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What The Cracks Let In

by Tina Wargo about a year ago in Short Story
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I don’t know why I grabbed her jewelry box. Maybe I thought I’d be able to pawn some of it for food. Maybe I just wanted to have something of hers with me that I could keep things in. Moms are the best at containing whatever you’ve got to give.

It’s not worth it. That’s all I can think as I’m crumpled into a pile on the concrete floor, my knees bruised from diving into the shed, my arms torn up from the brambles that licked at me fiercely. The same bushes my dad used to trim each spring on our first trip up. The same floors my brothers and I would scribble chalk stars, flowers, rainbows, monsters onto when the rain pelted the lake so ferociously, it became unswimmable. The stars look different now, I’d imagine, but I wasn’t crazy enough to go outside at night to see them anymore. There hasn’t been a rainbow in months; no rain will do that. The monsters aren’t as pastel as we’d pictured them. They’re bigger, too. But the floor is still here. And the bushes. And here I am.

I look around. I don’t want to celebrate, not now, not like this, but I’ve made it, and that’s something. The car rides used to take forever. Forever meant something different back then. It meant “3-7 hours” or “There’s no TV in here” or “I have to pee again.” Now, it means “What day is it?” and “Have I eaten this week?” and “How old am I again?” I almost let myself laugh thinking about what I would’ve given to have been able to hop in a sweaty mini-van and drive up here. I don’t, though. I’m not sure I remember how.

There’s not a lot left. The house is gone, of course. It burnt up, or it was flooded away, or it was over-run by the creatures who smelled the food and the warmth and the raw humanity of it all. I wonder where all my horse figurines have gone. I think about all the family photos that lined the walls of the carpeted stairs that led up, up, up to the landing where I’d play Rapunzel and my brother would be the reluctant prince and my dad would be the bad guy. My dad was not a bad guy. My brother was not a prince either. He couldn’t rescue me. He couldn’t rescue any of us. I think about the garden. I think about the board games. I don’t think about my mother. It’s not worth it.

I pretend not to see the sliver of light seeping in through the vertical slit in the door. The slit that drove my dad nuts, even though the only things we kept in here were boogie boards and horseshoes and the occasional tiki torch. He didn’t like the thought that anything could get in. “Anything” meaning chipmunks or mice or garter snakes. I wish I could tell him that he’d done a hell of a job building a shelter against the outside world. I, for one, am not worried anything will get in. I am worried, however, that something will slip out. It’s not worth it.

When this all started, I was dying to get out. College was over and that meant so were all the concrete plans I’d had for my life. I had done such a good job of mapping out my future that I forgot my future went past graduation day. Turns out, it kind of didn’t. But before it all went to hell, I was convinced that I was living in my own personal hell. My parents’ house. Not the vacation home, but the real house, where all the arguments and holiday fights and first periods and last warnings happened.

“I’ll figure it out!” I’d say, snapping at my mother every time she’d ask about my progress. “I don’t want to be here any more than you want me here!” I’d shout as she’d inquire about my apartment search. “I’m making a plan!” “I’m waiting ‘til the timing is right!” “I’m not going to be here forever!” I’d scream. She’d take it in. She’d absorb it all. She’d still make me dinner that night. My brothers were older. They’d gotten out. But I was still there. I wish I was still there.

I didn’t have a lot of time to pack. My sleeping bag and hiking boots, of course. The last of the canned goods in the pantry. My phone. My old phone. My mom’s phone. How was I supposed to know phones would stop working? Anyway, they didn’t take up much space and I thought I’d need them. I didn’t. I tried to call my dad right away. Their phones not working, I did anticipate. They’d gone to Italy. Their first trip alone together in 20 years. Their empty-nest honeymoon. He didn’t answer. My mom left her phone at home. I told her that was stupid. What if there was an emergency? She told me I was smart enough to handle anything that could come up without a phone. She was right. She was wrong, too.

I don’t know why I grabbed her jewelry box. Maybe I thought I’d be able to pawn some of it for food. Maybe I just wanted to have something of hers with me that I could keep things in. Moms are the best at containing whatever you’ve got to give. It stayed in the bottom of my backpack for the first few weeks. Or months. It jingled when I walked. It made me feel like someone was walking behind me. It reminded me of a time when we’d have things just because they were pretty to look at. I miss looking at beautiful things.

I walked for miles. Hundreds of them. A thousand, maybe. I carried her things on my back. I thought of her when I tripped over a lawn mower in someone’s backyard. “It’s not broken.” I could hear her saying as she barely examined my barely hurt leg. I thought of her when I fell asleep, tucked up underneath an overturned hitched boat on the highway, to a car alarm blaring. She was always triggering the alarm instead of locking the van. “If anyone comes to steal anything, we’ll just think it's you back from store!” one of us would tease her. I thought of her whenever I saw a pinecone, or a stray cat, or a sunset, or a Coca-Cola can. I thought of her when I was tired. I thought of her when I was hurt. The thought of her is what led me here. The thought of her is what might take me away.

I didn’t want to look, but I promised myself I would, and I don’t have a lot of promises to cash in on these days. I made the mistake of opening her jewelry box the moment I arrived. I was barely over the landing. I had been sprinting, and I was tired, and I was a little on edge, like always, and I took it into my hands and I thought, “Why not now?” And I opened it. And I saw everything. And I don’t know if it was the nerves or the sweat or the overwhelming weight of it all, but I dropped it. You can’t make a noise like that outside anymore. I felt the wind shift. I knew they’d heard. I panicked. I dove inside.

And now I’m here, not celebrating and not laughing and not looking at beautiful things, and willing myself not to peek through the crack at the tiny, shimmering golden thread that’s hanging from a branch just outside. Just far enough away that I can’t reach it. Just close enough that I want to so badly, it’s killing me. I guess it’ll kill me either way. It’s not worth it.

I sit up. I take a deep breath. Maybe I can do it. I’m smart enough to handle anything that’ll come up. I move toward the miniscule sliver of a window. It’s getting dark. It’s getting late. And I’m getting so tired. I tell myself no. I tell myself I don’t need to see. I tell myself to stay, to plan, that I can wait ‘til the timing is right, that I’m not going to sit here forever. And then I plunge my small, terrified hand into the unprotected outside world toward the sparkling locket I’d given my mom for Mother’s Day when I was 16. It seems so close to me, but I know it’s farther than I want to admit. But still, I reach out into the dark unknown of the past mistakes I’d made. If only I hadn’t been so impulsive. If only I’d thought about my actions. If only I’d kept it closer to me this whole time.

I reach, just a bit more, straining, my cuts reopening and bleeding red, hot, desperate drips. I feel the ground rumble. I’m so close. I could pull back, but I’ve already shown my humanity. Blooms of garnet splash the pathway, like tiny fresh chalk markings leading to our hideout, and I know they’ll give me away. They already have. I stretch further. My fingers are twigs ready to snap, unable to bear the weight of any more, but starving to grasp on to just one more real thing. One thing I recognize. One thing that belongs to someone I belong to. I exhale. My lungs empty and make room for me to push just a centimeter more, just enough. The cool chain of the necklace touches my fingertip. I wonder if it recognizes me by my handprint. We have the same hands.

The stampede is getting closer. I stop caring. It’ll take forever for them to get to me, or it’ll take a split second. They’re the same. I shake as I close my grip around the heart. It feels like something. It feels familiar. It has been so long, familiar feels like a stranger. The earth shakes, angry, alive, anticipating its next meal. I am calm. I am here. I am still alive.

I want to pull my hand back through, to tuck myself inside the shed, inside the earth, inside myself and hope, wish, pray, beg for the miracle of safety. I attempt to retreat. I reel my arm back in. The locket’s still in my grasp, and my fist is too wide to fit through with the heft of it inside my hand. I’ve got to let it go. But I can’t. I unclench, just a little. I stare at us, existing so simply in my palm, like that’s where we’re all meant to be. I smile. The unfamiliarity of it hurts my cheeks. My teeth chatter. The quaking is almost deafening. I let myself cry. I know what’s coming, and I know I can’t stop it. I don’t even know if I want to.

I feel a breeze on my arm. Any second now. I close my eyes. I imagine my hand is hanging out the open window of our car. My dad winks at me through the rear-view. I sense the heat of a hungry body. I pretend I’m lying on the dock in the relentless August sun. I feel something touch me. It’s my mother. Her hand on my hand and I can’t tell whose is whose. It’s not as painful as I’d feared. I open my eyes one last time. I look into my palm, and I immediately find my way to the tiny crack in the heart. I know that’s where it’s weakest, and where I’ll be able to get in. I force my thumb into its spine, or its mouth, its chest, its whatever it is. It breaks.

I see her. I see us. My mother’s face. My own tiny one smashed up next to her. The heart is open. The shrieking starts, like an alarm that sounds even though you were trying to keep everything locked up. They’re ready. They’ve found the crack, too. That’s the thing about hearts: when you break them open, you leave yourself open to carnivores. And the tiny crack seems cavernous now. She looks back at me through it.

And finally, I think: it was worth it.

Short Story

About the author

Tina Wargo

Tina is a queer writer in Brooklyn, who uses Google mostly to image search 45-year-old women in suits, and Twitter mostly to report on her findings. She has a deep obsession with narrative, a CAROL tattoo, and, relatedly, a degree in film.

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