Baby sits in the corner, rag doll in hand. Mother begs the man gripping her hair like a leash to please, at least take this to another room, the baby is watching. Baby clutches the doll close. Black yarn is black hair, Mother’s lipstick is blushing cheeks, scrap fabric is blood, bones, and cartilage. A heart is unnecessary.
Words like swift slaps strike Mother’s youthful skin—the pale flower petal swelters like a fresh bee sting. Please, the baby is listening, Mother cries. But her voice buckles before a beast too large for her to fight.
Baby knows not to cry. If it does, the beast might notice it too. Baby shrinks back as the man pitches Mother to the floor in a graceful, savage motion. He leaves.
Shedding tears more bitter than medicine, Mother crawls across the room, her bare stomach kissing the wood laminate flooring as she creeps to the corner. Baby does not recoil. Slowly, Mother gathers Baby in her arms, whispering, “Good girl. You didn’t cry. Only weak children cry, remember?”
Baby and rag doll look up with blank, black eyes. Mother laughs condescendingly. “Ha. I’m such a hypocrite, aren’t I? When you grow up, angel, don’t be like Mother. Mother cries. But don’t worry. In the story I will write for you, you will never need to cry. Ever.”
Baby sits in the corner, rag doll in hand. Mother leaves to purge herself in fantasies and dreams until she’s restored to a pure, sweet girl of seventeen. At nineteen she’s still beautiful—a fairy from a story—but otherworldly things like her do not belong in reality.
Baby looks at the doll brought to life by Mother’s hands. Patchwork dress like stitched memories and sutures threatening to rupture. Tentatively, Baby cradles doll the way Mother just did. Doll does not smile or laugh or cry. After all, it doesn’t have a heart.
The first and last time Baby cried was when the obstetrician kickstarted its lungs. Staring at the doll, its mouth a straight line even now, tears which never escaped flood into the spaces between.
When Mother returns, Baby is sitting silently in the corner. Rag doll lies in pieces on the floor. Black hair is missing in patches and clumps and the seams have split to reveal a sundry of colored fabrics. Only the dress is still intact.
Mother quietly gathers the remains of the defiled corpse. She smiles. “Don’t worry, angel. Mother will fix it for you. It’s not your fault … it’s not your fault.”
Child sits in the alley, licking at its wounds. Today’s are not as bad because it finally learned how to fake a cry. Kids are no better than adults, Child decides. They are cruel and derive pleasure from breaking people like toys.
Child inspects the damage to its belly and arms and legs. Most it can hide under clothing and are bruises—not gashes. It should be fine so long as Mother doesn’t look too carefully. As it gets up to leave, warm blood trickles into its right eye and the world is divided into crimson and black.
Unfazed, Child raises its hand to probe its forehead. A laceration about two inches by one yawns in a gentle slope across its skin. Irritation swims up to its face for a breath before retreating back into the depths. Calmly, Child walks toward the ocean, one eye burning red.
The beach is deserted when Child walks into the sea. Chilling water breaks its course against the glowing, discolored skin. With an inhale, Child submerges itself underwater. Salt and water and life confront blood and sweat and bacteria. Child closes its eyes and allows the sea to wash the ache away.
When Child opens its eyes it is lying on the sand, waves surging up to its shoulders before changing their mind and retiring. So the ocean has rejected it too. Child gets up and makes its way back home.
Child sits behind the house, waiting for clothes to dry. A pitiful excuse for a beast approaches and sits mewing at its feet. Silently, Child watches its new companion. The cat is not young, nor is it old. Rather, it is a timeless shadow, patiently waiting to be delivered into the darkness. Child reaches out to stroke the fur matted with sewage and landfill only for the cat to incise four bloody lines onto its hand.
A malicious rose blooms in Child’s empty eyes. This, it can not hide from Mother. In a single graceful motion Child rises and drives its foot into the soft underbelly of the cat, sending it crashing against the concrete wall before it falls limp on the withering blades of grass.
Child wishes the sea took it away when it had the chance. The sinister rose is washed away by Child’s lucid tears and Child cries for the first time since the obstetrician kickstarted its lungs. It is the horrible realization that it really happened—nothing can restore the warmth to the soft little body—the metamorphosis which transforms victims into monsters.
Through tears, Child realizes the cat is not yet dead. Even as its soul is swallowed up by the night, it struggles toward the bush it first emerged from to accompany Child. It falls still before it arrives. Trembling, Child staggers to the bush. There must be something there. Something which can stop this torrent of unsuppressed pain.
In the bush, Child finds its forgiveness. Sleeping peacefully in a small hollow are three tiny kittens. Child gently lifts them into the cradle of its left arm, one by one, and wordlessly walks into the house. When Mother sees Child, she does not question the wound or the bruises or the scratches. Instead, she takes a kitten in her hands and says, “He is coming back soon. We should hide them while we can.”
Girl sits on a bench, watching the world go by. Neither the man nor her oppressors come to this side of town. She closes her eyes. A little boy relates the day’s events to his parents as they walk home from school, a group of girls whisper excitedly about the cute boy sitting over there, a couple shares a silence only they can partake in.
Girl opens her eyes to see an old woman lugging a portmanteau across the street—the vintage kind with metal latches and leather straps. Leaving her comfortable spot in the sun, Girl jogs over and takes the suitcase, dropping it off at the end of the street before helping the woman across.
When the old woman thanks her, Girl simply nods. She’s still not used to speaking. No words are exchanged as they walk to the woman’s house, though it is not uncomfortable. When they arrive, the woman thanks her again and Girl walks home to tell the cats about this encounter.
The next day, Girl sees the old woman lugging a portmanteau across the street again—the same one. Again, she jogs over to help and they walk in silence to the woman’s house. This continues for a week until the old woman invites her in on Sunday. Since refusing politely would require speaking, Girl nods and hoists the suitcase up the front steps.
In the house, the old woman asks if Girl ever wondered what was inside the suitcase she helped carry every day. Girl nods even though she never did. Growing up she learned it was better not to question some things. The old woman lifts the latches and opens it up like a book. Girl looks in.
Girl sits on the floor, staring at the contents. Inside the portmanteau is a human life. The first toy loved until it fell into pieces, the first trophy for piano after years of pain, the first picture with a boy, the first playlist for heartbreak, the first letter which would take her to a place far away—all of this Girl soaks up until there are no more empty spaces.
“My granddaughter,” the old woman says. “She’s heading off to college next week and was going to throw all this away. Of course, I wasn’t about to let that happen. She probably thinks I’m a crazy old lady, carrying this home myself, but she doesn’t know I’ve had help.”
The old woman smiles tenderly at Girl—the kind of smile which is even now vanishing from Mother’s lovely face. “But then again, maybe I am crazy for thinking she could understand. It takes being old to realize memories are all you’ve really got.”
Girl stares unabashedly into the old woman’s eyes the way she stares into the sea. Like there is something at the bottom which she can not even begin to fathom. And there probably is. “So, child,” she says, leaning back into her armchair, “Is there anything you would like to tell me?”
Daughter sits with Mother, drinking tea in the lady’s house. “Ciel,” the old woman says, and Mother looks up. “Your daughter tells me your husband is often drunk, is that correct?” A cold severity penetrates her face and voice.
Daughter fidgets with the handle of the china teacup, wondering if it was good idea to bring Mother here. She nods softly, but not meekly, and the old woman’s features soften. “I see.” The silence expands to fill the gaps with its somber tones. “If you don’t mind, Ciel, I have a request for your daughter.” Mother nods again, squeezing the hand interlaced tightly with hers. Smiling, the old woman turns to Daughter and says, “I would like you to call me grandmother.”
Daughter blinks in confusion. When she turns to Mother for help she receives nothing but an encouraging smile: it is her decision to make. Turning back, she says, “I appreciate your kindness, but what about your—”
“You are more of a granddaughter to me than that spoiled girl ever was. She has everything except the time to send her crazy old grandmother and her suitcase of memories to her home a mile away. Everything you helped me carry here—it is yours now.” The old woman pauses and smiles sympathetically at the bewildered girl. “You will not be replacing my granddaughter by calling me grandmother. I am not doing this out of pity either. Pity is a vile and useless emotion. No … I’m doing this because I wouldn’t be able to rest well knowing I let a jewel like you stayed buried in the rock. You need love, child, and from more people than one.”
Daughter closes her eyes to keep the precious warmth from flowing out so tears flow out instead. “Thank you … grandmother.”
Daughter sits on the sidewalk, watching as the man is taken away. Grandmother’s son is the Chief of Police and the dogs found a hidden cellar. Only Clover—the kitten which grew up to look most like its mother—is left now. Her two brothers disappeared one day and never looked back. Watching her previous life unravel before her eyes, Daughter puzzles over the weight in her heart where there should be liberation. “I would have done this sooner if we had a safe place to go to,” Mother says, suddenly at Daughter’s side like a fairy from a story.
Daughter nods. They sit on the sidewalk in silence even after the the police cars drive away; it’s only them on the small, deserted street. Mother waits patiently for thoughts and feelings to solidify into words. Finally, Daughter says, “I’ve always wondered what it would feel like to finally be free from him. How happy we would be, how everything would suddenly be right again. But even now that he’s gone for good, I can still feel this heavy chain surrounding my heart.”
She pauses, digging her fingernails into her knees. “And I think I’m scared that, if I try to take it off, there won’t be anything underneath it anymore. That, without the chain, I am nothing. That man … he is my father. He is a part of me! So many times I’ve felt I was becoming like him, and, the more that I think about it, I probably already am him. I’ve killed a living thing before, Mother! What if I’m even worse than that man?”
Mother’s hand slices through the air and lands hard on Daughter’s cheek. Too stunned to move, she doesn’t resist when Mother brings her into a tight embrace. And for the first time, Mother’s voice rings strong and clear in Daughter’s ears as she says, “You are not your father, nor are you me. You are not the children who bullied you, nor are you your past. You are the person you are now, in this moment. Those chains on your heart—they are real. I would be lying if I said they weren’t. Those chains are all of the times you suffered quietly and didn’t say a word. But you don’t need to do that anymore. Perhaps it’s not such a bad thing if there is nothing underneath. Now, you can build a new life. With Grandma and Clover and I. You can cry now, angel. You can cry.”
So she did.
Angel sits on the pier, inhaling the ocean. The sun’s glow clings to the horizon though its heart has long retreated. She runs her hand across the wood, rough from erosion and wind and sand. Grandmother is asleep at home and Mother should be eating the food she saved for her on the dining table. Warmth which never manifested floods into the spaces between.
Angel closes her eyes against the brisk ocean breeze. It’s not so cold when she knows there’s a home waiting for her. Carefully, Angel returns her dangling legs to the tenuous solidity of the boardwalk. Mother will be worried if she doesn’t head back soon.
Before she leaves, Angel takes a long look at the deserted beach. It looks different after dark. Here, she used to become a grain of sand washed in with the tide. Infinitely small. Infinitely surrounded. Infinitely senseless. Just a little girl in a small town in a big country in a large world in a vast galaxy in a universe full of galaxies. No one could ever find her.
But now, Angel is the center of her own little universe. A universe with Mother and Grandma and Clover. A universe where the only star she revolves around is red and pulses in the left side of her chest.
Angel smiles and walks away from the shadows of the waves.
Onassa Sun currently attends Arcadia High School & is an avid member of the creative writing community. As a writer, she strives to capture the human experience with her stories & is fascinated by how writing can touch the hearts of people she might never even meet. During her free time, she enjoys reading, doing yoga, & spending quality time with her mother.
Honorable Mention, International Young Writers Prize, Fiction