As a treat for my readers, here is the first three scenes from my in-progress novel, Never Alone, as they currently stand. Enjoy!
CN abusive relationship, abusive parenting.
Tina closed the blinds in her bedroom, shutting out the mid-evening Miami sun. The late April rays had a habit of being at eye level around this time of day, distinctly unpleasant. She double-checked her bedroom door, reassured that she had indeed locked it, and turned off her phone, just in case. She gave one more look at her laptop, on which a digital poetry magazine was open, and closed it as well, listening to the automatic shutdown sequence. She reached into her closet, hesitating as she looked back at the heap of clothing on the bedroom floor behind her. She sighed heavily and reached around the boxes of old papers and toys at the bottom, to the old shoebox she had hidden there. She pulled it out and placed it on her bed, all as silently as she could, resenting the judgemental eyes of the family photos on the walls all around her. Her smile in every one of them was obviously forced, which never seemed to register to the others. She wondered if they preferred it that way. They certainly never encouraged her to be genuinely happy. Her hands were shaking as she lifted the box’s lid.
The tangle of emotions Tina felt every time she interacted with this box was more than she knew how to process. There was shame and utter, quavering terror, but there was also desire, and determination, and hopeless longing. When it drew her, in her times of worry and crisis, there was little she could do to stop herself, no matter how much she protested on the inside. She lifted the cropped shirt inside and felt its soft white fabric, each moment both beautiful and painful. Without thinking, she put it on, struggling a bit with its halter neck. She followed with the paneled miniskirt that always lay under the top in this box, sliding it up her legs and bristling at how it caught on the hair.
The fit was always awkward. The top and skirt together left an intentional swath of midriff exposed, from the middle of her waist to a few centimeters below her navel, her dark skin and hair contrasting against the light fabric. It was an eye-catching, provocative outfit, and the skirt’s hemline and top’s flirtatious teardrop cutout made sure of that impression. She had chosen these two pieces for their sex appeal, drawn to the idea of herself in them, but her body refused to fulfill that vision. The skirt’s slightly stiff fabric did what it could to enhance her too-straight hips, but it could not create from nothing the endowments that Tina did not have, or fully conceal the one she did. Tina adjusted the top, moving the cutout to center it over her breasts. Or where they would be, she thought wistfully. Her upper torso offered little of the curvature this top expected and it made the rest hang oddly. The effect intensified the width of her shoulders, what some in her life called “powerful” and which she found oppressive.
A pulse of empathic warmth rubbed against Tina’s mind. From behind her headboard, a black worm a little thicker than Tina’s index finger slithered onto the bed, its shiny skin leaving no trail. Its three jaws quivered. There were no words, yet she understood creature’s meaning.
“I…feel…” Tina began, watching the worm in the mirror, but the rest of the words didn’t come. She stood facing the mirror, visibly shaking, her eyes darting between the blinds, the photos, and the door. “I’ve already picked a name, and bought these clothes, and…I’m so scared.” She fussed with the hem of her skirt. “I’m scared, Xué. I’m scared of what this will mean. I’m scared of what they’ll do when they find out and I’m scared of what will happen to me if I don’t tell them.”
Xué offered reassurance, psychic pressure on Tina’s heart to ground her.
“Dairón!” a voice called out from elsewhere in the house, shocking the pair to action. “¡La comida está hecha! ¡Vamos a comer!”
“¡Un momentito, Mami!” Tina shouted back as she hurriedly removed the top and skirt and threw them back in the box. Xué pulled at them with its jaws in a clumsy attempt at folding while Tina rushed to put on the jeans and t-shirt, and then the beaten-up sneakers that had, a year ago, come in that box. Tina seized the box and rushed it back to its closet hiding place, stubbing her toe and catching her arm on the closet latch in the process. The scratch was superficial, but her mother would surely notice it. Xué slid across the floor and up Tina’s leg, emerging through her sleeve onto the scratch. The worm gently opened its jaws and pressed its face against Tina’s arm, injecting warmth. The scratch closed itself, vanishing along with the bruise on Tina’s toe, leaving only a few spots of blood Tina could wipe away. With a quizzical head tilt, it made Tina smile. Xué darted down again, wrapping itself around Tina’s calf. Tina sighed heavily, unlocked the door, and left her room. Immediately, the delicious smell of a favorite food filled the hallway. When she arrived in the dining room, her mother was ladling soup into bowls for herself, Tina, and Tina’s father.
“Mmmm, oxtail,” Tina said as she accepted the bowl handed to her and sat down. Tina’s mother took her seat as well, and the three bowed their heads in prayer for a moment before eating. It wasn’t long before Tina’s father began speaking.
“I wish you’d cut your hair, Dairón.”
Tina didn’t answer, and her movements became stiff and slow. Her father’s tone grew angry.
“Answer me when I talk to you, Dairón.”
“Yes, Papi,” Tina answered, not looking up from her soup. My name is Tina Curbelo, her thoughts bellowed. My name is Tina Curbelo.
“You should care more about what you look like. You’re always such a mess, it’s like you don’t care what anyone thinks of us.”
“Yes, Papi,” Tina answered again, slowly stirring her soup instead of eating it. It’s wonderful and I don’t even want it anymore. Xué squeezed her calf as comfort, to little avail.
“You don’t care what anyone thinks of us?” Tina’s father responded, voice rising.
“No, Papi,” Tina responded, giving up on the soup and putting her hands on her lap.
“Then show us you care. Looking like that is no way to be a man.”
Imagine that. “Yes, Papi.” It was all Tina could do to stay focused enough on the conversation to know when to switch between the two lines, fighting dissociation the whole way.
The three sat in silence for a while, and Tina half-heartedly resumed eating.
“Are you looking forward to seeing your cousins tomorrow?” Tina’s mother asked.
“Yes, Mami,” Tina answered, trying to hide the tiredness that thought made her feel. She didn’t have to fight away memories of Miguel, Julián, and José. They came weighed down with such exhaustion that they seemed to give up on their way into her mind. She couldn’t even muster enough enthusiasm to hate them. At least Arlén would also be there.
“It’ll be good to spend time with them. It’s important to keep the family together.” Tina’s mother pulled her meat apart, smiling at its tenderness.
“The most important thing there is,” Tina’s father interjected. “You could learn a lot from your cousins.”
Tina’s heart felt like it was in a vise. She could push away most of what her parents told her every night, but every time they compared her to those three boys, they wounded her. She would never be like them. She promised herself that much, over and over. At least Arlén would be there. At least Arlén would be there.
“Yes, Papi,” she intoned emptily. She forced down another bite.
“Promise me you’ll spend time with them,” her mother insisted.
“Yes, Mami,” Tina recited, eyes still downcast. Her seeping dread made her limbs heavy and raising them back to her food was almost as much of a trial as the conversation.
“Good,” Tina’s mother answered. The three passed the rest of the meal in silence, to Tina’s relief. She tried not to think about how impossible telling them about herself would probably be. She avoided her parents’ gazes, not noticing the suspicious looks they gave her. Afterward, she returned to her room and distracted herself on the Internet until the urge to sleep took her. Under the covers, Xué folded itself on her chest like a cat, emitting comfort in her direction until she settled into a fitful sleep.
The doorbell jolted Maduenu out of her own thoughts. In moments, she was at the door with the rest of her family, welcoming the latest arrival into the family dinner party. It was her older sister Yemisi, the last of her three siblings to join them. The smell of onions and thyme lingering on her polo shirt didn’t stand out against the fragrant meal her father had been in the process of laying out on the long family table, but her tight bun was overly formal in this company. Maduenu’s own long, thin braids, black dress, and tights fit better into the milieu, even if Maduenu herself never felt like she herself did.
“Yemmy!” their oldest sister called out, the first to approach the new arrival with a hug as the others lined up in greeting.
“It’s good to see you too, Maddie, Tayo, Ada,” Yemisi greeted, tightly embracing each of her siblings.
“Glad you could make it,” her father greeted, still wearing oven mitts.
“It’s good to be here,” she responded, hugging him as well. She smelled the air, full of the meal to come. “The extra shifts paid off.”
“We’re glad you managed to get the night off.” Her mother took her turn in Yemisi’s arms. “It’s not the same without you.”
As Yemisi pulled out of her mother’s embrace, she asked, “How’s Grandpa Curtis?”
“Oh, you know. His knees aren’t what they used to be, so he’s taking most of his meals at the recliner. Lika’s been keeping him company,” their mother answered. “We’ll join him there after dinner.”
Maduenu returned to the table, watching the last of the setup as Yemisi visited their grandfather and her daughter in the next room. The laid-out spread of barbecued ribs, savory cornbread still in its cast-iron pan, corn on the cob, and salad with Italian dressing didn’t hold her attention nearly as much as the affectionate moment the three of them shared, and she sighed quietly. The others settled into their seats, Yemisi bringing her daughter into a highchair next to her. Before anything else, the family took each other’s hands and bowed their heads in silence, thoughts directed at the altar in the corner behind the head of the table on which, among other sacred objects, were a painting of the Orishas and the favored mementos of three grandparents: a pocket watch, a mason’s hammer, and a mortar and pestle. Silent prayer concluded, the family began reaching and passing food between them, laughing as they got in each other’s way until each plate was full.
“Mmmm, I missed that,” Ada let out as she took the first bite of the ribs. “I tell you, if school lunches were anything like this, no one would ever skip school.”
“If school lunches were like this, no one would be awake after one PM, Ada,” their mother joked, setting the room laughing again.
« It’s something, isn’t it? » the voice in Maduenu’s head commented, snide and venomous. Maduenu froze, and the voice darkened, demanding, « Natural. Natural. »
“Pass the salad,” Maduenu requested, all her effort devoted to keeping her voice level, and it came to her. “Thanks.”
« They hear you, but they don’t see you, » the voice continued. « not like I do. »
“How’s the apprenticeship coming, Tayo?” Yemisi asked, and the young man at the other end of the table looked up from his corn.
“Really well, sis,” he answered. “Mr. D’Aristi’s going to show me basic electrical work next week, now that I’m good at hanging drywall. I’ll be a one-man crew yet.”
“Fantastic! I’m glad you’re getting so much out of this. That’s one thing the world won’t ever stop needing: homes, and people who can build them.”
“Thanks,” Tayo answered, smiling. “Any luck getting an architect job?”
Yemisi sighed. “Not yet, since the internship. But I might be done making pot au feu and cleaning raclettes real soon. I’ve got an audition piece I’m working on that I feel good about. If all goes well, I’ll get an interview out of it and then design the next piece of the Newark skyline before you know it.”
« I told you to stay out of my head when I’m busy, Harry, » Maduenu responded in her mind, her mental voice quavering. She fussed with a folded piece of paper she’d been holding under the table.
The whole table cheered, Maduenu’s silence unnoticed: “Architect Yemmy! Architect Yemmy!”
« Did you? I must not have heard you over how much you actually want me around. » Harry drew telepathic fingers across Maduenu’s mind, setting her on edge all over again. « You’d be so lonely without me. Unseen, and unknown. »
“We’ll have to all get together again to celebrate once you’re in!” Maddie suggested, enthusiasm as much about drowning out Harold’s intrusion as about Yemisi’s impending professional success, an awkward smile trying to make the suggestion a half-joke.
“Oh, of course,” her father answered. “We have to celebrate.”
“Thanks,” Yemisi added, blushing. “Here’s hoping it’s soon.”
« Until next time, my love, » Harry cooed. « We will always find each other. Always. » Maduenu felt the intruder depart from her mind, and finally relaxed a little. Looking around, she observed, as usual, that none of her assembled relatives realized anything had happened. He’s right, she thought with a sigh. They don’t see me. She never could decide whether that invisibility meant safety from whatever they might think of her mental visitor, or just more cover for him.
The conversation turned toward Adaobi’s garden and her efforts to deal with a scale insect attack. The baby, only a little food-soiled, began to fuss, a signal Yemisi knew meant bedtime was imminent. Yemisi listened attentively while keeping an eye on her daughter, but Maduenu interrupted her with a furtive pass of folded paper. Yemisi nodded, accepting the gift of Maduenu’s poetry for review. The younger sister reminisced about how this pattern had started to level out the anxiety Harold’s behavior could induce: They don’t really get it, Yemmy. They think it’s fun and cute and a nice hobby, but…it’s more than that, to me. Chemical engineering school might be my job, but this…it’s a reflex. I have to get it out and make it beautiful, or it’ll rip its way out of me. They don’t get it, but…you do.
Maduenu looked away now, a mix of embarrassment and the desire to be invisible. Only Yemisi noticed, the familiarity of that image too deep to miss and too heartbreaking to ignore.
“I think it’s time for dessert!” Maduenu’s mother exclaimed. As she went to the kitchen to retrieve it, Yemisi got up as well, sliding a caring hand across Maduenu’s shoulders as she announced, “I should get Anwulika ready for bed. I think she’s done for the night.” Maduenu got up as well, following Yemisi into the bedroom where Yemisi’s daughter slept.
“I’ve never met such a contented baby,” Yemisi whispered to her sister as she wiped Anwulika’s face clean and sat down to help her burp before bed. “I helped take care of you and Tayo, I’ve babysat for the neighbors and…none of you could sleep through the night quite like her. I don’t understand it.”
Maduenu smiled, not sure what to do with her hands. She remained standing opposite Yemisi.
“I read her your poetry every night, you know. ‘Across Oshun,’ ‘Tyrell’s Epic,’ ‘Up There,’ ‘The Venus of Rutgers,’ ‘A World Just for Us,’ something you’ve shown me, every night I can.”
Maduenu began to tear up, walls not holding the emotions she was usually so good at hiding.
“She loves it. Most nights, she fights to stay awake until she hears one, even if I have a late shift.” Anwulika burped, and Yemisi put her in the crib, where she smiled placidly and struggled to keep her tired eyes open. “Maybe nobody knows you, yet, but you’ve got a fan.”
Maduenu threw her arms around her sister, and Yemisi returned the hug.
“Never stop. If there’s anything life has taught me, it’s that work and passion don’t have to be the same thing, as long as you never lose sight of that passion. Sometimes, it’s even better when that passion is something you come home to, instead of leaving it at the office.”
Maduenu hugged her tighter.
“School’s full of people. It’ll take a while, but you’ll find someone who gets you, and can see what you’re putting out there and how valuable it is. In the end, we’re never alone.”
The hug continued for a few more minutes. Maduenu let go and made for the bathroom while Yemisi read to her daughter and then returned to the table. There was just enough red velvet cake for Yemisi and Maduenu to claim the last slices, after delivering one to Curtis, and they didn’t savor the rich dessert for long. In the next room, Curtis began humming the first few bars of the family’s favorite song. They all looked at each other, and then migrated en masse to the living room, Maduenu’s father taking the first few lines before the others joined in for the rest:
“Sittin’ in the morning sun / I’ll be sittin’ when the evening comes / Watching the ships roll in / Then I watch them roll away again, yeah…”
Curtis’s voice rose in power and intensity, until the other six let him have the last refrain to himself: “I’m just gon’ sit at the dock of a bay / Watchin’ the tide roll away, ooh / Sittin’ on the dock of the bay / Wastin’ time…”
All six of them closed in around him in affection afterward.
It was a few minutes before the group disengaged and moved to clear the table and begin washing dishes. Maduenu did what she could to assist, but with as many people around as there were, it was clear that cleanup was overstaffed. She and Yemisi soon stepped out, Yemisi heading for the back door, Maduenu to her room upstairs.
Maduenu collapsed on her bed, checking the edges of her mind for Harold Wells and finding them mercifully empty. When she closed her eyes, a quiet snapping noise and mild ozone smell wafted across the room to her. She raised an eyebrow, sitting up and facing the direction from which they seemed to come. She felt a quick wave of reassurance, familiar yet distinctly inhuman. Part of her wanted to run, this new mental caller reminding her too much of the one who still overwhelmed her with his visits, but this presence came with no words and withdrew itself in the face of her fear, and she felt safer for its discretion. She thought curiosity in its direction, and something shifted from behind her dresser. From underneath, a thick, muscular worm pulsed forward, slow and powerful, longer than Maduenu’s arm and about as thick. It moved like a giant earthworm, but it was covered in thin ferret-like hair that mostly concealed the muscle contractions beneath. The front of its body, just behind its softly tapered head, bore two large forward-directed bumps, and it had no visible eyes. She stared at this creature, first in silent terror, then in confusion and interest as it continued its waves of reassurance. In a minute, it made it to her, remaining on the floor and seeming to invite her downward with a movement of its head. Small sparks flickered across its two forehead bumps, making the clicking noise she had heard earlier. In spite of herself, Maduenu knelt to meet this creature, staring in wide-eyed awe, its presence feeling like a piece of herself whose former absence she was rapidly forgetting. Instinctively, she began petting it, its sparks taking on a contented hum as her fingers stroked the space between its head bumps, its hair puffing and relaxing. They stayed like that for a while before she spoke to it. She asked the obvious question.
“What are you?”
She received only a wave of confusion in answer.
She smiled. “It’s okay. I don’t know what I am, either.”
The creature nuzzled her hand, offering more empathic comfort. Being scared would have made sense, but this moment felt too peaceful to let fear ruin it. She could grow fond of this being. Her next thought was as strange as it was instinctive.
“Do you want to hear a poem?” she asked it, unfolding the paper again. “It’s the one I showed my sister.” It responded in the empathic affirmative, and she began:
“The Lonely Crawl
Creeping thing, your many legs aflutter
I see you far away, scuttling in the light
But you carve a lambent path for me
That my many arms can touch yours
And with these cold fingers
Know what thoughts pass through your electric life
And into mine.”
The strange worm wrapped around her, gently squeezing in a protective embrace, and she smiled. In this moment of contentment, she could forget her alienation and, for the first time in days, not think about the uneasy, beautiful rollercoaster of Harold Wells. She didn’t notice the spider-like creature the size of a sparrow outside her window, watching her with a single oversized eye.
Ehani squared her stance, checking it in her mirror. She wore a green tank top and black exercise shorts, her long brown hair held out of her brown face with a black scrunchie. She held the wooden kukri knife in two hands, its pronounced curve directed forward. She went through the movements of the practice drill, strong and purposeful despite her rail-thin frame: upward slash to the right, a chop to the same place, a two-handed slice downward, the same to the left, each with a step forward. She alternated hands, trying not to favor her usual left. Without a training dummy, it was hard to know how powerful her efforts really were, but with each, she recited the instruction she recalled from her father’s stories: Every strike a decapitation. Every strike a decapitation. Every strike a decapitation…
“Ehani!” a voice called from a few rooms over.
Ehani instantly hurled the wooden knife into the nearby laundry basket before answering. She had been caught before, but not this time. “Yes, Bua?”
“Our dinner is ready. Would you mind getting it from the kebab place down the street?”
“Right away, Bua,” she answered, taking her purse and a jacket and heading to the door.
It was a pleasant enough day in Toronto, all told. It had been raining, typical of spring, but today was dry and the sun even peeked through the clouds. Ehani was on edge, and her fears soon materialized. Just ahead of her path, a crowd of young men exited a pub. Oh no. Not them again. She ducked into a side street to avoid them, but they were upon her in moments, crowding her against a wall.
“The waif returns!” the tallest of them hooted.
“Which one is this, Seb?” a shorter one asked. “The one that thinks she can fight, or the one that thinks she can run?”
“It doesn’t matter,” Seb pronounced. “She’s going to come quietly either way, isn’t she?” He smirked. “We’re having a party and she’s invited.” He stepped closer to her, pressing his advantage. Ehani saw an opening. She drove her knee into his groin as hard as she could, feeling her hip shift from the impact. He gasped and winced, but didn’t back off, instead driving his fist into the wall next to her head. “Jim, Kyle, Derek? This one needs to be taught a lesson.”
As the other men approached, a siren blared behind them, and Ehani’s attackers scattered. The police car pulled away afterward, neither following them nor stopping to help her. Typical, she thought. She caught her breath and kept going. The order was ready and waiting for her, labeled with the surname “BISTA” in large print. As she carried it home, she pictured the kukri in her other hand, and took a few imaginary swings when her thoughts got too dark. As she walked into her house, she spotted her father seated at the dining room table, the wooden practice blade in front of him. She had indeed been caught.
“Chori, we’ve talked about this,” he spoke in lieu of a greeting.
Ehani put the bag of food on the table and stood silently, facing her father.
“I’ve put the Gurkha behind me,” he intoned. “It was a hard life, and I’m finished with it. I didn’t want that life for a son, and I certainly don’t want it for my daughter. That’s no life for a woman.”
“It’s a hobby, Bua,” Ehani answered, at least as much exasperated as worried.
“It is not,” he insisted as he stood.
“Can’t it be a hobby?” Ehani raised an eyebrow but thought better of putting her hand on her hip. “They sell them online, you know. It’s not just trained Gurkhas who can have them.”
“You will respect our traditions, Chori,” he answered with finality, picking up the training blade. “And I’m not leaving this where you can find it again. Focus on your studies and finding a husband. Fighting should not be part of your life.”
Ehani and her father locked eyes, each testing the other’s resolve, Ehani privately raging, it already is. When the tension became too much to bear, he announced, “Let’s eat.” The two of them ate their Lebanese chicken skewers and wraps in unaccustomed silence, and then Ehani left the table with a glass of water. She closed her bedroom door behind her and sighed heavily. She was halfway through her glass when a wave of shivers overtook her, as though something were lightly drawing its fingers across her mind.
“Who’s there?” she whispered.
A wave of worry, almost cute. Ehani smiled, and the unfinished thought that went with it was enough for this mental visitor. With a quiet scuttling sound, a creature like a bright green spiny beetle a bit smaller than Ehani’s fist walked out of her closet, and Ehani shot to her feet and ran backward in turn. Her thoughts raced—huge bug huge bug HUGE BUG—but the creature stayed put, a gentle wave of calm issuing from it. Ehani blinked in disbelief, her muscles relaxing.
The creature projected affirmation.
“I don’t know what you are, but I feel like…you’ve been around for longer than just now.”
The creature again projected affirmation.
You’re no ordinary insect.
It bobbed up and down as if to nod.
I can feel your feelings. And you can hear my thoughts.
It had to be a giant insect. Ehani sighed. Why me?
This set of feelings was more complicated: kinship, warmth, and…potential?
That’s very kind of you. Ehani smiled and approached. The large insect pointed at her left hand, and with some hesitation, she extended it. The creature gently walked onto it and wrapped its legs around her palm and wrist like elaborate jewelry. With a wave that felt like perseverance and the will to succeed, it secreted a green and transparent blade that fit securely in Ehani’s hand, curved and familiar, improbably larger than its own body. Ehani closed her hands around her new kukri, and grinned.
It’s beautiful, she thought, and felt the creature’s excitement as response. This has to be a dream. But the translucent knife felt appropriately weighty, gleaming in the room lights as she moved. She stood to go through the training drill, reciting her instruction, every strike a decapitation. It felt different from the training blade, both heavier and faster. The blade itself didn’t feel like metal, but was slick and shiny, akin to glass, and the handle was made of a similar but opaque material. Almost like chitin, she thought. She looked at her new companion, disgust at its arthropod body waning against her fascination and curiosity, and whispered to it, “You made this for me?”
The creature responded with a pulse of affirmation and an enthusiastic full-body nod.
Ehani spun the blade in her hand and passed it to the right, going through the attack sequence again. As she went through the motions, she asked the creature with her thoughts, Do you have a name?
This emotion was a little sad, a definite negation.
The large insect almost jumped up and down with delight.
Gainekira it is.
Ehani walked to her bedroom window and looked outside, at the last of the sunset, pensive.
The kukri isn’t just a weapon. It’s a tool. She looked at the knife in her hand. It’s good for chopping wood and other things an aspiring tropical botanist might need to do. She paused. It’s always part of a set of three, with two smaller knives to keep it honed and to do things that the kukri can’t do.
Gainekira responded with a pulse of reassurance.
Thank you. It’s good to know I’m not alone.