Category Archives: Issue 1.2

Heading North

Heading North

Compass, WaitingForTheWorms; Deviantart

1840 outside Tyler’s Ridge, down the road from the plantation.

Last night there were four, two from the Tyler plantation and three from Isaac’s plantation. The night was no different a lot of slaves talking, but more stayed for fear of being caught; it was a death wish either way. Like the others it would be their last night, heading north; knowing freedom awaited anyone who could make it.

Cal was taught to look after Marcus, because he was the baby of the family. Josie, Marcus’s wife by arrangement, decided sticking together they had a much better chance of making it. She was also four months pregnant. Zella wasn’t related to anyone, she just didn’t want to be left behind. Josie was the one who found the route; all decided sundown was the time to make a break, when their masters are asleep. They had no sleep, kept dreaming of the first thing they would do; once free.

“W’d goin’ be sin” Josie rubbing her stomach. She wouldn’t mind dying, but she wanted to make it to the north for the baby. After that they could kill her if they wanted to.
“See the blak paint over on them shed? Wid goin’ tere.” Cal spoke to Marcus while motioning with his hand to the others as well, to be careful not to cause noise. He always had a plan to make money; by scheming the white folks out theirs. Marcus was quiet, but wasn’t much of a leader, he figured if he dows what he’s told he would get treated well.

They all had reached the lake, just five miles from where they started. The boat was worn, but still usable for the crossing to the other side, where they would be far enough away to go unnoticed for anyone looking for them. Josie got in first, then Zella; Marcus took the oars while Cal pushed the boat and climbed in last. Suddenly shots fired rang out; one hit Cal in the back. He fell forward landing in between the women.

Annette Hummell was born in Connecticut and lived several years in Florida. After her father passed away, she and her mother moved to Las Cruces, NM. Currently, she’s pursuing a BA in Creative Writing with a minor in Theatre. She has written plays, stories, and poems; none of which have yet been published until now. She plans to extend her writing to scripts for tv and film.

Katie & Nicole

Katie & Nicole

Hands to hold, by lukey5, Devianart

Part I

“Que?” I ask, and my eyes draw away from a marvelous colorful picture of SpongeBob Squarepants and his best friend, Patrick.  I drew this picture—a work in progress.

“I asked if you wanted any leche,” my mom says with a stern tone.  I don’t like the sound of that.

“No, thank you, Mama.” I stack away my drawing and colored pencils. “I’m famished.”

My mom stares at me with her round, brown eyes. “Famished?” A small smile crawls upon her face. “Since when did you learn to use a word like that?”

I shrug, even though the following words do not back that up. “I used to hear Monica say it all the time to her mom.” I gather up my baby pink backpack and all-time favorite item—my SpongeBob and Patrick lunchbox—and rise. “Well, I’m ready for school.”


Monica Ford was the first person I met when my family and I had moved into the local suburban neighborhood.  She was tall, tan, and had skin smoother than a baby’s bottom.  After all, she did get me into the habit of rubbing baby lotion on my face, as though it were sunblock.  But unlike me, forty-seven pounds and underweight at eight years old, Monica had extra meat on her bones.  She was not fat.  She just had something boys our age went crazy for, something I lacked in.  Boobs.

“My sister,” Monica said to me at recess one day, “says that at our age, we are supposed to start growing a set.”

“But what if we don’t…you know get them…at all…” I sounded like a tiny rabbit lost in the woods.

Monica stared at me with her baby blue eyes, a sight that made the boys bat their own eyelashes, before she said with that stern tone like my mom’s, “Like I said, at our age, we are supposed to.”

I had to use the bathroom.  My eyes watered up and Monica had noticed.

“It’s nothing,” I lied.  I must have stayed in that locked stall for a good ten minutes, crying.

Monica was suspended a few weeks later when she had flashed her set of twins to a boy of our age during recess one day, behind the baseball field bathrooms.  But he did not show his.

I stood guard with the boy’s best friend, Antonio, who was also pretty white for a Mexican such as myself.  Monica also pointed out how she looked more “Mexican” than me.  Antonio was the first to strike up a conversation.  He went on and on about last night’s math homework—division.  I nodded like I was listening.  He annoyed the heck out of my poor little burning red ears.

Before either of us knew, we had company. “What are you two doing over here?” It was Mrs. Affleck, one of the second grade teachers, giving us a fright and making us leap inches off the floor.

We were all sent to the front office.  The lady who always answers the phones called our parents.  The boy who saw Monica’s boobs burst into tears as soon as his mom stormed into the building and dragged him out to the car.  Once they were outside, I saw her grabbing a hold of his ear.  Antonio and I were let off of the hook, since we actually never saw anything.  We were ordered to report back to class.

Before I walked away, Monica stood up.

“Ouch!” I nearly bawled because her hands squeezed around my wrists.

“Call me later,” she said.  It was weird…she looked me dead in the eyes.


“I’m serious!”

“I said I will!” I winced and pulled away from her.  My wrists scorched like fire, turning redder by the second.  Tears swirled in Monica’s eyes. “Promise,” I said a moment later.

Then, as though on cue, her parents stormed in and screamed, mostly at Monica, using curse words and telling her how disappointed they were to learn of her behavior.  That last one, “You’re a disappointment to the family,” hit home for Monica.  She followed her parents without a sound.  I was amazed how she listened to them instead of stirring up a fight.  Each parent had a firm hold of her wrists.

What gets me was the fact that Monica never cried—at all.  I waited by the house phone for what seemed like hours.  I jumped to my feet whenever the telephone rang.

“Not for you, Katie,” my mom or dad informed me.

But when it was Monica who finally called, “Katie,” she said from the other line, “did you hear me?”

I did, but it could not be true.

“We’re moving, Katie,” she repeated. “For good.”

Then she burst into tears, and so did I.  We spoke for a few more minutes, until her dad shouted, “BED!”


It has been over a year since Monica and I last spoke.  It used to make me very sad to the point where I cried myself asleep.  It was like she died or something worse, which made me cry even more. I always choked on my own tears.  It worried my parents, who were tempted to send me off to a shrink (guess that is a bad thing since “shrink” was always whispered in our house). “But she’s only a child,” I overheard my parents argue to each other.

Eventually, I felt better.  I woke up a few minutes before my mom came into my bedroom to wake me up for the day.  I functioned and attended school, completed homework and ate dinner every night with my parents and older sister, Luz, without bursting into tears.  I assumed it was just a phase…at least that was what my parents informed me.

“Sometimes,” my mom said to me one night, “not all of your friends are meant to be in your life forever.  People come and go.”

Luz once told me that I could just sit and wonder why this or that happened or turn to God and pray about my anger, sadness or whatever is bothering me. “God has better and bigger plans for each and every one of us.”

Oh, yeah!  I forgot to mention my family is very religious—all born and raised Catholic.


“Here we are,” my mom says as we pull up to the pickup/drop off zone, then she puts the Suburban into park. “Have a great day, sweetie.”

I stare out the passenger window at those bold burgundy letters imprinted atop the white building, where the stone staircase leads to Eagles Elementary School.  Today is the first day back, the first day of fourth grade.

Monica was my only friend here.


Part II

I can already sense their eyes on me, but my mom says I am just being paranoid.  As we pull up into the line of cars where kids my age and older exit with backpacks, lunch boxes and even projects, my mom turns to me and says, “Nicole, you’re doing it again.”

Biting my nails.  Oh how much my mom despises when I do that.  She always says that boys hate when girls—especially my age—bite their fingernails like it is made out of taffy. “But taffy is GOOD.”


I take a few more nibbles, until she yanks my hand away from my mouth.  Being a multi tasker as well, she puts the Honda into park.  She turns to me, but I only stare out the passenger window, watching student after student roam the grounds.  That weird feeling comes back to the pit of my stomach like, I ate something sour and spicy.

“You know,” my mom says lightly, “you’re not the only one who’s starting their first day.  There will be other kids who are in the same spot as you today.  So…”

I say nothing, but I feel my eyes enlarge as they jump from person to person…groups of students…all with friends.

“I can go in with you, if you want.”

And my expression said it all.

My mom and I squeeze through the crowd, as I tug a hold of my backpack straps like I am about to take off into the sky.  We make our way to the front office.  Before I know it, we are at the counter where there are many elderly women with salt and pepper hairdos. “Excuse me,” my mom said all businessy, as if she was at an interview, and sets my school schedule down onto the counter. “My daughter, Nicole, is new here, and I was just wondering if anyone could show her around.”

“Room 20 is around the corner,” one of the women says and slides a sheet of paper in front of us.  It is a school map. “But, she’ll have to find help or find the room herself.  Our staff blocks off all classrooms until the bell rings.  Everyone waits in the cafeteria until they’re excused.”

And I am right, people look at me.  A girl with frizzy red hair and her circle of friends giggle and turn away from our direction.  A boy with jet black hair circles around the nearby pillar and sits back down with his friends, who all do a double—for some a triple—take on me.

This is so embarrassing. Nobody else is standing with their mom.  Just me.  I want to cry right here.

“Well,” my mom starts up as we approach an empty table in the back of the outdoor cafeteria, which has a blue and white theme, “some kids are just rude.  Not offering to help you out.  Don’t ever be like them, Nicole.”

“I’m not mom—”

“They’re all just a bunch of spoiled brats.”

I notice there are a few parents present.  Several of them glance our way as if shooting laser beams out of their eyes.  When they see my mom looking their way, most of them turn their backs to us.  One couple even forces their son to move to a different table.  I just sit there, side by side with my mom, and sigh.  This will be a long day.

“Well,” my mom starts up again, “you know how to read maps.  See that room right there?”

I nod…on the verge…no not now…holding back the tears.

“Right, um, well just follow that path here…”

As my mom goes on, thinking I am listening, I notice a new set of eyes on me from across the room.  And she heads our way…

Everything appears in slow motion as this skinny, short, pigtailed girl, who must be my age, stops at our table. “Excuse me,” she squeaks.  It takes me a moment to realize that this is her real voice. “I overheard you earlier about finding Room 20.  I have the same class.”

My mom perks up and smiles, as does this strange girl.  On the other hand, I am too busy to notice anything but this girl’s SpongeBob Squarepants themed backpack and metal lunch box.  It makes me smile, because I have an I Love Lucy metal lunch box at home.

“I’m Katie,” she says.


Part III

That Nicole is sure a quiet one.

“I’m Nicole,” she says.

As soon as the bell rings for the day to begin, her mom, who Nicole definitely has the same Snow White skin and cherry lips, turns to me. “Take care of my little Nicole.  Thank you for wanting to help her out.”

Why wouldn’t I help out?

“I just remember what it was like to be new myself.” (Oh, did I ever).

On my first day of school at Eagles Elementary, as a first grader, I met Monica Ford.  Our teacher, Ms. Gata, asked Monica if she could show me around the grounds.  To be honest, I do not know exactly how Monica and I became friends.  She was silent, until we passed by certain destinations. “Over there are the bathrooms we use during lunch and the volleyball court.  We can’t pass that hill over there; they monitor us all around.”

She kept talking and talking and would not shut up.  I was a ghost from there on out.

By the time Nicole’s mom leaves and the rest of the student body heads off to class, I look at Nicole, who tightens her fingers around the bottom of her backpack straps.  There are waves of crinkles on her forehead, exactly like the ones my mom gets whenever she goes outside for a quick cigarette smoke. “Don’t tell dad,” she always tells me.

“I know I said that my name is Nicole,” her voice tunes me back in, “but sometimes, people call me Nikki for short.”

She is silent and gazes at me.  It takes me a moment to see her hand sticking out for a shake.  For whatever reason, I stare at it, like it belongs to Frankenstein, until, “It’s nice to meet you, Nikki.”

And we officially meet once we shake hands and head off to class.


Part IV

I am tempted to say something else for a continuous conversation with this bubbly blonde hair creature, called Katie.  She guides me through another swarm of students, some of whom do a double take (I can feel their eyes peel and unpeel off of me), then directly to Room 20, where a line of our classmates already wait. “Here we are,” she says as we reach the back of the line.

I cannot help but squeeze harder onto the ends of my backpack straps (now it truly feels like I am about to skyrocket to the moon).  I can taste the sour and spicy bubbles in the back of my mouth.  Before I turn to vomit, a very pretty lady—a spitting image of that one young starlet who won a bunch of awards for her work in that one film—unlocks the door to Room 20.

“That’s Mrs. Grimes,” Katie fills me in, like we are on some secret top mission. “From what I’ve heard, she’s super nice!  And she loves Betty Boop and I Love Lucy—a lot.”

I cannot help but smile as Mrs. Grimes opens the door and kicks down the door stop to our classroom.  She welcomes us with a warm kind smile. “Come on in.”


Part V

The first day of fourth grade is, pretty much, the same as any other first day of school.  Since Mrs. Grimes announces that she has yet to assign us an actual seating chart, Nicole and I find empty desks in the back row of the tiny classroom.  Mrs. Grimes talks real fast (probably a mom and wife, too), but I catch the information about what we are going to learn this year.  I am pretty stoked about next semester’s project of the wax museum figures.  It is a project that every student has to complete in order to graduate to the next class level.  I have seen the older kids do it before.  They dress up as a historical figure such as Abraham Lincoln or Amelia Earhart, and stand very still, until someone “pushes” a sticker that serves as a button on their costume.  Once their button is “pushed,” they give a speech in character and tell who they are, for what they are well known, and so forth.  Last year, I pushed a girl’s button, and she perked up, and then spoke with a southern accent, “I used to star on my own Disney Channel TV show.  Fun fact: I sang the show’s theme song.”  I forgot the name of the show.

Mrs. Grimes passes out a double-sided sheet of paper with questions that we are to answer individually.  She tells us to take our time, because, after all, we have only another three and a half hours until school comes to an end.  The first day of school is always the shortest.  Luz promised she would take me to McDonalds later for a Happy Meal (I heard it comes with a Shrek action figure).  I take out a number two pencil, as Mrs. Grimes hands me a paper. “Thank you,” I say.

I glance over to my left side and that small smile of mine immediately vanishes.

Nicole is as still as a boulder at the edge of a cliff.  Her hands are locked together, just sitting on top of her sheet of paper.  My eyes scan around and see the rest of our classmates are trying to stay awake.  Most are in a rush to answer the questions on the white sheet of paper.  With the temptation to speak, the words are on the tip of my tongue, until Nicole pulls out a blue pencil pouch from her backpack.  Next, she takes out a teal lead pencil, that has one of those gummy thingies on the grip, so one’s hand will not hurt as they write.  Monica used to slip those gummy grips onto all of her pencils, complaining that her hand hurt.


Part VI: Nicole

Question 1: Name?


I hesitate and think real hard on this one, until I jot down…

De Los Reyes.

Question 2: Age?


9 years old.

Question 3: Birth date?

July 7th, 1992.

Yeah, that is right.

As I continue to answer the list of questions—most ask about my favorite things such as books, movies, color and food—I cannot stir away the thought of my dad.


Usually, I slept like a baby, but when I heard my bedroom door creak open one cold night…

“Shh-shh,” my dad said and sat at the edge of the bed.

I rubbed the sleepy dust out of my eyes. “Hi, dad.” It was only moments before I saw the suitcase at his feet. “Daddy…what’s going on?”

“Daddy’s going away for a while…”


On cue, his forehead crunched up like an infant getting their monthly shots.  I sat up straighter; we found ourselves locked in a hug, holding on for dear life.  We remained in each other’s arms for a while—crying too.

“I’m sorry, Nicole.”

And that was the last time I ever saw my dad, Ricardo Diaz.

My parents never got along.


Part VII

I stared at the clock on the wall that is above the shiny sink: the big hand struck the twelve.  YES!  It was now 11am.  So far, Mrs. Grimes went over math problems and before that, she showed us her former students’ work as examples for our own upcoming projects.  But the only thing that stuck with me was the fact that Nicole had been extra quiet since Mrs. Grimes collected our questionnaires minutes ago.  I asked if she was okay and even tried to see what she put down for numbers seven and twelve, to get a laugh out of her; but nothing.

Nicole returned from the bathroom ten minutes after leaving.  Some heads, including Mrs. Grimes, turned to look; but most end up looking back at the overhead that projects our notes onto the white board.  I volunteered to show Nikki where the bathroom was, but Mrs. Grimes is one of those teachers who do not like to have friends tag along with each other during class session.  She is probably afraid that friends will never return to class.  After Nicole hung up the bathroom pass—a big paddle with the words “Bathroom Pass – Room 20—onto the door hook, she took her seat.  I caught Vicki, Sierra and Amy, who all look identical with their long red hair, as though they are part of a cult, shoot dirty looks at Nicole and snicker a bit.

But why?  She never did anything wrong to them.  In fact, she made no attempt to talk to anyone else, except for me.  Their behavior made me angry; and I saw my fingers curl into miniature boxing gloves.


Nicole sniffles, and the row in front of us, including myself since it tunes me back into present time, do a double take toward her; only, my eyes stay on her.  Her eyes are red and watery.  I glimpse around the room.  Everyone is at work and Mrs. Grimes continues to chatter away about how to find the answer to question twelve.  Oops, I thought we were still on number eight.

Forget it.  I am already too far behind to scribble down the answers.  So, I lean in and ask, “You okay?”

“Shh,” one of the cult girls in front of us says, with her finger against her lips.

I stick out my tongue as soon as the Manson girl turns away (I watched a two-hour documentary on the Manson girls—and she like one of them).  At first, I am unaware that sticking out my tongue actually makes Nicole chuckle. “Now I’m okay,” she says with a nod and sniffles back the tears.

I smile back.



Oh, goodie!  Only half an hour to go before the bell rings.  After my return from the bathroom, where I broke down in one of the stalls (thank God the bathroom was empty) I did not expect Katie and I to actually…bond.


Math wraps up around 11am.  Mrs. Grimes takes the hint and stops talking, due to the many half shut eyes and pouty lips in the class she sees.  She calls it a day and pops in the movie, The Mouse and the Motorcycle.  Most of my classmates move to the back of the room for a better view of the TV, that hangs on the wall.  Katie and I laugh at the funny looking—not to mention—talking mouse.  The film receives a few gasps and “ewweeessss” because of the cheesy special effects and the fact that a boy wants to befriend a mouse, named Ralph.  If I ever saw a talking mouse, I would run away and scream at the top of my lungs.

We are unable to finish the film due to time.  There are a few “ahhs” when Mrs. Grimes ejects the video from the VCR.  The bell rings, and now my classmates holler and cheer. “Hip hip!” a boy in a Godzilla T-shirt riots up.

“Hooray!” the class chants back, including Katie and me, as we all walk out.

“See you all tomorrow!” Mrs. Grimes shouts after us.  We all wave goodbye. “Have a great rest of the day!”  For the first time, I notice her empty left ring finger (so not a wife—maybe not a mom either).

It must be a habit of mine—assuming that all ladies are tied down—as my mom once put it, “If a woman is not married by a certain age…”

“What?  What happens?” I had asked (all I needed to see was my mom’s eyes roll).

But, then again, my mom is also no longer married.

“Bye, Ms. Grimes,” I tell her.


Part IX

Nicole and I follow additional students to the front of the school, where most parents already drive off after their sons or daughters hop into the cars.  A lot of students assemble into a line.  Two young workers, in matching navy blue collared shirts, guide the group to the after school day care, which is next to the main building.  Nicole and I are lost in conversation.  It is nice.

I ask, “Have you read the book?”

“No,” she says. “But, at my other school, I did a report on Ramona and her Father.  I really liked it.”

I flinch.  She reads…for fun.

“Do you read on your own time?” she asks.

“No.” I try my best to not look so grossed out. “I’m not really a fan of books.  Though my sister says those Harry Potter books are good.”

And, boy, does this get her chatty, as she goes on and on about how she read all of them. “There’s another book coming out soon!” Her best fan girl moment. “Last time, my mom took me to the midnight arrivals at the book store.  I just love them!  All of them!”

We wait underneath the oak tree.  Nearby are a few other students; some stand alone.  I continue to listen.  But when she starts on the book character names, I cannot help but pitch in, “The WeasleysHermioneHarry?  At least, Ron is the most normal one…”

“Yeah, but he’s a wuss!  He freaks out over everything!”

“Are your parents big readers?” I ask, to keep my fair share in the ongoing conversation.

Bump!  She gets teary—and blood—red eyes again.  I cannot help but wince, ready to spit out an apology, until…“Kind of,” she finally replies and gives a small sniffle. “I sometimes see my mom reading magazines, but that’s pretty much it.  And…” She goes mute for a moment. “…my dad…”

A car horn honks.

I lean in closer; but she struggles to speak; the words do not come out.  Then, another car honk, followed by, “Nicole!”

We see her business dressed mom, waiting in the line of cars at the drop off/pickup zone.  My mom and sister drop me off and pick me up in this area too.  Nicole’s mom waves at me along with her, “Hello.”  I return the same gesture.

Nicole sighs and tugs onto her backpack straps.  Before she walks away, she turns her back to her mom, and then faces me. “Thank you.  I’m really glad to have met you today.”

I feel a warm feeling spread through me, like melted butter on homemade bread. “You want to meet tomorrow?”  It is all I can ask.

She smiles. “I’d like that.  Where?”

“How about right here?”

She scans around.  We both see her family van inching closer to the front of the line. “Okay.”

“Okay,” I repeat but with a smile. “See you tomorrow then.”

And off she goes, as I wait for my ride.  Before I know it, our family Honda pulls up into the driveway, at the back of the line.  I see Luz, who waves me over.  I grip nice and tight onto my belongings.  Mcdees here we come!


Part X

I jump into the passenger seat and buckle up.  When I look at my mom, whose eyes are on me like a hawk, my smile vanishes. “What?”

My mom smiles and puts the car back into drive. “Nothing,” she says. “You just look really happy.”

Oh, how my mom could just burst into tears…but happy tears.  For the first time, I feel that way too.  I set a hand upon hers and return the hopeful smile. “I have a feeling that things will get better.”

Now, she really stifles back the tears and nods. “Me too, baby.  Me too.”

I look out the passenger window and catch a glimpse of Katie running by.  My eyes follow her over to a gray Honda, which pulls up directly behind our black Suburban.  As my mom waits for the cars in front of ours to leave, I gaze out the back window.

Katie buckles herself in, as she and the pretty brunette, of whom she looks exactly like a miniature version, exchange a few words.  Katie’s eyes soon find mine, as my mom and Katie’s sister both press their feet down onto the gas pedal and pull out into traffic.  We lead.  They follow us.  For a brief moment, it is just us two as though we are the only nine year olds on Earth.  Katie flashes her teeth at me; and I do the same before my mom makes a left turn, and they turn right.  We drive away and cut off a few other angry and impatient drivers, but even at a distance from that gray Honda, I know that Katie’s eyes are still with mine.

Their horn blows.  I see Katie waving over her shoulder. “Don’t think about it,” my mom says, until, “Alright, just once.”


But I keep my hand on the horn, laughing out every bit of joy that suddenly rushes over me.  Usually, my mom would smack my hand away.  But this time, she just watches me and shakes her head with a small laugh.

It will all be alright.  We will all be alright.

Natalie Rodriguez is a writer and filmmaker from Southern, CA. Her work has been featured on various websites including Huff Post. Follow her on Facebook, InstagramLinkedIn@natchrisrod for upcoming projects.



The orphanage is perched on a hill made of lava rocks. No trees, besides risible puffs of conifers, dusty and bent by the wind (around here it is horrible, screaming as it rushes down the canyons, towards the beach).

The orphanage overlooks a desert strip of shoreline, jutting out in a sort of peninsula. Why so far from the closest village, not to speak of a town? Why so lonely, so remote?

I don’t know if there’s a reason. Maybe a combination. First of all, the mansion was liberally given to the nuns, who of course didn’t refuse… The rich family who built it, long ago, carefully chose the location. Like a sentinel, the mansion surveys land and water, always aware of newcomers.

The gratuity of the mansion isn’t all. I’m sure forlornness befits the orphanage in the common mentality. So preserved (like exquisite marmalade) the girls are spared temptation—that most abhorred evil, worse than melancholia, depression, even madness.

Three sides of a large courtyard are screened by the building’s walls. The fourth one looks toward the mountains, tapering into a slope—a ravine where goats graze, scrawny and bent like the conifers, their perfect companions.


We are going up the winding road on a Sunday morning. It’s a sunny day (they all are, year round) and a windy one, obviously. Dust is raised by our newly waxed four-wheel drive, shiny black. Afterwards it will be waxed again. But the driver has all the time in the world, since we drive only in special occasions. This is one such.

Daddy likes to ride with the windows open. He has a high body temperature and he sweats—especially when in formal cloths, waistcoat and jacket. Even more when flustered by an important matter. This is one, though he’s trying to downplay it, I think.

Dust generously pours in, getting into my eyes. I’m alone in the back, my suitcase for company. Two large trunks are tied on top of the car, which is panting uphill… we proceed at the leisurely pace of a mule. Not a problem, only a matter of bearing the dust.

My straw hat, quite large, shields my face (the brim hangs like a veil, if I tilt it forwards). Still I had to remove my glasses, then clean them meticulously, more than once, with the kerchief I keep rolled into my sleeve.

When I did it for the fourth time I noticed the embroidered initials, white on white. Kind of subtle, hard to see… at least for me. I realized I had taken mother’s kerchief—by mistake, the maid must have put it in my drawer. My stepmother had a moment of distraction, apparently. She stacked it in the wrong pile. (The maid cannot read).


The operation has been extremely costly, but father is rich. That is why we have the four-wheel drive that gets waxed before and after each outing, always shining like a pair of dancing shoes. Dad is rich and my appearance counts, for the uglier I look the harder will be for me to get wed, in spite of the money. Though, money will prevail. It always does. I am young—younger than I feel—but I know this.

The operation was performed on mainland. First we took the ferry, then the train. Our cabins looked the same in both transportations: padded, leathered, curtained and fringed. You had to pull the curtain, discretely, to see a flash of landscape—possibly when father was hiding behind his newspaper, aunt behind her fan. Too much sunlight disturbed both. Father started to puff and sweat, aunt to cough (I wonder why). They preferred the curtain closed.

Aunt and dad accompanied me—aunt for comfort, I guess, dad for talking to doctors and paying the bills. I only spent a day at the clinic. I was way too scared for noticing the surroundings, though I recall a park with tall pines. Very different from these scrambling bunches… Those were bright green, their branches shaped like perfect spheres. I remember the color through my one open eye. I remember the smell, embalming.

Father didn’t want to linger more than it was needed. We left on the same night, half of my face wrapped in bandages, stark white, scenting of disinfectant. All went wonderfully, said the surgeon (I was healthy, and so young). I could be checked locally, my doctor would know what to do, if anything. It was safe to travel, he said.

We had couchettes and I slept in the lowest one. It was screened by curtains—a kind of cocoon. Aunt slept right above me, dad in another compartment. We would reunite at the station. All was under control.


Mother didn’t travel with us because she was ill. Now I wonder why she wasn’t brought on mainland instead of me. Why a cure wasn’t sought for her from those continental doctors, so bright. I don’t have the answer… I can only assume she was more expendable than I was. She had already produced me. I hadn’t yet done my part.

Anyway those doctors weren’t that smart, as I’m about to prove. My bandages were to come off one week later. I could not wait: our weather, I said, is hot and windy all year round, with little variation. I started itching. I wanted to get rid of that mummification, wash my face.

On the eighth day our doctor cut the gauze with a pair of small scissors: a barber trimming a beard. I would give I don’t know what for the look on his face—that I missed, for I shyly stared down with my unencumbered eye, breathing as quietly as I could. Well, doc must have looked mischievously satisfied. He said nothing.

Nobody said nothing while I stood up and went to the threefold mirror, vainly gilded and as shiny as dad’s car. My usual face met me… My eyes, same as before: out of sync, diverging, the left one kind of stuck at an uncanny angle.

It was still stuck. The surgery had not changed a thing. But we never went back.

I will find a husband no matter how: because of dad’s riches, properties, factory and all. I am not worried, besides the fact I’m still eight. This should give me another ten years, hopefully yet not certainly… Mom eloped at thirteen.

But mother was beautiful. I am not: I can notice it even with my defective eyesight. Anyway, I won’t have to look for a husband. He will find me, or dad’s bank account. Perhaps he has already.


The orphanage… I should not call it so. I should stop, right now. It isn’t an orphanage, though the girls who live there are orphans, stepmother said. I heard her mention it to her daughter (from a former marriage—stepmom is a widow). Still the place isn’t an orphanage. It’s a boarding house. Dad explained it to auntie. The name sounded strange… it evoked upholstered cabins and some moving device. In fact here I am, all packed up and in my traveling suit. I look so much older than I am.


Mother died a month ago, giving birth, they said. The weird thing is I hadn’t noticed she was expecting. For the last year I saw little of her, briefly visiting morning and night. When I entered her room (she never left it…) she sat by the window. She had her fluffy robe on—pale grey with blue flowers, enhanced with small golden beads. Quite enchanting. I so wanted to grow up and wear it. I knew she would give it to me, although I never asked. But I knew, and I couldn’t wait.

Mother’s hair wasn’t done in the morning, or at night. I’m not sure it was during the day, when I couldn’t see her. It must have, but when I came it was down, and I kept staring at it. My eyes switched from the brocade of the robe (those little blue flowers) to the long hair I assessed with a kind of greed, proud as if it were my own. As she sat, her hair brushed the floor. It looked tired like she did. She had her sewing basket close by, but she never sewed. Her arms hung on her sides. She wore no rings.

She smiled while I gave her a long, good hug. No climbing in her lap—that was no more of my age. But since she never joined us in the dining room, or the kitchen, since we didn’t walk in the gardens, since she didn’t come to mass or in town, I longed for her lap again. I knew I shouldn’t… thus I hugged her as much as I could. I would have hugged her all day, all night long. I hung in there until aunt coughed, and that meant we should go.


I don’t know if mom was informed of my surgery. When my face was dressed I wasn’t allowed to see her. Not sure why. I was glad when the bandage went, for I could resume my visits.

But they didn’t last long. She died very soon. Father married after less than a month. Summer… leaves were still on the trees. They fell afterwards. Suddenly, all became a slippery carpet of rust. When the leaves fell all had already happened.

It is fall now, though you truly can’t tell. On the hill there are only these scrawny conifers—they look the same in all seasons.


I remember the night when mom died. It was horribly hot. Aunt had been complaining all day, putting her mending down to wipe her brow, shake her fan. After dinner she read a story to me—one I already knew. I said nothing. I could hear it again. Then she sent me to wash up and change—no visit with mother.

In my room the window was open and the shutters pulled, but not tightly. Still no air circulated. I lay on top of the sheet, incessantly turning my pillow, holding my rag doll at arm length. I am sure I eventually fell asleep… I always did.

At four I was awaken (there is a clock in the room—a tall, dark kind of tower. I have learned how to read its hands long ago). I heard screams and I knew it was mother. I heard steps and other noises, but I didn’t move. I sneaked under the sheets—the room was much cooler now.


I had already been up at four, twice, because of earthquakes. You know, don’t you, they come at four in the morning? I have asked why, but I haven’t got an answer. Not one I have understood. It’s the quietest hour—everything is at rest.

I’m a light sleeper, auntie said. I hear noises and can tell where they come from. Growing up, I have also learned what makes them, or who. Until three (the clock’s hands tell me—I like things big and far, they are the ones I see)…  Until three there is sound from the dining room, right below me. I know it’s dad, at the table. He does things with papers. He counts up. He also drinks from those crystal bottles with a million facets, like rubies.

Until three, sound comes from aunt’s room, next to mine. Especially in summer it is very distinct. I hear the scratching of her pen on paper—she writes. Not numbers, like dad—I don’t think. She must write to someone and she sighs a lot. There are other noises of course. I’m not listing them all.

Then a thick silence comes. The rooster breaks it as soon as four thirty. It is not that precise—it can also croak at five, six, six thirty, or never. Roosters can’t be used for telling time, they are approximate. But the maid isn’t, or the driver who opens the garage door, or the gardener headed to the tool shed. They are up at five. I hear the maid all year round. I hear the others quite often. I know what happens and when.


So if earthquakes are meant, as they are, to take us by surprise, there’s no better time than four, the still hour. Though the animals know before hand. They fret from the previous afternoon. And the gardener says: “Earthquake’s coming”. Then he looks at the sky and says: “Earthquake sky”. I look at the sky and it’s empty. There’s no comet, I mean, like for baby Jesus. No signs. What does he possibly see?

He—the gardener—says these things quite often then nothing happens, so he is like the rooster: approximate. But sometimes the earth shakes and that puts a smile on his face, and he brags: “I told you”. I still think it is guesswork—if earthquakes are supposed to sneak on us, they shouldn’t advertise.

Earthquakes happen a lot, here. Not on mainland. They are our special thing, in a way. They are usually small, though the second one smashed all of our china vases. And the cow mooed more loudly than I had ever heard. The toolshed was crooked: it remained stuck, suspended. A bit like my left eye.

The first time, only the light fixture swung. Right above me it swung boldly, as if an altar boy was going nuts with incense. Did I tell how large are those chandeliers? But I wasn’t scared. I enjoyed watching it.


Around four I was awaken by mother screams. They were distanced but scary. Long wailings—not like her, but I recognized her voice. I slipped under the sheet and tried to fall asleep. I think I succeeded.

She died giving birth, they said, but I never saw the baby. All was very chaotic. Aunt cried. The maid cried as well… every one was red-faced, gardener and driver included. Our doctor came, then a priest, then more people until I lost count. I was sat in the kitchen with a cup of milk for what seemed like hours. Aunt, then, sat me in the drawing room, on an armchair with a tall back, turned toward the window. I stayed still—I doubt anybody could see me. I preferred they didn’t, because I was scared. I’m not sure of what, but I was, more than when I had surgery in the middle of those scenting pines.

Strange smells by the way came and went—strong drafts, pungent, like perfumes but also medication, then something else. All was upside down as if we were going to travel, as if a much bigger earthquake had occurred.

At some point the maid redirected me to the kitchen, pushing a bowl of soup under my nose. But I never ate in the kitchen… She turned towards the stove, busy with pots and pans. Food smelled good, covering the extraneous scents. I always liked watching the maid cook, but not then. I did not touch the soup.

I heard people upstairs, noises, voices. Doors were opened then slammed shut, opened, slammed again.

Then evening came. Aunt took me by the hand and said I’d stay with her sister (yet another aunt, who lived in town). I did not really know her. I did not want to go, but said nothing. Auntie pushed me on the back seat of the car that was ready in the alley, facing the gate. Just the driver and me… that had never happened. I closed my eyes.


My other aunt told me mother had died. Again, soup was in front of me, but we were not in a kitchen. We sat at a long mahogany table, in a dark mournful dining room. She and I (aunt didn’t have a husband) plus the maid, going back and forth with our dishes. We hadn’t started eating yet. Aunt said mother died, in a short sentence. My reply was shorter: “Why?” I said. “She died while delivering,” auntie explained. That didn’t answer my question, but I had nothing to add.

At the funeral (after another day, then another night of quiet boredom) I looked for the baby. I expected to see it: all white, with his little cap, in the arms of auntie perhaps? There was none. I knew I shouldn’t inquire but I wanted to.

Mommy’s casket was closed and covered with flowers. Bows of large ribbon, trimmed silver and gold, had things written on I could read. Also my name was there.

Now, you want to know if I was desperate because mother died. I wasn’t. Not then. I have been very sad later—when the leaves started falling and dad married again. I have wept every night in my bed, also in daytime, but not at the funeral, when I was looking for the baby who was nowhere.


I asked auntie as soon as I dared. Maybe I shouldn’t have, but I couldn’t resist. We were coming home from the graveyard, the two of us sitting in the back of the car. I whispered: “Where’s the baby?” She didn’t answer, and did not look at me. I was wondering if I should repeat, when she said: “The baby is dead”. I said nothing.

Then I said: “But I didn’t see the white box”. I knew how babies where buried—lots of them passed. They got those pretty little white caskets. She said nothing. I wondered if I should repeat. I repeated. She sighed, then she said: “The baby was buried with mother”. That made sense: I figured it in mom’s arms—a Jesus with Mary, like I saw them in paintings, on the small gilded images I was given as bookmarks.

Still I wasn’t sad. I asked: “Was it a boy or a girl?” She sighed. Then: “A girl”. Then she burst in tears and murmured something I couldn’t grasp until later. But later I did: she had said “Victorina”.


That was a brash lie, as I knew since I was brought to the graveyard—by aunt herself, by the maid… not by father. We went every day for a month. Aunt had lied, for only mom’s name was on the grave—and an angel of stone. Tall, impressive, but one… no small angel, as it should have occurred if also a baby was buried. Only mother’s name was carved on, with the dates of her birth and death. I could make sense of those, no problem. Mother died at twenty-one.


Victorina (I will call her Vicky) is not dead. Why didn’t I figure it before? The thought strikes me while we’re almost arrived: the boarding house is in sight. A few more hairpin turns (sickening me with vertigo) and we’ll see the main gate, the nuns maybe.

She is alive: why didn’t I guess? I must have been distracted, confused… First, the marriage—my dress to be sewn in a week, fittings every day. Lots of things to be done and no one in charge, the house a wild rumpus. Mother’s clothes were taken out of her room, put in trunks and carried away. Where, I do not know. And I don’t know why. Shouldn’t they be mine? Of course they should.

I thought of the robe with blue flowers only when it was in a trunk, god-knows-where. (I shouldn’t say “god” but its fine. I don’t truly believe since mom died. I only pray to the Virgin and Baby—before he grows up. Alas, the robe is gone.)

For a couple of days I feared aunt would leave us as well… everything, as I said, was upside down. Walls were painted over, curtains changed, furniture switched around. Aunt remained, and quite busy. She stuck flowers in each vase the earthquake had spared. Hundreds, thousands of blooms… When the newly married came in, the house looked like a jungle. I came back from church earlier to help her. Guests started arriving. There were hired maids.


I’m not sure why aunt didn’t come today… just for company, just to say goodbye. I am alone in the back with my suitcase. I keep cleaning my glasses, for the dust is blinding me. It is making me cry… my kerchief is all crumpled. I wonder who will do the washing. Who will do the ironing.


I haven’t seen baby things when mom’s clothes were packed. There should have been a trunkful at least.  Mother must have made them, in those months when she never came out and never was combed. Truly, I didn’t see her sew—hands limp in her lap, two dead birds—but I wasn’t there all the time.

I haven’t seen baby things at all, but of course they are gone with mom’s stuff. Why weren’t they given to me? I’ll also have babies. I should have those, together with mother’s dresses, jewelry, and all. Where did baby clothes go? They must have been green, yellow, white—for boy or girl… never know. I regret not having seen them, I terribly do.

I haven’t seen the crib either. I have asked aunt about it… First she said nothing, then: “The baby was premature”. Early, I guess? It sneaked in like an earthquake at four in the morning. This is not what she meant, I know. They hadn’t bought yet a cradle—it wasn’t time yet.

Still I think Victorina is not dead. They have sent her somewhere as they’re sending me. Did they send clothes and crib along? Possibly. Only, I have to find where.


The orphanage is a boarding house… Pardon me if I keep changing on you—in fact it is a convent. There are too many nuns to call this place otherwise.

I have spent ten years in this convent, in the company of the waves splashing against the rock we are perched over. As you know I hear night noises, I always did. How could I have missed this one? But it didn’t bother me. It helped me to sleep—kind of a shush, shush, baby.

I have been home for visits, though never for long… I mean there was no such thing as summer vacations. But we went home sometimes, those who had one to go to. Those who weren’t totally orphans—only partly, like me. Our driver came up on Saturday morning (once per season?) He brought me back on Sunday, after lunch.

At home I did not sleep in my previous room. I had a new one, small, neat, next to the kitchen. An immaculate bed, a table, a chair, plus a closet where I hung my coat, put my hat on the top shelf, my bag on the bottom one. Nothing more was needed. I came properly attired for Mass. I left as I came.

In the closet I kept an apron, mouse grey with a trim. I had sewn it. I have sewn all of my clothes in the convent. Dad sent expensive fabrics in huge packages, wrapped in paper and tied with a rope. Aunt must have purchased them in town. I never asked.


I liked visiting home because I liked the room. It was close to the kitchen, I said—the maid slept on the other side of the corridor. Her place was even smaller and certainly not as clean. My new room reminded me of a couchette, on a train, or a boat. It was like being always in transit, always traveling, and I liked the feeling.

Aunt didn’t live with us any more. She staid with her sister, the one I was sent to when mom died. It made sense for them to be together. In the house there were father, stepmother, and her daughter from a previous marriage. With me, that made four around the dinner table, one per side—I liked the geometry. I liked having lots of elbowroom—a nice change from the crowded refectory where I usually ate. But I enjoyed the refectory as well.

Nothing happened when I visited home: nothing bad, nothing good but the pleasure of the little room, the wide table. The maid was getting older. Same was true for the gardener and the driver. Not for dad, stepmom, and stepsister—through the years they looked as if they were frozen. I suspect it’s because they were kept in shape: combed, powdered, nicely dressed. Dad, impeccable with his rimmed glasses, shiny mustache, black hat and so on. Those things make you perennial.

How did I look to them, I wonder. No mirror in my room, but I glanced at the large one in the hallway, though it was screened by too many flowers. I checked if I was in order. I always was. Like dad, I wore glasses. I always will: my eyes only get worse. They tire easily.


I was not sent away for educational purposes. Step-ma didn’t want me, that’s all. I was never told such a thing, but I knew it on the wedding day. That’s why I came home early, under pretext of helping aunt with the flowers. No one gave me permission but no one cared. No one even noticed, I’m sure.

I sneaked into the car with aunt out of panic. That’s a big word: confusion perhaps, and a sense of distress? When the newly married arrived (in a hired carriage, snow white, leaving them at the gate), step-ma bent down to pick up her train, while dad held her by the forearm. I noticed her very long gloves.

She laboriously gathered her veil, then she stood for a while, straight and tall, before marching towards the house at dad’s side. First her eyes had a quick, anxious lift, as if she had spied something invisible. Then she smiled: a sharp, toothy smirk that made me feel queasy. I was by the main entrance. Her eyes met mine rapidly. Her face remained still.

On the day of the wedding I knew step-ma didn’t want me, but she wasn’t unkind. She said nothing. I was packed on the following Saturday. Sunday morning we drove to the convent. Aunt was gone very soon, she went to live with her sister. It was as if a rock had fallen into the water—a few ripples, then the surface is sealed. The stone lies at the bottom. It was as if a rock had crushed something: very small, and nobody would know, nobody would find it. I don’t know what it was.


I’ve remained at the boarding house for ten years—with all of those visits, identical. I don’t know where these years have gone. I’m not leaving because I have finished school—just as there aren’t vacations, there aren’t diplomas. I am engaged and I will marry soon.

It’s not really a surprise. This is how things go. What else could I wish? I’ll be happy to be married, I guess, though I never doubted it. I’ve known it since I was eight, and before.

Suddenly, while we drive downhill (same car, same trunks tied on top—full of different dresses, all sewn by these hands of mine), I think of old baby clothes. The ones mom must have embroidered and knitted. The ones I never saw.

I feel nauseous. It’s the turns, of course, the speed, the sun dazzling over a sea that gets closer and closer, almost frightening me. I think of those clothes because I should have them: I will have babies too. And I think of Vicky—I haven’t… for ten years. I haven’t wondered any more about her being alive. Dead. It all sunk, swallowed away.

In the convent the days were so full, they slipped by like beads on a rosary (pardon me, that’s what comes to mind—a habit, I guess). That is how ten years went down the drain. It’s not casual… it is how an orphanage works. You do stuff all the time, so you don’t feel or think. Moderately I mean.

You are not tempted… You aren’t sick with nostalgia. You don’t want to get out, you have no longing. You do things so you’ll be ready to marry, with some luck (for sure, in my case). Day by day you get prepared. Just follow instructions—it’s a deal. You comply and you feel comfy. A lulling sensation, repetitive—like the waves, when they do not crash.

Like a tunnel, you know? Like a train. I mean a train in a tunnel. You only need to lie quietly on your cot. Easy up: the train will bring you there.


For ten years I never went to see mother’s grave. Why? I have described my visits home—the rituals, immutable. Saturday we had lunch, then a quiet afternoon. Read a book, mend your stockings, take a walk in the gardens—always within the gates. Dinner, then. Sunday Mass in our best clothes.

In church I saw people, people saw me—that’s how I met my to-be-husband, though I suspect he already had found me. Sunday, at lunch, my betrothed was unfailingly invited, for the last year or two. He never missed. Then I was driven back—too short to be boring.

Yes, I’ve thought of the graveyard many times—in the night, in the room that looked like a train. But I haven’t asked to go, I don’t know why. If I think deep and strong…  I guess I didn’t want to please mother. Sure, I knew she was dead. Still I didn’t want to please her. I did not want to visit her grave, though I knew it was there (the grave) and probably waiting. But the stone couldn’t call, the angel couldn’t. Mother couldn’t. I am sure I didn’t want to please mother, but I wasn’t aware of it. I was aware of nothing.

Now my throat knots itself. Luckily we have arrived in the flats.


Unlike father, stepmother, and sis, aunt looks older.


There’s this thing about lies: they split. That is why vipers, with their bifurcate tongues, are not to be trusted. That is why you say of a gossiper he or she is a viper. I’ve learned it from the nuns… they gave me an education, though I wasn’t there for such purpose. It is weird how things work out.

Now let’s analyze this. Aunt said baby was buried in mom’s arms, but there’s no trace of it (her, a girl, Victoria) on the epigraph. So the baby isn’t dead. Where is she? She would be ten by now. I could take care of her, like the elder took care of the younger in the convent. Boarding house. Orphanage. After all Vicky is an orphan, is she? Even more than I am, since she has no dad either. I mean: does she know father is father? Was she ever told? I believe not.

Where is Vicky anyway? How can I find her? Who should I ask, admitted I’d dare? Admitted I’d be answered the truth. I cannot ask father… I don’t think I ever addressed him a question (I’d be terrified). I only answer to dad, when he bothers to interrogate me.

There is aunt. Aunts. Since they live together, I could ask both at the same time. Would they dare lying in concert? Maybe they’ll contradict one another. I think I should try. They look so much older.


I have asked. I was invited for dinner—the three of us around the mahogany table, in the dark room that didn’t get any jollier. I was blunt, I guess, but I didn’t know better. After dessert I simply put down my fork. I did not think of gingerly lifting my wine glass, to look casual. I haven’t learned that kind of finesse in the convent. Stiffly, I proffered: “Is Vicky alive?” There was silence (as expected).

Aunt (the eldest) was eating… she kept her eyes down, but after a forkful she said: “Who?” Auntie (my dearest) coughed—that was a good sign—then puffed under her breath: “Of course not”. She at least understood whom I was talking about.

I knew it was a now-or-never occasion, so I summoned courage. “Why her name is not on the grave?” Auntie left the table. Aunt said nothing. I didn’t repeat. There was no point.


Lies have been told—to me at least. And they keep bifurcating… I mean there’s a possibility I haven’t considered. Maybe, Vicky is dead and she is in the grave. Only that shouldn’t be known. They (father? aunts? doctor?) didn’t tell anyone mom died of childbirth—besides me. But why would they conceal it? Wasn’t the baby registered? Should I verify… I’m not sure I’d know where to start.

Or, the baby could have been earlier than I thought. Auntie said she was premature. Maybe she wasn’t a child to speak of, not quite. In such case why was she named? Was she christened? A priest was around when mom died—that I recall. He was there for mother, but he could have baptized Victoria.

I could check the books at the City Hall. I know dad wouldn’t like me to, and he would find out. I’m not sure if I’d dare anyway, or if they’d let me. Not all by myself, I’m afraid.


Or, the grave could be opened. Well, one day. When they all will be dead and I will be old. Then I’ll have the grave opened. Then I’ll dare. Only, if in the meantime Vicky’s somewhere— alive—I am missing my chance. See how things become twisted.

See how the lie keeps splitting, like a river into more and more rivulets… For let’s say mother didn’t expect at all—there was no baby, just as there weren’t baby clothes. Mother never sewed a single one—she couldn’t, more than all she had no reason. Then what did she die of?

That isn’t the point. Maybe they didn’t know. Sometimes doctors don’t. They are approximate, like roosters when they tell dawn, gardeners when they predict earthquakes. They have no clue about why mother was ill, why she died. But why did aunt make up a baby, and she named her? Who’s Victoria?


The earthquake. That would clarify it, of course. Earthquakes can uncover graves—it is known. Not frequent, but heard of. I’ve been catching myself praying for an earthquake.

I said I don’t believe in god. The nuns didn’t change my mind—they never suspected they had to. I’m not praying god for this simple calamity to happen. I’m not sure yet who I’m calling on this. Maybe I’m only wishing, but I’m wishing hard.

Nothing tragic—but a very strong one. Epicenter right on, in the graveyard. Four a.m., all asleep, no one yet outside. Cattle in the barns, chicken in the coops. I don’t wish for casualties. A good shake, one, then the aftershocks, tiny. But the tombs upside down, the dead scrambling out, bones all over.

Not too messy—they can’t be too scattered. I’ve to see that cute girly skeleton (mother’s), with a bundle niched against her ulna and radius. Vicky in mother’s arm, pearly white.

Unless she was so small, early, premature, her bones have already crumbled like talcum.

Let’s hope not, or I’ll never know the truth.


Toti O’Brien is the Italian Accordionist with the Irish Last Name. She was born in Rome then moved to Los Angeles, where she makes a living as a self-employed artist, performing musician and professional dancer. Her work has most recently appeared in The Altadena Poetry Review, Nebo Literary Journal, Sandy River Review, and Colorado Boulevard. You can visit O’ Brien’s website at totio’brien and her Facebook page.

The Last First Days of School

The Last First Days of School

E-Z pass, by Jeremy28162, Devianart

On my very first day of school, my mother told me to sit in the first seat of the bus. I don’t remember her reason, she may not have had a reason at all. She had her own way of giving instructions, and later on I would develop my own way of listening.
I don’t remember a whole lot about the very first day of school, aside from one odd incident. I did listen to my mom, and took the very first seat on the bus, just like she said. A few stops later a kid with light red hair and freckles got on the bus, he had two arms and two legs, and a pair of long silver crutches, not the kind that fit under the armpit, but the kind that are attached by medical gray cuffs to the forearms.
This crippled kid saw me sitting in the first seat on the bus. He probably explained to me in English (which at the time was not exactly my primary language, I had lived in Indonesia for 4 years just before starting school) that this was his seat and not mine. I probably then countered his argument (maybe in English maybe not) that my mother, in her infinite wisdom, told me to sit in that particular seat. Diplomacy having failed, the crippled kid let go of his crutches that remained attached to his arms, grabbed me by my shirt collar, and threw me out of the seat.
Things were not off to a good start.
Being bullied by a crippled kid is one thing, having that as your very first impression of school is something else entirely, but there is one little detail that makes this whole episode that much better: I am a big dude. As an adult I am a big man, I was always one of the biggest guys at school, and that was by high school when a couple of friends had “sprouted” and gained just an inch or two on me. In elementary school, I was the tallest in my class, by third grade: tallest in the school. So for those of you playing along at home, on the first day of school, the tallest first grader was bullied by a crippled kid.
What ever happened to that crippled kid? I don’t know. He probably turned into some jock/meathead in high school, star of the football team, constantly in the gym pumping iron, you know the kind. This is of course all a guess, because as you can imagine I didn’t last too long at the school.

The first school had been a Catholic school. In the classroom they put the crucifix right in front of the PA speaker so it looked as though Jesus was talking to the class himself announcing inane school wide messages, seriously how messed up is that? After a week or two of staring at the crucifix I was taken out of the Catholic school and was sent to a Friends school. The Quakers are good folk, they seemed to embrace difference, which was a good thing for a semi-socially awkward ex-expatriate. I don’t remember what my first day at the friend’s school was like, probably because it didn’t suck, but I wouldn’t be there to long either.
As it turned out there was a hippy at the Quaker school that didn’t teach and wasn’t there every day, but evidently he was not quite as useless as I had assumed. While he was sitting around playing songs for the kids on his guitar, he was apparently studying us, and unbeknownst to me, he had discovered that I was not learning to read at the same rate as the rest of the class, my spelling was atrocious to the point of being non-existent, and handwriting resembled Chinese characters more so than any Latin based alphabet.
Speaking of Chinese it would probably be inappropriate to omit the following episode. While in the Friends school I had written a paper in Chinese as opposed to English. Just to be clear, I did not know Chinese, and what Indonesian I did know had already been lost. There probably wasn’t any punishment directly connected to the episode, because the “crime” was so obscure, it could even be argued that it was a cry for help. The reason for writing the paper in pseudo-Chinese was because I couldn’t write, and tired of seeing all the red ink handed back, I figured that if I wrote something in a language the teacher couldn’t understand, then she would have to default and accept that whatever was written was “good.” As it turned out that trick did not work in first grade language arts, nonetheless it was worth trying. Or was it? Somehow my cousins found out about this, and they liked to bring it up at every family get together for the next 25 years or so, showing no sign of stopping.
You didn’t have to be a Nobel Prize winning child psychologist to realize there was a problem; evidently all you needed was long hair and a guitar. My mother took me to a legitimate child psychologist who gave me a test, and afterword took me out to McDonald’s for lunch, the later part being something my father usually did, making it the highlight of the day.
I was diagnosed with dyslexia, pretty sever actually. It’s a learning disability in which left and right become abstract concepts that make little to no sense, letters refuse to cooperate: constantly moving about the printed page, making you their bitch. If you’d like to see what it’s like for yourself here’s an experiment:
Take a book and put it behind you.
Take a mirror and put it in front of you but only use one eye.
With your other eye stair into a lava lamp.
Find a laugh track from any popular 80’s or 90’s era sitcom.
Start reading.
When you stumble on a word play the laugh track.
Repeat this experiment for 12 years without a break.
Report your findings when people ask you why you didn’t like school.
The Friends School was not equipped to educate someone with my myriad (just one actually though it seemed like many) problems, so I was sent to public school. The transition was difficult but ultimately successful, if it had not been then you would not be reading this story now would you? I was in public elementary school for 3 years, made some friends, lost some others, and before we all knew it (and/or were ready) we were sent to middle school.

My assigned school bus for the new middle school was #20, the bus that came that morning was #23. A mistake like this was not impossible, a simple typo on the letter sent out to parents prior to school starting. Since that bus came to my house, at roughly the time it was supposed to, then it must have been the right bus, despite the wrong number.
I was the second one on the bus and took the last seat (since there were no upper classmen to say otherwise) next to an old friend (the first one on the bus). They were the same seats we usually took all throughout the previous year. Some upper classmen we had never seen before started to get on the bus, but we were going to a new school, so new people were to be expected. The route was different then the elementary school route, but again: new school new routes. Some of the upper classmen told us we were not supposed to sit back there, those were “their” seats, which they had earned through years of being lower classmen. The bus stopped at more places we didn’t know and picked up more kids we had never seen before. The upper classmen never did anything outright or even threatened us to move to the informally designated lower class seats, they were just annoyed that we were in their seats, and would grumble complaints about that.
They were only inconvenienced for one day however, because that bus we got on, bus #23, arrived at a school I had never seen before. The letter from the school had been correct all along, bus 23 did not even serve our district. The same bus driver stopped the next day, but I didn’t get on this time. The day after that he flew past without stopping at all, and that was the last I saw of him. He returned to that quiet well of transitory players, along with the crippled bully and the not-so-useless hippy.

The anxiety just before the start of high school was equal to the anxiety of each previous first day of school combined. My mother and father spent a good deal of time and energy calming me down and telling me that high school was not going to be as bad as expected. It turned out they were right. It was worse.
Of course this is regarding the overall experience, but the point of all this (if there is a point at all) is to focus on some of the more interesting first days of school, and the first day of high school, was, yet again, quite interesting.
Have I mentioned the anxiety? Everyone else felt it too, the freshmen did not speak a single word to each other, somehow knowing that everything that would happen for the rest of their lives would be a result of even the tiniest most transitory event of that very first day of high school. You could see it in their eyes. Over the summer we were sent letters with homeroom assignments in addition to the bus numbers. My homeroom happened to be the one with lights off and a door that remained locked, and for the length of the homeroom period, the twenty or so of us stood alone in the hallway together, no one saying anything, all wondering what we were supposed to do next.
I’ve always been respectful to the teachers that deserved it and to those that didn’t alike, my homeroom teacher was of the latter category. She was horrendous. It wasn’t so much that she was a bad teacher, I never had her for any real subject so I can’t make any definitive judgment there, she wasn’t particularly nasty or cruel to her students. What made her so awful was that she was simply inept, incapable of performing the most basic homeroom duties.
On the second day of high school, our homeroom teacher was 10 minutes late (that is 10 minutes late to a 15 minute class). When she did finally show up she told us that she was not going to be able to make it to the class on time all the time, and that we simply had to deal with that, furthermore her attitude suggested that it was somehow our (the students) fault. My homeroom teacher was also our class sponsor to, a sort of quazi-spiritual advisor (spiritual as in school spirit) to the graduating class as a whole, at least that’s what I’ve come to understand it as. What it actually was or was supposed to be I have no idea, because clearly she was as incapable of performing these duties as she was with performing her duties as a homeroom teacher.
Although this is not about lasts, I must digress ever so slightly again. Kid’s don’t know this, maybe adults don’t either, I don’t know (I don’t seem to be either at the moment) but when you graduate, and you walk and whoever at the front of the auditorium gives you a paper, despite common assumptions, this paper is not your diploma. In college they gave us instructions (rolled up in a nice diploma-esque package) on how to get your actual diploma which cost another $50 and you had to fill out a couple of forms and so on. I don’t remember what the “thing” at our high school graduation was, but it too was not a diploma, our actual diplomas were to be given to us by our (insert disappointed gasp) homeroom teacher, as a sort of solemn gesture of moving on, a mother bird letting her hatchlings leave the nest, etc., add your own metaphor here. So we, with our last names alphabetically close, looked for our homeroom teacher in the crowded hallway were our class diplomas were being distributed, and after a while of confusion and not quite knowing what was going on, I, like the rest of my homeroom classmates, received my high school diploma, from a substitute teacher.

There were always problems on the first days of primary school; by college these problems became much stranger, and considerably funnier, and because of the two semesters a year structure, I had eight first days of school in four years. In case you’re getting bored with all this I’ve only selected two episodes worth mentioning.
My college was able to provide some assistance for learning disabled students, but not the kind of assistance that my mother and father could provide at a moment’s notice. School had not been easy for me, not ever, but I had come too far to fail, so I drove (or commuted) to school. Every day it would take exactly 35 minutes to get to school, no matter the path, and another 35 minutes to get home. Accept for one time.
Here’s a math problem for you: from the Norristown exit on the Pennsylvania turnpike to the campus took 10 minutes. From my house to the Valley Forge exit of the turnpike was 15 minutes. How long did I spend on the turnpike?
Answer: 10 minutes, on most days.
Throughout the summer between high school and college I frequently reminded my father to get me an EZpass, but he kept putting it off, and by the first day of college, it still hadn’t arrived, though it had at least been ordered by that point. In that way, and in many others, we are very much alike. I was supposed to write this story back in high school after all.
On the first day of college (orientation as they called it), us freshmen were given the choice to either go to an American Idol concert or a Phillies game. Both of these prospects had the same appeal to me, zero. I managed to get myself into a small group that went to the Franklin Institute instead, and there met my first (of two) college friends. After the museum we went out for ice cream.
I didn’t leave school until about 9:30 that night.
I got home at 1:30 that night.
Question: how much time did I spend on the turnpike?
Answer: getting to the turnpike was not the problem that night, it was a straight shot down Germantown Pike, the same road the college was on, and there were big signs and swirling cloverleaf ramps garnishing the exit, you couldn’t miss it. I got my ticket from the dispenser (because of the absent EZ-Pass), put it in the cup holder, and quickly arrived at the first problem. There were two ramps. One was headed toward New Jersey, the other toward Harrisburg. But I didn’t want to go to New Jersey or Harrisburg I wanted to go home. Knowing I’d be screwed either way I turned onto the ramp for New Jersey, and quickly realized this was wrong. I saw what looked like another exit, very close by, and took it.
This was not an exit however, this was the Northeast Extension, which took me further away from home, but now in a northerly as opposed to easterly direction. The nearest exit on the northeast extension was Lansdale which was 15 miles away. While paying the toll with cash (again because of the missing EZ-Pass), I asked the toll booth operator if it was possible to U-turn right there. Since it was by now 10:00 at night there was no real problem. Back on the turnpike, heading south there was another fork, where the Northeast extension junctions with the main turnpike. At this intersection, with no discernible signs, one tiny little road sent you heading west, the other 3 or 4 lanes send you east.
After 30 miles I was back on the main turnpike, but unfortunately heading again in the wrong direction toward New Jersey and away from home. At Fort Washington, another 8 miles up the turnpike I did another U-turn, and for the first time that night, heading in the right direction.
I can’t explain what happened next, but somehow I ended up back on the Northeast Extension. You would have probably turned around at the Lansdale exit again, but out of the anticipated embarrassment of having to deal with the same toll booth operator again (though he was a nice guy), and thinking the next exit was just up the pike, I purposely drove past Lansdale and turned around at Quakertown which was not “right up the pike” but 34 miles away from Lansdale.
I’m telling you, that junction at the northeast and the main turnpike, the road heading west is very small, it almost looks like an access road, and that’s why I missed it. Again. And again had to turn around at Fort Washington, ignoring the potential embarrassment (though the tollbooth operators had changed shifts at that time) and this time finally I reached the illusive Valley Forge Exit.
About a mile away from home, my cell phone (a graduation gift from earlier that summer) rang. My mother and father were on the speaker phone on their end, and wondering where I was and why so late, not angry or anything, legitimately just wanting to know. It was the latest I had ever been out up to that point, but it was too late to explain what happened. They had to wait until the next day to get the whole story, but for them it was worth the wait.

Because of excess anxiety prior to the first day of school, I always wanted more time, more summer break (or in college winter as well), always hoping we read whatever letter wrong and school would be starting a week later than planned. On my last first day of school however (the first day of my last semester of college) I was not anxious. For the first time ever I was actually looking forward to going to school, there were a couple of good classes slated for that semester, graduation was coming (after sixteen very very long years), and I would not see my two friends very much after we graduated so we tried to make the best of the time we had left. I was actually happy to go to school, one more/last time.
School started at 8:00 that last first morning, a minor one credit computer class required to fulfill a proficiency requirement that was put off until the last semester. There was no problem getting to school, I may have earned a bachelor’s degree after four years in college, but I was a master of the turnpike.
At school, there were maybe 3 cars in the entire parking lot. Realizing something was amiss I gave my friend a call.
“I think the girl’s La Cross team is there, they started practicing,” he said, not really directly answering my question. It was early in the morning and he was about as confused as I was.
“Wait,” I said. “Where are you?”
“Jersey,” he said. “At home.”
“Doesn’t school start today?” I asked.
“No.” he said. “Next Monday.”
I was mad. The one time I wasn’t hoping with every fiber of my being that school would be starting a week later, and school was starting a week later. I was home and back in bed by 9:30, falling asleep thinking about what I would be doing for the rest of the week, obviously I had much different plans.

Zach Smith



Zach Smith is is a graduate of Chestnut Hill College and has been writing for more than a dozen years, struggling all the while with Dyslexia. His work has previously appeared in: Crack the Spine, Revolution John, Fast-Forward Festival, the Short Humor Site, and Schlock Magazine, among others.



She is not the mother he would have wanted, for what he can tell at his present age. For what he can reflect of the gaze of others, falling on her then bouncing back to his young, intelligent eyes.

She is not like other mothers, not quite. Her difference is easy to catch—to a child a shameful feature, a plague, especially if a parent displays it. Yes, the difference is what he resents the most. It makes him detest her in public, though a small part of him would like to protect her, take her defense. But a small part of a small boy is tiny. No more than a seed. Maybe it will mature in a still invisible future, maybe it will rot.

And there is the sadness—a lack at the core of her, reverberating his way. Echoes of such spiked emptiness hurt. They soil him. He ducks, hides, seals his ears and heart. Anything, to avoid those waves.


Today he’s spending time with his father’s family. Half custody has split his permanence in even slices. He is well with dad’s family—a warm, healthy, welcoming nest.

She knows he’s in good hands. They’ll provide him with all she can’t offer. No, she doesn’t have what they have. Not the means, the commodities. Not the time, not the necessary attention? Perhaps. Not the love? Hard to say. This one calls for a postponed answer.

He is traveling to Tijuana with his father’s relatives. It will be his first exposure to Mexico. They will visit the right places, buy the right goodies… they know how to make a child happy. They have already brought him to the theme parks, the plays, circuses, festivals, she wasn’t fit to think of. To the swimming pool, to the beach… They have bought him expensive books and oversized ice creams.

She has read tons of stories to him, true, in bed or before bed—a ritual she never failed honoring until, after divorce, some nights they were apart. They borrowed from the library as many books as he chose, but she didn’t buy any—there was one of the anomalies casting shadow upon her. She bought nothing. She couldn’t—her child wouldn’t yet understand.

Well, she bought ice cream daily, when the man with his trolley passed by, displaying his load of paletas. He came with a ring, the ice cream man. With a song, reminder of old times. The boy heard it from his room. He dashed to her purse, asking for the needed dollar or so. She had it ready. He rushed out to purchase the trophy, the one pleasure enlivening his afternoon hours—otherwise deadly boring, because she worked from home, rarely interacting with him. On the contrary expecting from him the quiet self-sufficiency she was taught, the respect for adult concentration and duties, the patience of waiting.

But those were obsolete devices. He was born in a world bursting with recreation. Didn’t she realize? Didn’t she live in it? Not exactly. She was like a turtle in her shell—same shy, wrinkled, fearful attitude. Who would want a turtle for mother?


He is in Tijuana, right now. She is at home, bent over her laptop. Perhaps cleaning her sink. Stirring a huge pot of soup. She has no proper concept of what a Sunday should be. She was raised in a slightly underdeveloped country—her notions are somehow third-worldly. Or, it could be the anorexia’s fault. Anorexics have a bent towards self-denial exceeding the nourishing domain. All is mortified about them. Don’t hang around! You’ll be stained. You will be at risk—especially children.

An ex-anorexic, capable to recidivate any minute, isn’t the kind of mother they would have wanted for him. ‘They’ means ‘all’. She can tell. It’s the aura projected by whoever meets them, whoever sees mom and child together—anyone in his of her right mind. Those who occasionally praise her mothering skills must be lying.

But her cellphone is ringing. She lift her eyes, wipes her hands.

Her son’s voice at the other end of the line is tensed, quasi-tearful. Mom, you wanted those earrings, did you? What is he talking about? She is confused, but she catches his mood on the fly. She’s good at mood catching. Any mood—but her sons’ matters, others probably don’t. Still puzzled, she goes with the flow. Sure! I want them, of course! Reassured, he hangs up. She resumes her previous routine—a slight thrill, a warmness lingering on her cheeks.

The phone keeps ringing. Something is going on. Her child calls without special reasons, as if seeking her company, wishing to keep her around. Then his aunt grabs the phone, a bit irked. “Sorry, dear, but he’s being impossible. He insists on buying cowboy boots your size. Of course he doesn’t have enough money. I could help, but I’m sure it is a caprice. I’ve been trying to reason him, saying you have asked for earrings instead.” She is raising her voice for an audience: “Turquoise earrings? Wow! Will you be surprised!”

She is crying. Few tears, brisk and silent. Her ex sister-in-law has expertly managed the issue. She is a mother as well, a good one, brilliantly subbing for her. All is under control.

Her son calls again and again. He updates her: they are buying this and that, having dinner, strolling downtown. His words fill the afternoon with unusual sparkle. Does he miss her because he has passed a frontier? He’s experiencing a foreign land. Is it why he reaches for mom? Sometimes all you need is perspective—to step out of the frame for a second, see how the whole picture looks. If it’s balanced, or not.


They have passed the same border—the two of them, back and forth on the same day, two years later. They have gone on her birthday, in order to buy the boots.

Saving for the bus fare—round trip—has been exhausting. Justifying the expense, more laborious. There’s no need for this excursion, while there’s a zillion of needs she can’t meet. Besides transportation there will be other burdens—meals, for instance. She can pack food, of course, but what fun will sandwiches and tap water be?

She will put the boots on a credit card… Oh my, she doesn’t need them, and any pair will be expensive. But that’s why they are bound to Tijuana, correct? Her child has bought her earrings, last time. Cute, tear shaped, enameled with an aqua colored glyph. True silver—they wouldn’t hurt her ears should she wear them for days in a row. That she proudly does. “You wanted these?” he has asked, echoing the day’s conversations. Sure! Her joy was sincere. The boy felt it, but was unconvinced: “Boots would have been better. I had found them! Black, embroidered, shiny. They were perfect, mom!”

How could she doubt it? Weren’t they what she lacked? Assurance and a tad of arrogance. A few inches of heel, to make her look taller. A drumming sound with her steps. Local lore, a touch of belonging. In fact, what she lacks and the boots would have provided are roots. Switch a letter—that easy.

She promised they would buy them, sometimes. When he’d save enough on allowances. When she’d get a new credit card.


There’s another reason for going to Tijuana on her birthday. A guy. Why go with her son? Couldn’t she pick a time where he isn’t around? One of those empty, dull weekends? It would be treason, of course. Her child must come along, find the boots he has spotted two years earlier. Leather goods are the town’s main source of income, in stock by the thousand, and the pair he has seen—black, embroidered, tall—is a staple. They will find it. She cannot go by herself. The boy has to be her Virgil, her guide.

Now, what a comparison: are they travelling to hell? With her hidden agenda, hell is possible—the trip is the kind of foolishness you think of when under a spell. Where do these plans lead? Anyone in his or her right mind knows.

She has met the guy at the time when boots came about. In a bar, but for work-related circumstances. A comparison of translation notes—satisfactory and simple—left her with a sense of fulfillment. So did the unknown translator the publishing firm had sent. He could have been pretentious. Fastidious. Plain uninteresting. But he was clever, outgoing, nice and trustful. Like her, he came from a slightly underdeveloped country.  Their manners were similar. A bit third-worldly? Certainly devoid of façade, frills, and advertisement.

At the counter, pencil in hand, eyes cast on the page, she felt cozy. Home—whatever it means. A place where the soul is at rest.  Momentarily her lungs’ capacity widened. Oxygen filled her chest. It can give you a kind of exhilaration. Like alcohol, it may blur your lucidity.

On the same day, an old girlfriend—used to give advice—called for a routinely update. The friend worried she might be too lonely after divorce. Excess solitude could be unhealthy, unfit for her age… She listened half-heartedly. Her phone stuck between cheek and shoulder, kneeling by a kitchen cabinet, she was straightening pots and pans (always managing to pile up in irrational ways). She was fond of her friend, but the lengthy sermon annoyed her. “You must have sex,” said the other with a tone of urgency, “as soon as possible, with whomever…” Enough. “It’s not what I need,” she interjected. “This morning, for instance, I spent time with a guy over grammatical issues. It was refreshing and nurturing. Better than making love.” What a fascinating confession. But she managed to fool herself.

For two years she didn’t give the fellow a thought. He had gone abroad, by the way. Mexico. Next door, still a border was in-between. In the meantime—to prove her wrong—love and sex entered by the window while she nervously checked the door. Things began, ended, began and ended again, as it commonly occurs after divorce. Who doesn’t experience such trials and errors? As if fitting a new dress, not sure of the model, color, fashion we need.

She had returned her most recent failure to the store, tossed it into the trashcan, so to speak. It was New Year’s eve. She and her son had just watched a movie she had erroneously deemed age appropriate. It related a tragic event in a foreign land—a judge shot, students in disarray, the birth of a dictatorship. For her, memories of things that had mattered in her youth. Distant worlds, for a child. Yet the boy seemed to have enjoyed it… she was pleased by his attention and questions. They had had a nice time.

Then an impulse took over her—one of those sneaking in when routines are broken, in those cracks. The translator whose mere company she liked better than sex—did she—came from where the movie was shot. He must have lived the events they had watched. How she wished she could ask. An email—why not? She has seen movie so and so. He came to mind. How are things? Happy New Year.

He calls early the next morning. She is in bed. A huge futon is laid on the floor, not far from a small TV screen. Her son huddled with her, yesterday, then she brought him in his room, leaving the door ajar. Alone, she is floating on the oversized mattress—a raft in the ocean, aimlessly circling about.

His voice startles her. Did she give him her number? Apparently. After the initial surprise she aligns with his tone—relaxed, casual. He is following up on her mail, discussing the movie which, yes, he has watched a number of times. Cool—but his voice sounds warm, and so close. She is in bed, does he know? Where else could she be at such hour?

In the following weeks his calls become frequent. Nonchalant, filled with professional matters. Shared interests give substance to impromptu closeness. A possible collaboration is jotted. Addresses are provided for mailing purposes.  Meeting face to face would be advisable. He can’t travel at the moment. Could she? Tijuana, where he presently lives, isn’t far. Still the trip exceeds her small budget… she wishes she could go, but she can’t. They shall wait until he will be able to visit. That should put the question at rest.

But it doesn’t. While madness slowly creeps into her (how does he feel? Only seeing him in person would tell)… While madness enthrones itself (did she fall in love? Because she was in bed when he called? Because his voice sounded so close? Or did she fall two years earlier, contracting a virus that remained deep and dormant, until the slightest cause activated it? In such case the virus is thriving full blast, and she is sick, infected). While madness takes the baton, starts conducting, she remembers the boots—the lingering promise. It might be time to fulfill it.


A bright, arrogant sun fills the sky while they pass the border. They have started off in the fog of a winter dawn. She has packed food as planned. Also crayons, notepads, books, playing cards—the ride will be long.

She has announced her visit, trying to ease any pressure her date might feel. True—he has asked for a meeting—yet playing it cool would be better.  No obligations. She is going with her son to buy a pair of boots. Of course getting together would be nice, if the timing is right.

Great plan! Cowboy boots are a local specialty. He knows where the best ones can be found. He would be glad to accompany them. Deal. She gives him the arrival time. He will meet them at the bus station, he says.

They have started off in the dark—her son sleepy, leaning against her. In a good mood—the adventure, though not kaleidoscopic, is quite peppery compared to their usual routine. Passed the border, the landscape has changed briskly. It’s not nature providing the shocking transformation. It is culture, meaning wealth. The suburban decor has given way to poorer surroundings. The border has worked as a time machine, gulping decades as if they were crumbs. The child notices. Didn’t he, two years ago? Maybe he did, without knowing how to formulate the sensation. Yet the feeling took over him—that is why he suddenly longed for his mother. That dry, parched, obsolete landscape tasted like her.

As soon as they pass the border, her roots pull at her. Echoes from her equally poor, southern motherland reach her senses. She feels home. The opportunity of sharing such coziness with her child elates her. The boy catches on her joy while the bus staggers in traffic—allowing leisurely sight-seeing, easing memories to the surface, deepening familiarity. She has made a good choice. She can feel the benefits, tangible, those few miles of perspective have gained her. But the horrifying jam is wearing their patience. Time for stretching their legs.


When they arrive he is not at the station. Well—they can take a breath, find the bathroom, locate the bus heading downtown (they have arrived in a sort of outskirt). Then she calls him, and he apologizes. Traffic is absolutely crazy—that is why he missed them. He sounds hurried, a bit worried, perhaps. They agree on a meeting time, place, and—please—fifteen minutes allowance.

When they reach downtown they are exhausted, deafened by the sound of too many horns, sickened by too much sudden braking. Quietly, they start window licking, the boy’s hand clasped inside hers. They will enter the shops after she’s done with her date. She will have a freer, clearer mind.

The meeting place he suggested is a small square concealed in a maze of shops, bars, downtown lures. Right around a corner—a fence, a few bushes, and a couple of benches. Give or take fifteen minutes, he said. She unpacks a pastime. The boy obliges, reads the book she has just handed him, plays games on his cell while she draws. She sketches people, filling pages and pages. She sketches meager bushes, toothless buildings, the clouds.

One hour flies. The boy is quiet. Stiffness creeps in her limbs. She doesn’t dare calling. He does, and apologizes. Emergencies apparently plague his day. He is audibly on edge. About the same place in two hours? Tentatively. Of course. But they need to shake up. The child is bored and hungry.


They munch on the sandwiches she made. Peanut butter seals your stomach all right. Could she get him a drink in a bar? pleads the boy. It is due. And she’ll get coffee—the cup she should have shared with her date while some truth would have been pronounced, relieving her (that is what it does, in Christian tradition. She has heard it over and over—truth liberates you). She would have lifted her gaze from her coffee, met his and—whatever she had found—she’d be free. Isn’t it why she traveled to Tijuana on her birthday?

No. She has come to Tijuana for a long postponed purchase. A talisman has been waiting for her—she has to get it before it’s too late. Should she phone before leaving the bar? Counting the bus station, her date has failed thrice. Isn’t it…

Sorry, truly, so sorry. The emergency messing his day has taken eerie proportions… he gives her details that she misses. Poor reception? Incoherence on his side? Or she is simply distracted. What is keeping him, already? A plumbing disaster, family abruptly dropped in, broken car, mad traffic. What an intricate combo… She hears anguish and frenzy in his voice. Mostly frenzy.

He pleads for another appointment at the station. He believes he will make it. No worries—they’ll get there eventually. First they will buy the boots—black, embroidered, tall. Here they are, too expensive—but she bargains in Spanish, suddenly articulate and convincing, suddenly strong. How did it happen? Something has freed her, indeed, though the truth she came seeking wasn’t revealed. Or was it.

And a belt for the child, please. That one, yes—spiked with metal, large, obtrusive, preposterous. He smiles. They hold their bags tight. Her backpack has started to feel burdensome. His feet ache. Five o’clock—the sun’s made a bloody mess in the sky, which is quickly darkening. Now, to the bus station.


In the waiting room lassitude befalls her, mixing weariness with surrender. To distract herself, she digs out her pencil and pad. She sketches people absentmindedly. Gradually, her silhouettes become caricatures. They are hilarious. Her son peeks over her shoulder. Time flies while she fills the pages, the boy whispering in her ears, laughing, asking for more. She doesn’t recall such intimacy since the time—perhaps—of bedside fairy tales. This evening suddenly brings them all the way back.

Time clocks down. She isn’t sure she wishes for her date to show up. Show what? Evidence has already been found.

A few hours of highway expect them, passports checks, more riding, more buses. Home at the very end of the line. They squeeze in their seats. The boy leans against her. She leans against the window, looking outside. She knows the road will sooth her. He will fall asleep.


Before leaving—the town still laying its temptation around her—she has a moment of panic. A fit. She has held up quite well all day long. In charge almost… she’s gone with the flow. But as soon as the bus will take speed, she fears she will collapse. Rupture. Come apart.

She should say something to the boy, prevent his reaction. He should not witness an impromptu melt down—or be prepared. While she brushes his hand, she whispers: “I might cry. Nothing serious. I am not sick. I’ll cry for a bit then I will be fine”. “Why?” asks the boy, more surprised than concerned.

She is squeezing the bag with the boots between her legs. Seats are narrow, uncomfortable—weren’t they, this morning? She changes topic. “Where’s your belt?” Quietly, he rolls up his sweater. Oh my, she hasn’t seen him wearing it. She pulls out a deck of cards—backpack horizontal on her knees, they play a game, then another. They have fun—kind of, still pretty tangible. He does not fall asleep, and she doesn’t cry.

Toti O’Brien is the Italian Accordionist with the Irish Last Name. She was born in Rome then moved to Los Angeles, where she makes a living as a self-employed artist, performing musician and professional dancer. Her work has most recently appeared in The Altadena Poetry Review, Nebo Literary Journal, Sandy River Review, and Colorado Boulevard. You can visit O’ Brien’s website at totio’brien and her Facebook page.