how I ended up here. I was pressured, by my family, into going for a degree I didn’t want because “writers don’t make any money” and “don’t you want to get a real job” or even “is that even a career”? That didn’t work out – does it ever? So here I am. 10 years later. On the cusp of 30 and crying in my car in my first week at UCF. Wiping my tears with Chik-Fil-A napkins from yesterday’s excited-to-be-on-track run. Picking myself back up. Building my confidence as a writer. Gleaning as much as I can before this opportunity is over, in case it doesn’t work out. Again.

I’m also crying because I’m a full-time student and at the same time I’m a new mother.

These first days at UCF will be the first time I am away from my four-month-old daughter, Naomi, for more than four hours. I’m terrified to be so far from her. If anything happens, I’m on the East side of town and must rush through highways, construction, and rush hour to get to her. Can I get there in time? Am I a good mother?

I’ve been told that I’m supposed to forget about myself. Lose myself. I am a Mother now. That’s how they say it. A Mother with a capital M and in bold. Mother. Does me being on campus – finally shedding the pressures of a toxic adoptive family, putting aside stereotypes about strong black women who endure it all and multitasking relationship, baby, writing, and keeping my house in order – mean that I’m not giving my daughter the attention that she deserves? Should I even be doing this? I grip the steering wheel tight and hesitate before I turn off the car. Maybe I should just go home right now. She probably needs me. Even though her father is absolutely amazing, supportive, loving, kind, and spent the last four months learning about parenting just as I have – I’m sure he’ll need help.

I turn off the car. No. I’m here for a reason. I have to do this. I made a commitment to myself and to my guy. He supports me while I am in school. Supports my dreams and my end goal. I made a commitment to the Universe. It deserves my writing. It deserves my voice. I made a commitment to the young, black foster kids who are abused and unloved. They deserve to know it’s possible to survive through it all and come out loving your life. I also made a commitment to my daughter. I want to show her that it’s never too late to do what you love. Because it’s not. Right?

No seriously, I’m asking.

I check my face in my rear-view mirror and dissolve into more tears. I look a mess. My makeup is all over the place. I never wear makeup but today I must. I’m a college student. University student with pious eyes. Everyone is young, pretty, with tight bodies – that didn’t just have babies – and long luscious hair – that isn’t falling out because of postpartum shedding. They move across campus on trim legs in droves, scattering like roaches the moment the clock marks the hour. I watch them from my swinging hammock strung up on Memory Mall, because I get to campus early, and stay very late, to avoid rush hour. Their laughter is a joyous noise unbroken by the ups and downs of life and the monotony of an unsatisfying day job. They cut through the foot traffic on their tiny skateboards (one of which I have but haven’t used because my unfit body can’t figure out how to turn corners). I sit and watch them as they shove their mouths with campus food because they’re not watching their weight as tight as they are watching their budget.

So I don’t belong here but I do. I pay my fees in late nights of homework. I hand make journals for handwritten notes in classes where I sit in the front row. After the baby is down for the night, I stay up late to write, like I am now at 2:30am, to make sure my priorities are in check. To make sure that I said I wanted to be a writer and therefore I am.

While pumping breast milk, I scratch out feedback for in-class workshops and shake my wrists to deal with the lasting effects of carpal tunnel from my pregnancy. While the food is cooking on the stove, I get in a few pages of the many required reading texts and yell “Hey! Don’t eat that” to Naomi who’s found a way to knock a rented textbook off the table and is using the spine to soothe her teething. I pick it up and put it on the counter and then later have to pay the difference because I accidentally burn a page or two.

I hold my daughter across my lap, the bottle of milk I just pumped clutched in her tiny hands, while I type out the answers to busy-work weekly discussion posts. I definitely paid after I was double-fisting open bottles of breast milk, had a squirming baby on my lap, and she kicked them and the spilled milk destroyed my MAC. I paid in the way my shins hurt going from bedrest while pregnant to walking miles everyday either on campus or on the treadmill to get my stamina back. I pay in the way I clean up my apartment every night, picking up toys and textbooks, sticky yogurt melts stuck to the carpet and highlighters, baby socks and post-it notes.

While on campus I utilize the “Nursing Room” in the Student Union in between classes so I can make sure my milk supply doesn’t dwindle. I spend the first month of school pouring the milk down the drain before the fog of mommy-brain lifts and I remember that I can bring a cooler bag with ice packs to keep the milk fresh.

I do a lap of the fitness center with my backpack, my pump bag, and my cooler before realizing that I don’t belong in this place of young energy and sickening innocence. I get a gym membership at a 24 Hour Fitness near my home because – while I belong on campus – I don’t belong in the campus gym. I feel that my insecurities won’t die there, in the presence of adults my age, only thrive.

So; I love that word – So. It leads from one thing to another. I say it so often. And, hilariously, there it is again.

So, I don’t belong here but I do. And I’m here to stay. Well, at least, until graduation. Then I’m done. My dreams are being achieved; I’m hitting my goals with every turned-in homework assignment that’s accompanied by baby puff snack stains. I’m not letting anyone tell me no, or make me go home. Even myself. I have made a commitment and although there have been many days weeping, arguing, and baby bouncing, I am happy to call myself a Knight.