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C1 Two Words

Everyone has a word. That one word that encapsulates and articulates so much of who you are, that on a Venn diagram there would only be a sliver that falls outside the scope of that word. Most people never learn their word, but it's out there, waiting to be found. Waiting to be called forth.

I... I have two words. My first word, only because I learned it first, is hiraeth. It's not even English—though the best words seldom are, so that should hardly be counted against it. I initially discovered hiraeth on social media, and it made me suck in my breath as something stirred deep within me. It's Welsh, and there's no direct translation into English, but it's defined as a kind of homesickness tinged with grief or sadness over a person or place that is lost to you. It carries with it a sense of longing, nostalgia and wistfulness, and it's an emotion that has weighed on me every day of my life that I can remember. Discovering there is a word for what I've always felt does help ease the sorrow some, but only in the way that identifying the monster helps ease the fear. It's still a monster. It still hunts you. But now you know its name.

My second word is so closely aligned with my first that it maybe doesn't count. Saudade—originating in Portuguese and Galician—takes hiraeth another step, though. It is often defined as "the love that remains" after someone or someplace is gone—or even if that person or place is still in your life, but it has changed so much that you mourn the past or future.

These words are my ghosts. They haunt me, teasing at my mind as I go about my day. And they are directly tied to a life I can't remember, because I never lived it. A life that could have been.

If my father hadn't died before I was born.

If my mother hadn't married Pat.

If fate had taken a swing at someone else the day I was born, instead of setting its sights on me.

And today, my ghosts are more active than usual as I count the change for my groceries.

I usually shop early in the morning usually, when the crowds at Safeway are shorter, but today couldn't be helped. We're out of too many things and the kids are hungry, so I came after running other errands, when the lines are long and people are tired and impatient and ready to get home to their families.

Women are trained from childhood to be polite, accommodating and docile. To make others happy before themselves. To be self-sacrificing and humble. Which is why, as the line behind me lengthens, and tired shoppers check their phones for the time and sigh dramatically, I feel guilt. Guilt that I have to count out the quarters and nickels and pennies I found in the couch to pay for groceries for the three hungry children at home. Guilt that I have to keep putting back items that push my total too high. Guilt that I couldn't do all the math and taxes and weights of produce in my head, thus saving everyone the hassle of waiting on me. Guilt that I have to use food stamps to cover what my couch change can't.


Because I'm making the people behind me wait too long.

The cashier, Martha, is a middle-aged woman who's worked here as long as I can remember. She's always been kind, and fast, and I try to pick her line whenever I can. She doesn't shame me with silent looks and frowns that others sometimes do, even without realizing it. She gives me a small, sympathetic smile as I help bag my groceries in reusable bags that have seen better days. One is so frayed I'm not sure it will survive this trip.

"You sure you don't need another bag?" Martha asks.

"Gotta make these work till payday," I say, loading up my cart.

She nods in understanding. "Hang in there, Sky. You know what they say... this too shall pass."

I give her the best smile I can muster and nod. "Thanks, Martha. Sorry about this."

She's already scanning the next customer's food though, so I leave quickly, hoping to get home before the kids.

Fall has settled into the bones of the little city of Ukiah, and today is colder than usual. Winter is indeed coming, though we feel less of a sting two hours north of San Francisco than most of the country. The wind whips around my face, freezing my nose and ears, as I push my cart through the expansive parking lot to my car.

I can smell the rain before it falls, but I have no way of covering myself or my groceries, and the deluge of water soaks me to the skin by the time I pop open the trunk. I make quick work of getting the groceries into the car, but the last bag doesn't survive the experience and rips apart in my hand, depositing my food onto the wet asphalt.

At least the rain is cover for the tears threatening to fall. I'm exhausted, overwhelmed and so very tempted to leave the food there and get home, but some of it's still salvageable. And this was our grocery budget for the week.

A few eggs are still in one piece, and the fruit is only slightly bruised. If I cut it up for a salad, the kids will eat it without complaint. Probably.

I grab whatever looks edible and deposit it on top of the remaining bags, then finally slide into my car, where I'm marginally more sheltered from the rain. When the engine starts on the first try, I offer a prayer of thanks to whoever's listening. The car's an old beater I got off Craigslist. It's missing a window, the heater doesn't work, and the engine looks like someone tried to repair it by blasting it with fire and hoping for the best. I taped now-soggy cardboard over the missing window, and that was the extent of my repair budget. Now I use the powers of manifestation and luck to keep the thing running.

One perk of living in a city that's only about five square miles, despite it being the largest city in Mendocino County, is everything is under ten minutes away.

I drive past the 101 onramp, past the Starbucks I can never afford but always look at with longing, and turn at the corner gas station. Our house is across the street from a park, near an elementary school. On the outside, it looks like every other house on the block. Remarkable only in how ordinary it is. The lower middle class dream, minus the white picket fence.

It's when I unlock the door and walk inside that the truth of my home life hits the hardest. That's where the shadows live, behind the closed doors and draped windows of houses that look like everyone else's. Skulk past the white-washed exterior and you'll find the rot fast enough. But most don't care to dig even that deep. They may smell the decay, but they don't want to deal with the reality.

The groceries are nearly put away when Caleb sprints down the stairs at full speed, nearly breaking his neck as he trips over the last step.

I don't know how I get from the kitchen to the living room so fast. Sometimes it's like I blink and am standing where I want to be.

I catch the six-year-old mayhem-maker before he kills himself, and nearly sob from relief when he looks up wide-eyed, and then grins like a little idiot. "That was amazing, Sky! Let's do it again."

I grip him harder before he escapes my arms, his black hair flopping over eyes almost as dark. "Oh no, kiddo. Not again. I need your help in the kitchen. Where's Pat?"

Caleb shrugs and runs back upstairs before I can stop him. I sigh and stand, my body feeling a lot older than its twenty-four years. I trudge upstairs and check Caleb's room. He's sitting on his disheveled bed playing with his toy fire truck and another toy car flipped over on its side. The fire truck races across pillows and blankets as Caleb shrieks in a high pitched squeal meant to mimic the sound of a siren.

"Look, Sky, it's you and Blake saving people," he says as the fire truck arrives to help the turned over car. He pulls out two dolls dressed in nursing outfits and mimics them helping another doll that was thrown out of the truck. "This one's you," he says, holding up a female doll with brown hair.

I ruffle his head. "She looks just like me."

Caleb grins, putting his attention back on his truck as I look around the room.

Caleb shares the room with his teen brother, Kyle, and little sister Kara. I expected to see her in the crib under Kyle's bunk bed, but it's empty. "Caleb, where's Kara? And where's Pat?"

Caleb looks up from his truck. "Gone."

"What? Where? When?" I'm trying to stay calm, but my voice is rising in pitch and volume. How long was Caleb left alone? And why did Pat take Kara?

"I dunno. Just gone. They left when I got home from school."

I grip the doorframe so hard my fingers turn white, then take a calming breath. "Thanks, buddy." I ruffle his hair and leave him to his toys as I run downstairs.

The living room is a mess. Pat left empty beer cans on the coffee table, and cigarette butts on the ground. The litter box in the corner stinks to high heaven and the cat's food and water bowl are empty. "Marshmallow? You around, kitty?" I pull out a toy and dangle it, hoping the bell will entice the white fur ball from her hiding place, but nope. She's not interested in humans right now. I give up and clean out her litter box, refill her food and water, then grab a trash bag to clean up after the man who calls himself head of this family.

The kids are his.

I'm not part of this family.

Not really.

Pat makes that abundantly clear.

I rub at a bruise on my arm and stretch my sore back.

The dishes are done and the house is as clean as I can make it by the time Pat returns with Kara. Kyle trails behind them and drops his backpack by the front door.

I don't bother telling him to put it away. Not today.

I storm over to Pat. "Where were you? How could you leave Caleb alone?" The anger has been boiling in me for hours, and I can't contain it anymore.

"Back off, you free-loader." Pat slurs the drunken words, but I don't need to hear him speak to know he's been hitting the bottle. Hard. His dark eyes are glazed over and there's a vagueness about his expression that is familiar. He sneers at me, his lip curling. "I knew you'd be home soon. He's old enough to look after himself."

"He's six, Pat! That's not old enough, that's child endangerment. And where did you take Kara?" When she hears her name she reaches for me, and I take the toddler from her father. She has snot all over her face, her cheeks are red from the cold, and she's not wearing a coat.

"She's helping me make a little cash. At least someone does." Spittle flies out of his mouth, hitting me in the face. "I swear, the only reason I still let you live here is because of the debt I owe your mother, God rest her soul. But the dead aren't much good to the living, are they?"

I hand Kara to Kyle and tell him to take her upstairs. Kara's face crinkles into a cry as she calls my name, her arms held out to me. Kyle frowns, wanting to stay and help, but I shoo him away with Caleb following behind. I don't want them around when Pat's like this.

"You let me live here because without me running this house and raising these kids, you'd lose everything, including the extra money you get from your social security for them."

I should have kept my mouth shut. I know better, especially when he's like this. Hard liquor rather than beer was his poison of choice today. I can smell it on him. And I know what that means.

But knowing changes nothing. I seem pathologically incapable of biting my tongue. A character flaw I would be happier without.

Sometimes, the anticipation of pain is worse than the pain itself.

When his fist flies at me, I feel the pain of its impact on my jaw before it lands. And then my whole face is on fire.

I fall to the ground, hitting my head on the sharp edge of the staircase as I fall. But I don't cry or scream. I've learned not to. The last time I did, Kyle heard and came to help, and ended up in the ER due to a 'terrible fall' that broke two bones. I won't let that happen again.

When I was a child, I always wondered why I never saw stars when I was hit. In cartoons they always saw stars, but I only ever saw darkness as my vision blurred and shrunk in on itself until there was nothing.

I always wished for the stars.

Pat stands over me, waiting. He knows I'll get up, despite conventional wisdom telling me I should stay put and wait for him to grow bored and walk away.

Another character flaw.

I get up.

And in that moment, something happens.

A light ignites in me, burning my skin from the inside out. Energy rushes through my body.

Pat takes an unstable step backwards. "What the—"

I take advantage of the moment and step forward. He dwarfs me in girth and height, but somehow I feel bigger, stronger, taller right now. "You will never hit me again," I say, my voice sounding foreign, distant, like someone else talking through me.

Pat stumbles back. "Get away, you freak. You creature. You're not of my blood. You're not of my kin." His face turns ashen, all color draining from him as he stares at me in horror. I know what he's seeing behind my eyes. I have seen it in his too often.

I point to the front door. "Get out. Now."

And to my utter shock, he listens. His drunk ass flees the house, the door slamming so hard behind him it rattles the walls. When it's clear he's not coming back anytime soon, I slump to the ground, hugging myself. I think of the power that just overcame me, and I tremble. Not because I don’t know what happened.

But because I do.

Libre Baskerville
Gentium Book Basic
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