I come to you only when invited.
You decide if you want to share your life with me. But a warning…
Once I’ve entered your door, you’ll find it very hard to sweep me out.
SECRETS take up space.
Empty houses hold their breath, waiting for life to blow back in.
I bet you didn’t know this.
It doesn’t mean a house is lifeless when no one’s home. A house can be lifeless with every chair filled. I’m not lying when I say there’s never been a house, hovel, tent, or cave that I haven’t occupied, if only for a moment.
I am there in drawers and journals, closets and emails.
I am there in hearts.
Oh, the hearts are my best hiding place.
This house was nearly empty but for the girl with her dull hair and crackling eyes.
Holding her breath.
Talon Alvarado, party of one.
The sunset was her cue to get the celebration started. She told herself she’d wait until dark but even that was a stupid deadline. She’d been waiting for her mother her whole damn life.
What’d she expect? Better to resist expectations, really. Expectations were flimsy balloons inside her chest, inflated with hope. And when they popped, they saturated her soul with disappointment. Every time.
There would be no balloons for her sixteenth birthday.
There would be music, however, and Talon told herself: if you don’t play that birthday song by The Beatles on your birthday and hop around the living room like a fool for two minutes and forty-two seconds, then you just don’t have adequate mojo.
As the sun set, the light in the house faded to darkness like it was on one gigantic dimmer switch. Talon hurried to flick on both the living room lamps and the kitchen light and peered out the window at the black moonless night – the exact shade of loneliness. Morbid thoughts had no business attending her birthday party, but life felt so dark sometimes that Talon struggled to see tomorrow.
Unable to find any birthday candles, she went to the dresser in her mom’s room to get the bumpy remnant of a melted votive, which she lit with matches from her mom’s favorite Basque bar. She carried the candle back to the kitchen and placed it in the middle of the table, then moved to the cupboard to find a saucer. The only clean one was chipped and reminded her of the flaked front tooth of one of her mother’s ex-boyfriend’s. The Hostess Cupcake she bought fit neatly in the saucer’s middle like they were made to go together.
The candle flame spat and fizzled, daring her to put it out. I’m seriously not gonna sing to myself, she thought stubbornly. But Talon did close her eyes before blowing the candle out with a hurricane force of a wish.
After nibbling off the seven squiggles of white icing, Talon ate the waxy chocolate top of her cupcake. The rest flew in the trash but not before she tongued out the crème-filling, duh. While the cupcake served its purpose, her mouth still held the aftertaste of bitterness.
As she made a couple of sandwiches, one for dinner and one for school lunch the next day, headlights tracked across the kitchen. She peeked through the dusty, dented aluminum blinds, surprised to see her mom getting out of the car, cradling a big bucket of fried chicken on her hip like a toddler. DB-18, otherwise known as Frank, carried a grocery bag in each hand. No doubt, one bag had beer in it.
“Talon! We brought dinner!” her mom, Lisa, yelled from the living room.
Talon stepped into the doorway of the kitchen, turkey sandwich in hand. “I hunted and gathered for myself.”
Lisa’s smile broke, sliding like loose soil on a hillside.
“Mom, seriously…you’ve been…gone. Why would I think you’d bring home dinner?” They stared, glared, glowered; a familiar language in which they’d both become fluent. “But I can use the leftovers for dinner tomorrow. Thanks,” Talon quickly added, then wondered why she’d thrown her mom a flotation device, especially when she’d obviously forgotten her birthday.
“It’s the thought that counts, right?” said Frank as he put the beer in the fridge. He had that same shaggy-mutt look that came standard in all her mother’s boyfriends. Talon turned her back to him. Can’t I ever have mom to myself?
Since birth, Talon had felt like one of the satellite moons in Lisa’s planetary orbit. Her childhood was an unreal and treacherous place where the yellow brick road was full of trap doors. She wanted to believe there was a home for her on the other side of the rainbow, where she had a family that really knew her and loved her anyway. She knew what she’d ask the wizard for: Love.
But then “love” was just another four-letter word.
Under the harsh fluorescent kitchen light, her mom’s eyes were fogged and rimmed with red, as if she’d been crying, or smoking weed—probably both. “Sure you don’t want some?” Lisa asked as she and DB-18 seated themselves at the small flea-market table now crowded with unpaid bills, empty glasses, chicken, bland cobs of corn, doughy biscuits, and beer. Talon reached for a drumstick, knowing it was a greasy peace offering after their fight about how there was never enough food in the house.
A fly landed on the table next to the chicken and Frank deftly flipped a mason jar over it.
“Swift, grasshopper,” Lisa joked, and they giggled all stupid like the kids at school.
That fly had to be frustrated, banging itself against the glass. Talon flipped the jar and freed the fly because she couldn’t stand the sound. Its droning and tapping was too close to the noise in her own head.
Frank shrugged and bit into his extra crispy as Talon hopped onto the counter, mulling over a casual way to ask her mother something important. She had one thing on the brain: the essay contest at school. The theme was Family, which was seriously ironic.
“Soooo, there’s this writing assignment at school about, um, family…” No one looked up. She swallowed a salty chunk of chicken and forged ahead. “…and since I know nothing about ours, I thought maybe you could help me out?” Talon pinched her knees to stop her jumpy legs from bouncing against the cabinet.
Pausing mid-bite, Lisa glanced at Frank, their eyes holding for a split second. The silent, intimate conversation between them made jealousy nip at Talon’s heart. When her mom finally looked at her, Talon hoped a miracle was about to occur, that Lisa was actually going to share something. Usually when she tried to pry info from her mom, the “Great Wall of Lisa” rose up, impenetrable.
“Just make something up. I’m sure it’ll be more interesting than anything I could tell you. As long as it’s written well, they’ll never know the difference.”
Yup, the Great Wall was as sturdy as ever.
The genealogy of Secret: Evasion, a close relative of mine. Also related: Lie. Ours is a mad, mad family. We’d invite you to dinner but chances are, you’re already seated at the table with napkins under your chins.
Something sparked inside Talon, as though she had a lighter wedged in her chest, ready to ignite with the slightest friction. “I’m not asking for your entire life story here. Just give me something, anything. In the interest of scholastic achievement?” She wasn’t going to give up that easily.
Lisa slowly wiped her hands on the stinky moist-towelette and sighed. “Okay. When I was little, I had a pet bunny that I adored.”
DB-18 smiled and touched her arm. “You did? I had a lizard named Private Property.”
“What? Who names their lizard Private Property?” Mom asked, laughing.
“Someone who doesn’t want his four brothers to touch it.”
The two stoners tittered and ate, oblivious to Talon still waiting for a real answer.
“Seriously? That’s it?”
“A bunny? It astounds me how you opened up. Let me just go and get started on my in-depth, revealing essay about my mom’s pet rabbit!”
“Trust me, Talon, you do not want to hear about your relatives.”
Talon’s nostrils flared, bullish. “Here’s what’s wrong with that statement: A) The words trust me, and B) you don’t know what I want!”
“I am not going to do this with you right now,” Lisa said, scooting from the table.
“Yeah, cause clearly it’s on your agenda to do this with me some other time!”
“Ladies—” Frank began, holding up a beer and a chicken wing, like he’d been caught in a white-trash stickup.
“Shut right up, boyfriend.”
“Hey! That’s enough of your mouth!” Lisa’s cheeks were the color of a tomato, her eyes apologetic to Frank.
Tossing her half-eaten drumstick into the trash, Talon jumped off the counter and flew to her room, slamming the door with a satisfying thud. Don’t I have the right to ask questions? Don’t I have the right to answers? Restless, frustrated, a fly in a jar, she flopped herself into the metal fold-up chair at her desk. The computer droned to life and she stared at the blank essay document where she was supposed to *insert brilliance here. Naturally, she decided that writing her best friend an email to bitch about her mom was a better use of her time, only this is what she saw when she opened her email:
You don’t know me. I’m a stranger to you, but that’s my fault. Family can be like that, hiding from each other as a way to hide from ourselves. Stupid, I know. I’m done with that. I want us to know each other.
I call this a “Circle Journal.” The idea is that it circulates between us while we have a long, overdue conversation. I like the idea of that, don’t you?
Your mom and I haven’t spoken for years. I’m sure if she knew about this, she’d try to stop it. But I’m willing to chance it if it means I’ll get to know you after all this time. I can’t believe how much of your life I’ve missed.
If you want to write back, and I hope you do, then here are the rules…THERE ARE NO RULES. You can tell me or ask me anything you want. I promise to do the same. I’m sure we both have so many questions we want answered.
It’s probably best to keep these emails between us. I figure you’re old enough, you can decide for yourself. Just think about it. I’d like to know you before it’s too late.
Who in Hell’s half-acre was Aunt T? And why was she sending some weird, cryptic email? Talon didn’t get random e-mails from people she didn’t know. She hardly got random emails from people she did know.
Aunt T was right, Talon had never heard of her. Not surprising. Mom liked to keep those little nuggets of information to herself—like who Talon’s real father was or why they seemed to have no family whatsoever—so it didn’t surprise her that her mom never mentioned a sister. She wondered what her mom did to screw up that relationship, too.
The lady said she wanted their communiqué to be private, which stoked Talon’s healthy suspicion. Come to think of it, how did she even know Aunt T was who she said she was? The email could’ve been from anybody. Talon took a deep breath to unclench her stomach.
She didn’t do vulnerable.
As she exhaled, she had to admit, it gave her a rush to think of corresponding with her mom’s sister on the sly. Spilling her secrets to a total stranger was not an option, mostly because she didn’t spill her secrets.
Spill, jab, fling, dangle, or hide. I’m a multi-functional tool.
Mom had secrets, too.
Well, who doesn’t?
If the lady really was her aunt, then maybe she’d reveal something, anything. In Talon’s quest to be as different from her mother as humanly possible, it would help to have some details – the worst potholes were the ones you didn’t see coming.
Suddenly the idea of talking with this Aunt T person seemed pretty appealing.
But first, verification.
Talon’s fingers hovered over the keyboard for a moment before plunging down.
Dear Aunt T,
Pardon my suspicious nature, but I’ve learned over the years to be wary of pretty much everybody. How do I know this isn’t some prank by a punk at school with no life and nothing better to do than to try and infiltrate mine? How do I know you aren’t a nutball stalker with bad intentions? How did you get my email address?
I need some kind of proof.