I don't often blame my father for things.
"He's just a little stupid," my mother would say whenever we were alone. "It comes from being human."
I would nod- not quite understanding what she meant, but liking that she'd spoken to me. My mother didn't speak to me often.
"Why, mama?" I'd ask. Even I wasn't sure what I was asking about. Why she'd called him stupid, why being human automatically equated to stupidity, or why she stayed with him at all.
She would smile. It was one of the few, genuinely warm moments I could count on from her.
"Because," she'd say. "Humans are more fun. You'll understand, someday."
Then, as quickly as it had happened, the smile would be gone. "Or maybe you won't. Who knows?"
She'd leave me after that, saying she had to go out shopping for dinner or to the bank for money. "I'll be back soon, honey," she would say, kneeling down to kiss me. "Love you."
"I love you too."
The words would come automatically out of my mouth, a trained response from five years worth of goodbyes. It didn't matter what I said; she would always be halfway out the door.
I would shrug it off and go back to playing with whatever toys I had. It wasn't until I was quite a bit older that I realized she was lying. It wasn't until I was older that I caught her staring out at the ocean.
It wasn't until she'd gone that I realized she hadn't really cared for us at all.
* * * *
I don't often blame my father for things, but he really should have known better than to marry my mother.
"She's a heart breaker."
Everyone in his family had said it. Tia Chloe, Tio Fernie, Tia Tina, Sandra, Fella, my grandmother- everyone. They made sure to tell me, too, after it was too late to do anything about it.
"You should have seen her,” said Tia Marta once when I was at her house. "They both just showed up to dinner one night. Your dad hadn’t even told us he was seeing anyone. Well, we all tried to be polite, you know.” She handed me off a dish to dry and then began scrubbing madly at another one. “We were all nice. But she was cold. Hard cold. You’d freeze if she looked at you for too long.”
I nodded and placed the dish into the cabinet just as she handed me off another. It had been almost five years since she’d left, but I still remembered my mother’s eyes. “Where was I?”
“Her belly,” she said promptly. “Though we didn’t know it at the time. Such a skinny thing, your ma. Pretty, in an icy sort of way, but a total- ah.” It must have occurred to Tia Marta that she was, in fact, talking about my mother. “-ly abrasive,” she finished lamely. "Took one look at the meal your grandma made and sniffed. Sniffed! And not in the ‘I’m a bit sick’ kind of way, or ‘my nose is itching’. She looked your grandma right in the eye and said “Oh, that’s nice. I’m sure you did your best.”
“What happened?” I said, enthralled.
“Nothing. Jason, Fernie, Margot and Silva had to go around making sure nobody killed her on the spot. Your dad didn’t even notice. He just kept on smiling like it was polite conversation. Which it most certainly wasn’t.”
It’s not his fault. He’s just a little stupid. . .
She threw down her scrub brush. “I get steamed just thinking about it. Come on,” she said, going to get her sun hat. “Let’s go get some fresh air.”
I gladly dropped my rag and we went out together to get icecream.
Our town was small and nestled right against the sea. Most of the houses were creaky, wooden, and old. Our own house was nestled on top of a hill, with a winding path leading up to the porch and surrounded by tall plants. Half the roads in town were paved, the other were an even mix of dirt and gravel. Most of the people knew each other by name, and (if dad’s complaining about Christmas cards and birthday presents was any indication) they were all related to us.
We sat out in front of the ice cream shop my cousin Daniel worked at and watched people pass us by. From an early age, Marta had taught me the love of people watching. She’d gotten so good at it, she could tell fifty things about a person just by the way they held themselves when they walked.
“See that guy there with the slouch?”
“Look at how frumpy his clothes are. And his hair. He slept in those clothes and didn’t wash today.”
The man in question disappeared inside a fast food place.
“He’s probably going to get coffee. Watch, he’ll be out in five minutes.”
“Tell me more about my mom.”
I hadn’t meant to say it. It just sprang out of me. I tried not to look at her.
“Ronnie,” she said. “Ronnie, hon, look me in the eye, girl.”
I couldn’t not do what she said; she was Tia Marta. She was, by far, my favorite person in the world. The all knowing aunty who’d taken me under her wing and had just given me ice cream.
I looked up.
She smiled. “You have her eyes,” she said.
“I do?” I frowned. The eyes burned into my memory had been blue. Deep, sinking, unbelievably cold blue. . .
“Well, they sure as hell aren’t from our side of the family. Nobody’s got blue on our side. You got your father’s everything else, though, so that’s all right. To counter it out, you know?”
The frumpled man came out of the store, a cup of coffee in his hand.
“Ha!” said Marta. “Knew it.” She pushed her now empty bowl of ice cream forward.
She sighed. “Yeah, I know.” She looked over at me again. "I don’t know what she used to do before she came here. I think she was a fishers' kid or something. She said she used to live by the rivers, but here she had the ocean. Always by the sea, your mom. Loved it. Even when it rained. Scared the hell out of all of us once; she’d gotten you and wanted to teach you how to swim. You were only two, and she wanted to just toss you into the water, no floaties or anything."
She shook her head, smiling. "You’re not like her. You’ve got too much of your dad in you. I see it. You smile. You laugh. You’re warm, like he is.”
Human. Echoes from a conversation had thousands of times flooded back. It comes from being human.
“Yeah,” I said quietly. “I know.”
Maybe you won’t. Who knows? It comes from being human.
“You okay mija?”
I nodded and tried to smile. “Yeah. Just full of icecream.”
She wasn't fooled, I could tell, but she let it be. We sat in silence after that, enjoying each other's company.
* * * *
Flash forward another four years.
It was my fifteenth birthday.
It was also sometime around six AM. A group of friends and family had come over the day before to help m, dad and Marta set up for the party. After that, we'd spent the entire night watching movies and playing games. We'd all managed to get to sleep around four, and just then everyone was passed out around the living room. A few of us were piled onto the couch, but most were spread around the floor.
After a couple hours of trying (and failing) to sleep, I finally accepted that it wasn't going to happen. I was too excited. Just thinking about the party made me get all giggly.
Slowly, I slid off the couch. Justine -who'd been leaning on me- slumped sideways. Torri and Loey followed suit in a display of human dominoism. I grinned and picked my way through the bodies on the floor until I made it to the kitchen.
It was so quiet out. Everything still had the blue-gray tint you get with early morning light. A glance out of the glass slider-door in the kitchen told me that fog had rolled in. I knew I should have been upset, or worried that it would somehow wreck the party later, but I couldn't bring myself to it. I love the fog.
As quietly as I could, I unlocked the door and went out on the back porch.
There was a woman. She was standing on the path, down by the cliff side and looking out at the water.
"Hey," I said. "Party's not for another few hours."
She didn't turn around. I figured she hadn't heard and started down the path towards her.
"Hey," I said again. I reached out for her shoulder. "Are you here for the party? It won't be for a while.'
She turned to face me. "Hi, Ronnie."
I didn't recognize her.
"Hi, uh. . . "
Crap. I hated when that happened; you know you know someone, and they know you, but damned if you can remember their name.
She chuckled, like she knew what I was thinking.
"Yeah, it's been a while. Last I saw you, you were still itty-bitty." She lightly brushed the back of her hand across my cheek. "You've grown up, though. You're such a pretty girl."
I took a step back. There was prickling sensation in the back of my neck. Instinct was screaming that something unpleasant was about to happen. "Thanks," I said awkwardly.
"I do, of course, take full credit for that," she said. "You certainly didn't get it from them."
"I'm sorry, do I know you?"
"Ronnie. Look at me. It's been a while, but surely not that long."
She was right; it hadn't been that long.
What shocked me the most, I think, was how young she was. I still saw her in my mind through the eyes of a six year old. She was mother, a term synonymous and interchangeable with 'goddess'. Know all, see all, distant, and strong. Here, she was just a woman. A woman who looked to be only a few years older than me. We were the same height.
"Well?" She put her hands on her hips. "Aren't you going to give your ma a hug?"
"You're here!" I blurted.
"Why wouldn't I be? It's my daughter's birthday."
"But you- you're young!"
She flipped back her hair casually over her shoulder. "Thank you, I try."
I heard my dad calling for me from the porch. "Just a minute!" I shouted back.
Her face lit up. "David?"
The line that cut across her face then could not, in all honestly, be called a smile. It was predatory. It was unpleasant. It was the look of an animal catching the scent of new prey.
Or maybe old prey.
She moved like she was going to go up the path. I blocked her way.
"No," I said.
"What? Can't I say hello to my husband? I'm assuming we're not divorced." She shrugged. "It's not like I ever got to sign any papers."
"That's because you left," I said through gritted teeth.
"Ouch." She flinched. "Holding a grudge?"
"You can't go up there. There's people up there. My friends."
"You have friends now? How nice. You were always such a quiet child." She tried slipping past me. I moved to keep up with her and tried to think of something to scare her away.
"Tia Marta's up there."
That stopped her. "That witch? Damn." She sighed. "Ah well. I bet hes not as handsome he used to be, anyways. The grin came back. "I bet he pined for me, didn't he? They always do, you know."
My jaw dropped.
"What," I finally managed. "What do you want? You came for something. What?"
She rested her hands on my shoulders. "Hon, I'm here to make you an offer."
She wrapped an arm around my shoulder and started walking me down the path, away from the house. "Yes, dear, do try and keep up. A once in a lifetime offer."
We stopped down at the craggy shore where water met rock. She turned around and took my hand. "Come with me."
"Where to? Why?" I tried to get my mind working straight. "Why'd you wait so long to come back?"
Why did you go?
I snapped my jaw shut before I could ask that last one.
"Because you're my daughter. You're blood. Family." She stroked a strand of my hair back with her free hand. "Family matters. As to where. . . " She waved an arm, gesturing to the ocean behind her. "Home. Where you belong."
I didn't say it. She wasn't.
"Serious," I said slowly. "You really are."
"As a heart attack." She tugged at my arm.
"I can't." I took a step back.
Another step back. "I'm not like you. I can't do that."
Someone shouted for me back at the house. It was hard to tell, but I think it may have been Marta.
"I've got dad. My family. And my friends. I've got school- I'm passing all my classes," I said. "Getting A's and everything."
“School?” She wrinkled her nose. “How very . . .human of you. As for family, I’m your family! My sisters and I. There are so many of us, and they’d love to have you. We all talked it over.”
“Oh yes. You’re plain on the outside, but you’ve got enough water in your blood for it to count.”
“I can’t. I’m sorry, but I can’t.” My eyes started to sting.
“Oh so you’re going to cry?” She grabbed my wrist. “I’ve left you here too long. Come on, we’re going.”
Tia Marta appeared at the top of the ridge, arms crossed, her short hair blowing in the wind like a halo. It took me a moment to notice the frying pan in her hand.
“You,” hissed my mother.
“Yeah, it’s me. What are you doing here, Iara?”
She pulled me closer. ‘I’m here for my daughter.”
“She’s not yours anymore.”
“She’ll always be mine. It’s in the blood.”
Marta brandished the pan. “You know what this is? You smell the iron? Sabes que, either you go back home now or I make you go back.”
“Chingada, I will stuff you into the box and airmail you myself.”
Iara glared, first at Marta, then at me. “Fine,” she said, pushing me to the ground. “Fine. This isn’t over, Marta. This isn’t over, not be a long shot.”
Before I could say or do anything, she ran to the water and dove in. She was gone.
My wrist burned where she’d touched me. I looked down and saw deep scratch marks, like someone had raked me with claws. I stared at them.
"Honey," said Marta, pulling me up. I hadn’t even heard her come down the rocks. "Come on, mija. You have to get ready. Everyone’s going to be up, soon.”
"She was here, Marta." I turned and buried my face into her shoulder. "That was- and she-."
She wrapped her arms around me in a hug. The pan was lying on the ground a few feet away. "Shh, it's okay, hon, I know. I know. But this isn't her day, it's yours."
“She wanted me to go.”
“I know.” She pushed me back for a second, holding onto my upper arms. "You chose?"
Her eyes filled with tears. "You chose us?" It was nearly a whisper.
I nodded again.
She tried to speak, but choked up on the words. We both stood there for a few moments, trying to steady ourselves. "Then see?" she said eventually. "She can't hurt you anymore."
* * * *
It's my birthday again. I'm turning sixteen.
Marta's still around, as are the cousins, grandma, my dad-
And me. I'm still here, too.
I'm in my room, looking out the window, out at the water. I know what I'm looking for, even if I don't want to admit it. The sea is nearly flat out today; there aren't any real waves. Instead, the water breaks gently against the rocky shore with little fuss. If there was anyone out there, I'd be able to see them.
"Mija," Marta calls from the living room. "Hon, time for presents!"
There's cheering from the younger cousins at that, and I can't help but smile.
With one last, almost hopeful look at the ocean, I reach over and pull the string. The blinds close, and I head out into the other room.
Where my very human family is waiting for me.