By Amelia Rodriguez
One moment I was tossing and turning, my fevered legs stuck in my felt wool blanket. Sweat beaded down my forehead and between the creases of my flesh, and the next moment I stood barefoot outside. I blinked slowly, my feet scraping against the broken sidewalk, but I felt cool again in my thermal pajama pants and tank top.
Across the road stood a large, jumbled house as if a child had shoved together different Lego parts willy-nilly. The edges of the house were fuzzy, only coming into sharp focus when it pieced together in my mind. This was King Street, one of the earliest houses I’d stayed at with my mother. But this house wasn’t the same: the stairs went up a whole story high, enclosed by beige walls, and opened into a porch. The porch was faded wood with many splinters, and from the street, I could see a tattered couch on the side.
I looked both ways down the street, but there were no cars. There weren’t any people or moving curtains or baying dogs, no man coming down the street on an old bicycle. The road should have felt hot against my bare feet, but it didn’t, so I crossed and peered at the dark staircase. It was the staircase from the alleyway apartment we’d had over the printer shop. Those three or so years I was constantly hooked up to an asthma machine because I couldn’t breathe from the printer fumes.
The enclosed stairs opened abruptly to the rundown porch, and I could feel the splinters against my toes. There was red peeling paint, old like rust, on the door. The 4 in 14 was torn away in pieces, only slivers of the number to indicate the address. My heart began to beat a palpable tempo against my temples, thudding against the thin skin of my throat like a trampoline being barraged. A loud keening cry broke the air, huffing into smaller sobbing breaths of a child. I pushed the front door open.
Immediately cigarette smoke hit me like a wall, threading through my nose and mouth like a worm, and I coughed. My eyes watered from the smell, the inside hazy with dense smoke and the lack of light. The cry reverberated through the mishmashed house, warping the walls like a living lung, and I stepped into the living room.
The old couch against the wall had holes that spewed its cotton insides. There were burn marks on it from lit cigarette ends. The outside light was the only source helping me to see until my eyes adjusted, my lungs pulling in the polluted air. I stepped further inside and almost tripped over a wooden table. Papers scattered to the dirty floor, its surface crammed full of letters, bills, pens, my mom’s foldable jean-textured phone case, and so many cigarettes. They were piled like ant remains.
I lurched to the side, and my hand pressed against an old TV screen, the ones that buzz when you turn them on. My weight rattled and moved the stand it sat on and the small dirty aquarium, the polluted water knocking against the black lip and shaking the dead red betta fish inside. I stared at its belly-up form and tattered fins a moment. Then the cry came again, broken up by inhales. I had to steady myself so I didn’t fall against the stand again. With a shallow breath I stepped further inside, sidestepping a newspaper with dog shit on it, the stench making me cough again.
I was at the edge of the living room now. I could see my mother’s plump figure moving like a translucent ghost in the kitchen, dressed in her blue nightgown with the zipper down the middle. I watched as she fell and her head hit the tiles. Rod’s slim figure was there too, hovering with his greasy rattail pulled back, open mouth and hands, and I was reminded of how my mother’s face would bruise. No matter how many times I chased him out with a knife, he’d return, and my mother would smile with her yellow grin, jagged and crooked with missing spaces.
I turned away and moved up the new staircase. The carpet was scratchy, and I naturally stepped over the threadbare places where the iron nails poked out. I had stepped on one when we’d first moved here. The nail had gone right through my foot, but it wasn’t my mother who’d cleaned it. I gripped the gritty metal banister harder, the steps oddly spaced and easy to trip on. Willy, the man who rented the attic, had apparently tripped and died on these steps a few months after I left in middle school. He’d been a nice man, with his jaundiced eyes and grey hair, one of the many people I couldn’t quite remember. Like Kath, with her dark green nail polish and oxygen machine, watching The Wizard of Oz. I don’t remember when Kath died. I reached the top of the stairs, my feet planted solidly when the walls rippled again.
There were three doors side by side, indistinguishable from each other. I chose the middle one at random and stumbled against its concrete sill as the door closed behind me with a bang. The smoke here was different, rolling and choking against the concrete walls, mixing with a distinct burnt-wire smell. I pressed my thin shirt against my nose, squinting in the hazy darkness, and the painful thud of my foot gave way to dirt. The very air enclosed around me in the dirt basement while a singular yellow bulb sputtered its light.
Fear shivered down my spine and sweat broke out on my forehead. I held myself tighter in the darkness, reliving the moments when I’d been “accidentally” locked inside as a child. Except there were no rickety stairs to climb to escape, and the door behind me disappeared into the concrete wall. My hands shook against my mouth, my gaze jerky as I searched the darkness. I quickly walked into the weak light, which revealed the dingy washer and dryer and a lawn chair set to the side with an ashtray next to it. The concrete walls warped again, urging me to move the piled-up boxes behind the lawn chair. Various things fell from the boxes— children’s dresses, a yearbook, and plates that smashed as they hit the ground. I shoved them all into the chair my mother used to sit on when she smoked cigarettes and crack cocaine. The bare space behind the chair revealed an old trap door like the ones in those hick horror movies, sticking against its wooden panes when I pushed.
The wooden trap door finally broke open with a hefty push, and the grimy wood fell to the side, crushing bright sunflowers underneath its weight. I crawled out into the wide yard, the grass wet with dew, and forced the clean air into my lungs like a forge. I was kneeling in my grandmother’s large yard, the side of the warped house covered in a blooming flower garden. The sun sank in the sky, promising a few more scant hours of light, and crested against the many deep green trees like lace. The sky glowed softly but there was no breeze, the dew and my sweat seeping through my thermal pants. A child’s sob broke the calm reprieve, and I looked up into an opened window half-covered by pink curtains.
I patted dirt and grass off my pants, once again compelled by the heartful suffering the child let out. There were three long concrete stairs that opened to two doors, the doors from where I lived with my father, the wired screen and white one. They opened easily with a soft creak, revealing a different kitchen. It was small but brightly lit, with counters and the washing machine side by side, but I passed through it into a cramped staircase which opened into a long hallway. My heart jumped at the sight of the first door with the light that seeped from the bottom. It was my father’s door, and I scuttled past with sweaty hands. I passed the small bathroom to the only other door, the piercing cries as loud as when a child breaks a bone. Shrill. Uncontrollable. Sorrowful.
This door opened easily. There was a small child sitting on the floor of my old bedroom, surrounded by glossy pictures, some crumpled in an arc. I stepped inside, closing the door behind me, and almost ran into the twin bed. The child looked up with soft plush cheeks dotted with freckles, almond brown eyes puffy and red, almost closed with their rolling tears. Her hair was a curly mess around her ears, and she was hunched over in a pink and brown camo shirt with the words “I don’t have to be good because I’m cute.” The words rolled and creased around her small body, hiding the monkey on the shirt. She was so tiny and round, the eight-year-old me.
“I’m here now,” I told the child-me, and she wiped her snot on the collar of her shirt. “I’m sorry it took so long.”
I wished suddenly that I could have appeared differently— not in thermal pj pants, rumpled tank top, and hair bonnet— not wide with many rolls everywhere like the Michelin man. But she didn’t seem to care as she reached out her small hands for me.
I sat down in the middle of the photographs. The eight-year-old me sat between my legs, pressing her head into my chest. I held her there, feeling our heartbeats pound in sync, and wiped the tears and snot from her face.
“Tell me what’s hurting.” I ran my fingers through her hair, carefully undoing the knots that I encountered, while she picked up one of the many photographs. Her nails were bitten down, her fingers pressing deeply and creasing the picture’s image: a hazy image of Peter Pan and a birthday cake— one of my earliest memories, my birthday where mom and dad screamed, so I had watched Peter Pan in Spanish. I’d had a fever that day. I was always sick as a child. I gripped the other side of the photograph, feeling her head bounce against my collar bone, and together we ripped it to pieces.
Next was a picture of Bill, with his leathered tan skin and bright hazel eyes. He was mom’s boyfriend and made peanuts in salty water, but he was always touching us. Watching us. Crawling into our bed naked, but Mom didn’t do anything. Didn’t do anything until he had climbed through the window with his hand bandaged up after trying to saw it off. We ripped his hazel eyes and toothy smile into bits.
Next was a picture of Mom, Dad, and me. We all stood together, my mother with her eyes dazed from constantly bottoming out from her type one diabetes, the blue in her eyes flashlight bright with wide-open pupils. I was in the middle with hunched shoulders and a scowl that was mirrored in my father’s bushy eyebrows. His face was thick and dark brown, with a rat-toothed smile that lied. We ripped them apart.
We ripped apart images of Mom on the floor with an IV in her thick arm. I used to be afraid that whenever an ambulance would come that it was for her. I had stood at her hospital bedside month after month, staring at the wrinkles around her eyes and her greying brown hair, being told she’d never wake up again. But she did. She did and screamed, those yellow teeth appearing, until her words and our thoughts were intermingled.
We tore apart a picture that was only in our mind: Mom sat at the steering wheel of the blue cube car. She had promised that it could be mine someday. The streetlights cast half her face in shadow. Her thin greying hair was ragged against her shoulders, those dazed blue eyes looking at us while sweat beaded against her pale clammy forehead. I held my swollen wrist in my lap, having begged her to take me to the hospital, something she only did after dad threatened to fight for custody. My arm was wrist to elbow full of deeply scabbed cuts, one for every word she had shouted: “You’re a bad daughter. You’re a bitch. I wish I never had you.” That was the day I’d made another mistake, I told the X-ray nurse about the men who had come and the wire-smoke, and just like that, I lived with Dad.
We tore apart Dad’s picture. Dad and I stood side by side in white, our hair covered with white headcloths, our Orisha beads brightly colored against our shirts. His mouth was half pulled into a smile, thick eyebrows low over the eyes that matched mine, his arm wrapped around me. Rip! His face torn in half. Rip! The horror of his machete. Rip! The way his eyes grew crazy from the voices in his head. Rip! The way he’d promised to kill me and others. Rip! “You’re a dirty whore. I had to clean you up, can’t you see? You dirty bitch, I have to kill you before you kill me.”
The child-me shook in my arms, round tears still falling down her cheeks. I held her tighter, pressing her to my heart as she cried. The child-me cried so loudly, hiccupping so hard that she shook the walls and shifted the pictures on the floor. I patted her hair as we rocked side to side together and cried too. With those tears, we ripped apart many more pictures.
Pictures of the first forever, I’ll love you to infinity that had lasted four years. Ripped his brown eyes apart for how scared he’d made me, the way his arms had wrapped around my throat until I saw stars, the way I stared at the popcorn ceiling because he hadn’t listen to my “no”. Or maybe I hadn’t been strong enough to say no. Ripped him apart for the way his brother had hit me and the way his mother had screamed at me. Ripped him apart for making me think I couldn’t live on my own.
The child-me picked up one more picture and I shook my head. “Not this one.”
“This one, too.” Her tiny voice was firm, her bitten fingernails pressed down on the glossy surface.
I stared at it, the way the sunlight had transitioned his glasses to black, the awkward way his lips were pulled against his teeth, his red beard eclipsed by my head. How could I justify the same actions? The painful arguments that had torn me apart, the constant guilt-tripping and touching, the gifts to make up for the way I said no? The way I kept pushing his hands away from my thighs, but they kept pushing back until I couldn’t fight back from fear or guilt? Maybe those two concepts were the same.
The door opened again, revealing an older me in black satin pajamas. Her glasses were pushed up the bridge of her nose, her bonnet secured atop her head, and she sat next to me. All three of us took a side of the picture and ripped his smile into small pieces.
The older-me picked up different pictures from the pile.
A picture of my two friends who held me from opposite sides against the backdrop of a hiking trail, one with a dimpled smile and the other with faded hair dye. There was a marble-designed photo album with “Every picture tells a story” scrawled across it. I held the corners open while eight-year-old me placed the glossy picture into the plastic pocket. The future-me handed me another photograph.
A picture of me and Sab from the future, holding the door to my new apartment, her fluffy brown hair curling around her forehead and on her glasses, her mouth open in her signature smile, bright white rows that brought her dimples out.
Thomas, my white-and-cream cat, basked in the sunlight on a window seat. His round eyes were closed, and his white paw opened softly under his furred chin, perfectly content.
A picture of me wrapping my arms around my smaller cousins with their blonde hair and slim shoulders. Vic had finally caught up with Anna’s height, and she slunk her shoulders down in her hoodie.
Snapshots of laughter that were all teeth and crinkled eyes.
Dappled sunlight pierced dense treetops.
Pictures of my future apartment filled to the brim with the people I care about: my two cousins, Sab, Joan, Giselle, and even Em around a table stacked high with my first published book. There was cake on the table with blue frosting that spelled out Congratulations! Vic was looking at it slyly, waiting to smear our faces with the sugary paste.
Pictures of my brother and me riding matching bicycles, our mirrored faces wide in quirked smiles, our similar brown eyes squinted against the sunlight. We were on the trail of the White Cliffs of Conoy, the first trail we’d ever walked together after we reunited, having been separated for twenty-one years. His hand was up in the air, waving to the picture-taker.
The older-me and child-me hugged me tightly after we filled the last album pocket. They wrapped their freckled arms around my waist. Those arms were warm, their heartbeats echoing my heartbeat and promising a better future. Future-me stood up and held her hand out for me.
“It’s time,” she said. I took her hand, our fingers cold, while the eight-year-old me grabbed my other hand, pressing the filled photo album to her small chest.
Future-me walked with her chin held high as we passed the bathroom, the one I had contemplated slitting my wrist and drowning in. It was just a bathroom now. She didn’t shrink when we passed my father’s door, and I held tighter to the younger me as we made a conga line down the narrow stairway. Through the kitchen and out the door, letting it bang against its panes when we stepped through.
The outside air was warm, the sunset making the treetops glow in orange and pink hues. Eight-year-old-me rushed past, reaching out to grasp the flickering fireflies. Out of the woods came two familiar figures: the soft-tempered buck, Baby, that I had raised as a child; Kikky, my orange cat who was born two weeks before me and died shortly after my twenty-first birthday.
Kikky was small and purred her deep rumble as I cupped her into my arms. She rubbed her small chin against my face, an “I missed you. I love you.” I held her close and watched as the two versions of me danced and pranced around the yard with wide smiles. Baby pressed his wet snout against my forehead, his large eyes seeming to say the same thing.
Surrounded by love, with the flickering fireflies, I blinked and opened my blurry eyes from the dream. I blinked again up at my wall with the plastic sunflowers and pink roses. Sweat beaded in the crease of my elbows as the morning sunlight feebly made its way through the campus curtains.
My fever had broken.