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Maria awakened, gasping for air. The murderous strife was prevalent in her visions, echoing throughout the channels of her mind. It was dark. Too dark. Too dark to see any light, as she nervously thumbed the light switch, switching it and striking it, back and forth, to turn on and open the heavens. She needed a sanctuary to calm these fears, to rock her back and forth like her mother had when she was a child. But she felt alone. And the power was out—again.
Please, Lord, let me leave this place. Let me find a home, a place where I belong.
When Maria got off at the bus stop, she didn’t hurry towards her house like she always did. She used to fear the streets. There were strange people walking these deteriorating cement blocks. But today was different. Never before had she carefully surveyed her surroundings. The broken glass and pieces of burned wood that littered the walkways of the city were all anyone had to see to know where she lived.
There once was a large cherry tree in her backyard. The tree was one of few left, and any life that existed in its hollowed crevices sucked the tree’s fruits. It made everything within its reach happier. It allowed them to survive. But when lightning struck it down, that was the end of peace and innocence, and fires and broken glass became normal.
Lord, there’s nothing left for me here. The people are dying, and I’ll only die too.
“Maria.” Papa watched her face. She became lost her in thoughts again and had forgotten the time and place.
“Sorry,” Maria stared down at her plate. Rice and beans, the cheapest food anyone could afford. It was unappetizing. She didn’t want it anymore. “I can’t eat.”
She waited for her father’s response. When she looked up, she saw his furrowed brow. She knew better and picked up the fork. The metal was ice-cold. She heard the shouting of voices and scream of a car outside.
“Are you packed?”
Maria nodded but avoided the resentment hovering in the corners of his eyes.
Maria got up and started clearing the plates before them. She felt his bold stare and moved quickly.
“You know this place will never leave you.”
The white china slipped out of her hand and shattered over the dirtied floor.
“You’ve made a mess by doing this.”
She frantically picked up the pieces, disregarding the sharp edges. The once shiny intricate roses decorating the circumference looked bleak in these jagged pieces.
“Some scars just never fade.”
And her hands bled, the rich crimson staining the dirtied floor below.
I’m leaving behind the place where I was raised, and I’ll never forget it. But I know there’s more out there. Oh, help me find my way.
It was twelve o’clock, and hazy sunlight shone on the porch of old Joe. Maria walked up the creaking steps and banged the knocker. The door was a newly painted, sunflower gold. She banged again over the reverberating engines of the cars, the blasting music, and the yelling people.
She observed the house, an architectural duplicate of her own. It lacked a pointed iron fence. It lacked the prison bars that covered every bottom window of almost every other house she had seen. There was only corkscrew barbed-wire over the back alley door. She banged again.
“Maria.” He smiled as he opened the door, his aged face cracked with wrinkles but was nevertheless healthily colored with late summer sun. He was wearing the same collared brown shirt, with Joseph inscribed in gold thread across the chest pocket.
“Hi, Joe.” She returned his smile. “Thank you for inviting me to lunch.”
“I’m glad to hav’ya. Wanted to see ya before you go.” He beckoned her in. She noted the dusty stairwell in the entrance hall with old framed photographs aligned to each step on the wall. They walked past it, and she followed him into the white kitchen.
A stench of indistinguishable spice permeated the air. She peered over the stove and noticed the oozing red tomato source, bubbling from the flame beneath. Maria nodded and said carefully, “It smells good.”
She sat down at the table, as Joe watched over the boiling pots.
“So how many metals?” Joe was referencing her swimming titles. He asked her every time he saw her.
“Eighteen?” he feigned surprise and smiled. It was a reason for him to give her praise. “You make us real proud. Gonna be an educated girl n’ all.”
Maria stared at the tablecloth before her, a once bleached cloth faded into a dusty cream color. Joe’s home smelled of oldness and of deteriorated memories. She tried to smile.
“Joe, how long have you lived in this house?”
“Since I was twenty-three and moved in with my honey, Betty.”
He placed a bowl before her of curled macaroni in the red sauce. She saw his wrinkled and scarred hands. She wondered if the cuts in her hands would make the same marks.
“What was it like then?”
“Well,” he paused as he thought. “It was real nice here on the high end of town. Only the rich made it here.”
She bit her lip. “And you never wanted to leave after what it’s become?”
He laughed and shook his head vehemently. “This is my home.”
Maybe I’ll come back one
day and see what it’s become. Maybe I can restore it and make it a home. Or maybe I can help others break free of the cycle and get out too.
Maria stood before the terminal, an illuminated foreign place, with clean walls and floors, bleached white and waxed to perfection. Strange people walked past her and when she stared at them, they looked back. She usually never made eye contact with people.
When she found her seat in the plane, she looked all about her, trying to remember as much as she could about the intricacies of this new place.
The man next to her tapped her on the shoulder.
“Hey, are you the kid that won eighteen swimming titles?”
Maria stared at him. Everyone back home knew her. She was the girl that had found a way out. But this time it was different. It was not kind Joe, who had been her neighbor her whole life. It was not her father or any of the others who resented her and what she did—and who she was to become. It was one of these new people—a stranger outside the realm she had known or she thought had known her.
“Wow, congrats. I knew I recognized you from the paper.”
“Thank you,” Maria said with a smile.
“Gotta scholarship to school, right?”
“That’s great. Bet you’re glad to leave this city.”
As the plane took off, Maria felt her body ascend. She nodded with agreement. Soon, the heaviness of the earth was gone. She closed her eyes and breathed. The lids of her eyes brought her darkness. But this darkness had no nightmares. They were gone.
And I only want to thank you for giving me a reason to find who I am.