July is obscenely hot, but the air conditioning broke two weeks ago and their mother won’t let them leave the house, so they suffer quietly. Felix sits on the plastic-covered couch, poking at the remote control with his toes, flipping from Maury to PBS to the station that only ever plays novellas. There is thin film of sweat on the bottom of his foot that streaks across the remote, but he doesn’t wipe it off because his mother is in the next room. She has been there since last night, tracing the gold rim of a saucer and staring at the remaining sludge in her coffee cup.
Felix leaves the television humming lowly and crosses over to the kitchen. It looks like his mother hasn’t moved at all, not since his father left last night. His father had careened out of the house, swearing rapidly at his mother, who sat with her body bowed at the kitchen table. Felix had heard them; he has never remembered a time when he didn’t crouch at the top of the stairs, tracking the shape of his father’s angry strides toward the door. His father never seems to leave for very long; a few days, enough to keep his mother sour-faced and silent in his absence, and then jubilant when he reappears.
The kitchen is in disarray. The window over the sink is cracked open slightly, letting in flies. There’s one resting by his mother’s ring finger, and she doesn’t slap at it. She doesn’t even seem to notice it.
“Ma,” Felix says. She doesn’t look at him. “Ma,” Felix says again, and he feels angry. He has a mountain of rage within him for his mother, who lets the trash pile up whenever their father leaves. It makes him want to rush at her, to shove her out of her chair and watch her hit the cracked linoleum. He wants to hurt her, but instead fidgets in the doorway, chewing on a hangnail.
Randi, who has a way of walking so closely and quietly behind someone so that no one could feel her there, says, “Jesus Christ, is she still there?” She smells like dry smoke and tangerines; he can see the faint orange from the fruit staining her nail beds. Like Felix, Randi bites her nails as if she has only ever wanted to devour herself. Their father slaps at her hands whenever she puts them in her mouth; Felix remembers, faintly, their father putting chili powder on what was left of them and saying, “This will hurt me more than it hurts you” as she squirmed. She hadn’t cried but instead had sat, sulking, in the bathroom all night with the door cracked slightly open but refusing to let anyone in.
When Randi would still let him touch her, he would press his own fat fingers into them and try to rub the marks away. They had only ever seemed like they could not be fixed one time, last year at the end of May.
Their father had ignored her, except to pound on the door every so often and laugh uproariously when Randi jumped in surprise.
“Yeah,” Felix says reluctantly. He feels almost guilty about telling Randi, as if their mother’s lack of movement should have been a secret between the two of them. Any other day, their mother would’ve been shuffling in time to the radio, or snapping at Felix for his hourly sojourn to the pantry for snacks, or hissing at their father through the telephone.
Randi rolls her eyes and pushes past him; Felix pinches his nose shut against the mixture of sweat and citrus. He thinks about pinching the roll of skin peeking over the waistband of her shorts and twisting it, or telling her to take a shower. It used to be a game: the two of them, baiting each other and wrestling on the thin rug in the living room. He would kick her under the table at dinner; she would wait until he had fallen asleep in front of the television and shove her fingers up his nose. It was familiar, and warm, and his way of knowing she loved him. But Randi doesn’t touch him much anymore. Felix chews on his hangnail and spits it out through the gap in his front teeth, thinks about asking his sister if she still loves him, or at least likes him a little. He feels the way he did when he rode a rollercoaster for the first time: unbalanced and nauseated.
“Randi?” Felix asks.
“Shut up, stupid.”
Randi braces her forearms on the table and stares directly at the crooked part in their mother’s hair. She raises her hand, as if to smooth down the stray hairs, but instead lets it fall down by her side. “Mom,” she snaps, impatient. “Mom, get it together.” Their mother doesn’t move. Randi leans forward, puts her face directly in front of their mother’s and says, “Sarah, get the fuck up.”
Their mother looks up when Randi slams her hands on the table; even from across the room Felix can see the heavy skin under her eyes. The dull bruised color matches the chipping paint on her fingernails. “Miranda, baby,” she says tiredly, “please give your mother a break.” Felix watches Randi’s face contort, the skin wrinkling into a whirlpool of fury. She’s going to start screaming any minute. Randi, he thinks, looks just like their mother. He’s seen the pictures of their mother when she was Randi’s age; heavily curled hair flying in every direction and the mole by her mouth that she had removed when she got married. She had had a gap between her teeth as well, one to match Felix’s own. That had been corrected too.
Randi’s darker, though, her hair kinkier than their mother’s and the mole hovers by her mouth like a defiant period. Their father had offered to get it removed as well; Randi had sworn at him so loudly that the neighbors had called. Felix remembers the story his father had told around the dinner table at Thanksgiving; Randi had thought her name was Negrita until she had entered school, had spelled it as “Negrita” in proud letters on all her kindergarten tests until the teacher had pulled her aside and gently showed her how to write out “Miranda” in cursive. Their father had laughed when she had come home, her face contorted in rage. He had never once called her Miranda, as their mother would, or Randi.
“Sarah,” Randi says, faking patience, “what’s the matter?” She props her chin upon her fists and bats her eyes at their mother. “You got boy problems? You gotta man that ain’t shit, Sarah?” Felix nearly chokes and shoves his whole hand in his mouth so he won’t disturb them. He’s not supposed to be doing that (“Babies do that, you’re not a baby anymore”, their father told him), but he isn’t sure of what to do.
She is speaking in the sort of voice that sounds cocky, but Felix has learned that means she wants to cry instead. Felix hasn’t learned how to speak like that yet; he still cries when he means to shout, sometimes.
The insolence in the air is thick and strange to Felix; he has never explicitly communicated anything to their mother that was not in the form of “yes” or “please.”
Their mother doesn’t look amused. “Miranda. Go away.” She claws a hand through her hair, tries to smooth it back down but it doesn’t go so easily; there is too much heat for that. Their mother haunts the salons downtown when the blow-outs that she gets religiously start to unwind themselves; they usually last long enough for their father to smooth the thatch of straight hair over her forehead, pleased and smiling. “And don’t call me Sarah,” she says, half-heartedly. She hauls herself out of the chair and walks over to the mirror hanging over the sink. “I’m your mother,” she continues, staring at her reflection, “so show some respect, Negrita.”
Randi stiffens. Felix watches her hands clench into themselves. He knows they will leave half-moons cut into her palms; when Randi would still let him touch her, he would press his own fat fingers into them and try to rub the marks away. They had only ever seemed like they could not be fixed one time, last year at the end of May—but that had only been once, and the red semicircles had faded eventually. “Don’t call me that,” Randi says. Her voice is soft, but it sounds as if she is shouting. It’s unusual for Randi to not yell when she wants to; this, Felix, thinks is her trying to be kind. It’s not easy on her body; she appears to be vibrating in place. She looks, he thinks, hurt, and it makes the back of his neck itch. He rubs it against the rough grain of the wood behind him, hopes idly that the skin will catch against a stray piece of the paneling and tear. Not badly enough to call the ambulance, but enough to bleed uncomfortably and have Randi and his mother stop circling each other like feral cats and instead pay attention to him.
Their mother half-turns, her eyes flashing. Felix shrinks against the doorway, curls his body half into himself. “Miranda,” she says testily, “I’ll call you whatever I like when you’re acting like that.” She picks up the hair hanging heavy and damp on her neck and piles it on top of her head, reaching for bobby pins to secure it. She motions towards Randi, who always seems to have at least six of them in her tight curls. Randi pulls them slowly out of her hair and hands them instead to Felix, who fumbles with them and drops one on the floor. He feels certain that he will disturb something important if he bends down to pick it up; Randi will gut him like a fish, most likely.
“You’re impossible,” Randi says, stalking away from her. Her voice is still low, but crackling with a sort of electricity that Felix never quite hears when she’s talking to their father. She is speaking in a sort of voice that sounds cocky, but Felix has learned that means she wants to cry instead. Felix hasn’t learned how to speak like that yet; he still cries when he means to shout, sometimes. His voice still cracks, sounding trembling and feminine during every fight he has ever had. Felix has never seen Randi cry, but he imagines her doing it now, becoming soft and girlish in a way only he has known himself to be. It feels foreign in his mind; he has no earthly idea of what it would look like. He has only ever seen Randi angry, Randi hitting below the belt, Randi laughing, just a touch too cruelly—but there is one moment, nearly buried in the back of his mind of last May, when he’d uncurled Randi’s fingers from her palm and her eyes had looked large and liquid in her thin face. He didn’t see any tears, but instead listened to her shallow breathing, the whispered repetition of Felix, I—Felix, I—oh god, oh god—
The door bangs open at the back entrance. Their father looms in the doorway, beaming at them all, as if they had all grouped together to cheer at his arrival. Randi is frozen halfway down the hallway; the only possible movement Felix can see are her eyes, which move rapidly from their father’s presence to the ceiling, as if she’s asking God for help. Felix thinks about stretching out a hand to her and smoothing down the riotous curls at the back of her head, but their father pins him with a stare so mocking that the action dies in his head. He fingers the bobby pins nervously and watches his father travel over the expanse of Randi’s body—the shorts, rolled twice at the waistband, the curve of her shoulder peeking upwards from a too-big shirt, the fragile bra-strap resting against her clavicle.
Randi’s eyes are impossibly huge in her face. They look like the tiniest galaxies Felix has ever seen.
Like Felix, Randi bites her nails as if she has only ever wanted to devour herself.
“Negrita,” their father says into the still air, “what the hell are you wearing?” He takes one step towards them, and reaches his hand across the space to touch the pad of his finger against the small strip of Randi’s dark stomach. Felix watches his father’s nail scrape slightly against her navel; Randi jerks backwards so quickly that she nearly falls over. “Go get changed,” their father says, and Randi pivots, her arm brushing against Felix’s own body. He thinks he feels her squeeze at his wrist for just a half a second before she runs upstairs, leaving the soft scent of citrus behind her like a coda. The click of her bedroom door echoes, as does the sharp sound of her lock sliding into place.
Their father smiles at him, sharp and toothy. “Women,” he says, laughing, and heads upstairs after her. Felix tucks the bobby pins into his pocket, watching his mother scramble around the kitchen, nearly throwing dishes into the sink. She holds a hand out frantically for the pins, her hand all but twitching. “Give them to me, Felix,” she says desperately. Felix watches the lines in her face shift with agitation, wonders why she even bothers dressing up for their father. “Baby,” she says, going for sweetness and just barely missing it, “please—please—”
There is a faint purpling around her temple that has all but faded into her skin. It’s roughly the shape of Spain, which he had studied in class so many months ago and had been seen, unfortunately, by the whole grade when his mother had picked him up from school. Later, one of his classmates had asked him on the way home from school if it was true if all Latinos beat their wives, their mouth a half-moon of delight. Felix had known the words to deny this, how to make it sound apologetic the way his mother did when people spoke in Spanish to her. “No habla,” he had heard her say over and over again, in front of his father’s disdainful eye, half-mumbled in embarrassment. He had heard his mother offer halting Spanish to his father just once–he hadn’t seen his face but had, instead, pictured it curled in revulsion.
Felix fingers the pins in his pocket and watches her face go slack in the same way that Randi’s never does. Felix is more than aware of the easiness that would come with helping his mother pin up her hair while his father is upstairs, but every time he blinks he sees Randi’s contorted face behind his eyelids.
“Ma,” he says uncertainly, but it’s too late—there is, almost instantly, the long, lanky figure of his father in the kitchen with his dimples on display. Felix’s father is handsome, he knows, but in a way that eclipses everything. The sharp cheekbones of his face are almost oppressive, as is the way he reaches towards his mother’s cheek and touches a knuckle to her cheek. His mother does not flinch, but Felix can tell by the tightening of her mouth that she wants to. They have all heard the whisperings from their neighbors: even as the women giggle as his father walks by, he knows that they keep their shutters closed tight.
“Hey, my girl,” his father says easily. He combs her hair over the bruise on her forehead, dropping a kiss down beside it. His father’s eyes catalogue the faint wrinkles in her shirt, the coffee cup on the table, the dishes piling in the sink, but he stills smiles widely enough. “Hello, Felix,” he says, holding out a fist. Felix taps it gently with his own, feels oddly as if he is betraying someone. Upstairs, he hears Randi’s window softly click shut, the nearly inaudible sound of her foot pressing against the sill and allowing her to lever herself outside.
Felix feels himself beginning to sweat heavily. He places his fist back into his mouth, his front teeth sinking into the skin. His father slaps at it almost immediately; his fist slips from his lips, catching against his teeth and leaving a scrape that doesn’t bleed but instead throbs under the skin. “Felix,” his father says testily, “are you a baby?”
“No, I’m not a baby.”
His father leans in close, pinches his nostrils shut until Felix coughs, fidgeting in place but unwillingly to step away entirely. “Then,” his father says tightly, “don’t act like a fucking baby.” Felix feels, unsurprisingly, the urge to burst into tears. He’s twelve and tries not to cry so much anymore, but it’s difficult and he nearly has to bite clean through his lip to manage it.
In the heat of July, Felix feels his heart break. It makes less of a difference than he thought it would.
His mouth is open now, gasping for air, and he lets out a noise that sounds so weak that his father lets go in disgust, wiping his hand on his jeans. Before Felix pivots and runs, he sees his mother’s face at the back of the kitchen, her hair loose and her large eyes looking blank and heavy. She looks, Felix thinks, like someone who is used to this, and has grown to find a strange comfort in it all.
Outside, the air has turned even thicker with humidity. Felix has never run in his life—not in gym class, not in the one field day when his father had come to and sat awkwardly in the worn-out bleachers—but he does now. He runs with a hand on his stomach, as if he is going to give birth. He does feel like he might; a combination of exhaustion and the look of Randi’s face when their father’s nail had dipped briefly into the curve of her navel. The distaste that Felix has for himself makes him want to push himself, to punish himself for everything he does not know. It is so difficult for him to be brave, to grow his own courage, to fight the way he knows his father does. His father has never been particularly kind, has never been able to be sweet like his mother, but he isn’t afraid of anything. Felix is so certain of this, has been told time and time again about how his father fought to get them into this neighborhood with its colorful shutters and acclaimed schools, had fought other men who wanted to date his mother.
Even Randi fights sometimes, when the other boys corner him after school and pretend to play the drums on his protruding stomach, or when the girls ask him slyly if he and Randi have different fathers, if they’ve ever met them or seen them on the news. He is incapable of hitting anyone—he is so unwilling to hurt—but she still teaches him to how to throw a punch afterwards, her fingers curling around his and forcing him to make a fist.
Felix feels as if he is being torn in two different directions, as if his body will split open if he stops running. His whole body aches. He can’t remember ever feeling this awful; not even after the string of nightmares he had after Randi had nearly cried, dreams where her eyes were pecked open by the blackbirds that sat on their lawn and their father refused to pay for corrective surgery and instead put cherry pits in them. It had been bizarre; he had woken up covered in a thick layer of sweat and forced himself to walk down the hall to his sister’s room. Randi had let him sleep in her bed. But just once. Just that one time.
She had tucked his head between her jaw and neck, and whispered the fairytale she’d been covering in class called “Jack the Giant Slayer”; a more gruesome story of villains tumbling to the depths of the earth, of giants being felled by the virtuous and never returning. Any blustering villain Randi created in her stories died: there was a never a sequel in which they came back for revenge, they all stayed They had dug a pit in the yard so similar to the one Jack had made for Cormoran the giant; their father had stumbled in it one evening and bawled for their mother to come get him. They’d heard him cursing at her through the night, had seen the worn shape of their mother’s body holding out a hand for him to climb out, wedding ring glinting in the the little daylight that was left. “Bags,” he’d heard him snap, and subsequently seen his mother recoil as if she’d been slapped.
Randi had laughed from where they had been huddled in the bushes, her hand squeezing his. He hadn’t heard her laugh since then; he thinks that maybe Randi had buried her desire to laugh last May, when she had started to lock her door at all times and walked around with her fists clenched. Come to think of it, his mother doesn’t laugh either, even though she has the little lines by her mouth that indicates she used to, probably often, probably with her mouth open to show off that canyon-sized gap between her teeth. She doesn’t even laugh when their aunt Anita drives over to visit, although her body always moves like she wants to. Now, no one laughs but his father, who seems to do it almost constantly, with more than a little touch to it that makes it feel as if you aren’t quite in on the joke. It rings hollow around the house, sharp and unwelcome: he has seen Randi jump when their father strides chuckling from room to room, he has seen his mother drop plates and then collect them hurriedly, murmuring apologies even if their father is not home.
In the heat of July, Felix feels his heart break. It makes less of a difference than he thought it would.
Imaani Cain was born in California, raised in Connecticut, and currently lives in Massachusetts. She is a graduate from University of Connecticut who serves on the editorial board for Talking Writing as well as being involved in miscellaneous projects. Her work has appeared in Mannequin Haus, Gone Lawn Journal, Bird’s Thumb, and other publications.