Wild Child part two

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Wild Child part two

On the outskirts of town stands the quasi-dilapidated building, painted in a faded and peeling shade of beige. The right wall is covered in various works of graffiti, giving a much-needed pop of color to the lackluster landscape in front of her. 

She steps out of her car, the door shutting behind her with a bang that echoes into the empty silence. She peers up at the once bright red letters on the sign above the smudged glass door. “Martin’s Grocery Emporium,” they read–if she squints hard enough. 

Like most things in this town, she’s come to realize, it’s made out to sound far more exciting than it really was. 

She dreads the interaction that awaits her when she steps inside, but she’s barely eaten in the last twenty-four hours, and she doesn’t want to end up in the inevitable situation of having to ask for food as soon as— She cuts the thought off because it’s easier to pretend she’s not headed where she is. 

Maybe he won’t recognize her, she thinks, as she pushes open the glass door, and the hanging bells gently tinkle. She keeps her head down, all the way past the register, until she’s lost in the aisles. As soon as she looks back up, she’s plunged into an aching whirlwind of memories. 

Running through those very doors, thoughts and intentions focused only on the slushy machine and the blue raspberry that will turn her tongue blue in moments. Evenings filling up a cart with all the junk food items she can find, preparing for a night of watching movies. Trembling hands, reaching for the pregnancy test, nausea raging through her, and not just because of the potential pregnancy. 

She’s twenty, and the baby won’t stop crying, she hasn’t slept in thirty-six hours, her mother’s at work, and Julian ran out to get groceries. She’s alone, and she can’t do it anymore. She wasn’t cut out for this. She never planned this. 

She can’t stop thinking those same thoughts on repeat—every day for ten months. The baby’s screams reach another volume, and she bites back tears before rushing over to the crib. 

“Luna, please stop. Please stop crying.” She’s sobbing herself now, and she’s not sure when that started. She rocks the baby back and forth, but there’s no respite from the onslaught of tears. She can’t blame the poor child; she wouldn’t be motivated to calm down either if the person calming her was crying herself. 

She hears the jingle of keys and the back door shut and feels a moment of relief. Julian enters the room, carrying a few bags of groceries. He takes in the scene for a split second before dashing over to rescue them both. In his arms, Luna stops crying within moments.

It hurts—the fact that she can’t even calm her own child. She sinks into the couch, arms clenched around her stomach, and as hard as she tries, she can’t hold back the tears.

Holding the baby in one arm, Julian gently settles beside her. His free arm wraps around her, and she leans into him, wetting his shirt with her mess of tears. She doesn’t need to say anything; he knows. He knows there’s nothing he can say to fix it either. So they stay like that. 

Broken, as far as she can see. 

She drops the handful of snacks she’s collected onto the counter in front of the cashier, keeping her eyes trained on the chipping plastic laminate countertop. She watches his familiarly weathered hands select and scan each item, not once glancing up. 

“That’ll be ten dollars and fourteen cents,” he announces in his papery and crinkled but genial tone. 

She can’t quite pinpoint the force of fate that compels her to glance up; she has no obligation. But she does, meeting his smiling eyes. For a flicker of a moment, she’s just a stranger to him, and the realization settles in too quickly as if the moment was merely a drawn-out figment of her imagination. 

Martin clears his throat awkwardly. Neither of them are sure what to say. But, as if by the grace of the angels, he produces a smile and repeats the total. 

With the speed that follows prolonged hesitation, she pays for the items, takes the bag, and exits through the jingling doors. A simple, but perhaps not, “have a nice day” falls into the still air at the last moment. 

In the refuge of her car once again, she wills herself to not give a moment of thought to the previous interchange. The destination she’s been nervously—an extreme understatement—awaiting is glaring her in the face. With each passing second, she is growing closer and closer, despite every part of her being screaming in rebellion. 

She sees all their faces. The pain she has caused. The uselessness of any apology she could muster. The brokenness of a situation whose blame can find no owner but herself. 

She’s twenty-two, staring at the broken dish on the ground. Soap and water trail down her arms, dripping onto her rolled-up sleeves. She uses the back of her hand to push away the hair falling into her face, spreading the dishwater. 

A growl of frustration bubbles up in her throat—frustration at the broken plate, frustration at the soapy dishwater that’s all over her now, frustration at the state of her life—but Luna is in the next room over, and she has to keep her temper calm, if for nothing else, for her. 

With her arm, she turns the sink off, then dries her hands and bends down to begin cleaning up the pieces of the plate. She’s starting to feel the devastatingly familiar prickle of an anxiety attack in her chest, but she tries to force it down. Her mind is running, extending strands of itself in every direction, trying to clean up all the messes, both inside and out. 

She doesn’t register the padding of small feet until Luna is standing in the doorway, bordering on dashing into the kitchen. 

“Luna, no!” Zia yells, more anger and frustration than she meant creeping into her tone. Instant regret flourishes as Luna shies backward, nearly curling in on herself. “Oh, baby, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to yell and scare you. I just don’t want you to get hurt.” She gestures to the pile of dish pieces in front of her. 

Luna nods, but runs off again to play in the living room, feeding the guilt crushing inward on Zia. She scoops the dish pieces into the trash can and returns to the sink to finish. But one look at the collection of dirty dishes, and she decides she’s done. 

She wishes there were more things in her life she could just decide to be done with. 

She passes the school, encompassed by a circle of flamboyant trees. It’s empty now, but she remembers the commotion of the playground on school days. The soccer matches on muddy grass, the hopscotch competitions created by worn-out chalk, the jump roping with fraying ropes. 

She remembers the laughter, the excited yelling, the bouncing pigtails, the pure and focused joy. 

And there’s the house where her best friend used to live. Vividly, she recalls the popsicles they consumed on those front stoops—cherry red dribbling down her chin without a napkin to wipe it away. 

A byproduct of the pleasant weather, Main Street is alive with people weaving in and out of the shops lining the sidewalk. She remembers doing the very same as a young girl, eagerly reaching for the objects each store offered. 

Through Main Street and up a hill, she finds the neighborhoods. The memories of summer nights spent with the neighbor kids—swimming, playing baseball, chasing each other, and more—play through her mind. 

The outline of the thought begins in the back of her head. Maybe this town wasn’t quite as bad as she always remembered it to be.  

Past the interconnecting neighborhoods, it’s perched at the crest of the hill. The pale green paint against the black shutters—she remembers being covered in paint once they’d finished. The wind chimes hanging over the porch, still in the calm air. The flower beds in front of the house and lining the walkway, patiently waiting for spring to touch them with new life. 

She can see the tree behind the house, a tire swing hanging from its branches. She spots the small shed, carefully locked up with a rusted padlock. She affords a hint of a smile and the tidy garden spanning the width of the yard in the back. 

The dread and fear are swirling like a tornado inside of her as she puts the car into the park in the driveway. Every movement requires every bit of willpower that she can conjure. 

She opens the car door with a hollow click. Her feet crunch against the gravel, and she swiftly closes the door behind her. One foot in front of the other up the flower-lined walkway. She climbs the shaky front steps and creaks across the porch. With one hand, she pulls open the screen door. With the other, she gently raps on the red-painted wood. Her eyes peruse the welcome mat to distract herself. 

She hears footsteps on the other side of the door, coming closer, closer, closer. The door swings open, revealing her mother’s soft figure.

She chokes the words out. 

“Hi, Mom.”

She’s twenty-three, and she scoops the keys off of the counter with a sort of violence. Julian watches from the table, setting his book down to give her his full focus. 

“Where are you going?”

“I don’t know. I’m sorry. I just need to get away for a bit.”

He nods, and again she wonders, how can he be so perfectly understanding. In fact, how can he be so simply perfect? She loves him and hates him for it—hates him for making her look so small and weak in comparison. But it’s not his fault. She can’t blame him. 

She has only herself to blame for her weakness. 

The car’s headlights guide her down the road, the only indicator of her purpose—her direction. They illuminate the sight of her mother’s house before she even realizes where she is. Parking outside, she simply stares at the walls that confined her for so many years. 

She realizes she misses them. She doesn’t miss feeling trapped, but she misses the hope that someday she’d be able to escape. Now she’s trapped with no way out. 

She thinks of her mother, inside, probably asleep. It pains her to think of the kind of the agony she’ll cause her if she follows through with the plan that is forming in her mind—the agony she’ll cause Julian and Luna. But she craves the possibility of freedom these walls once allowed her. She’s hurting them more by being here like she is—broken, lost, causing mess after mess. 

She doesn’t want to think about it too long. She just wants to go. She wants to be free. She doesn’t feel any remorse as she drives past each fixture of the town, filled with memories. She doesn’t feel any sadness. 

The sadness comes later. When she realizes that she is no more free than she was before. 

The walls are peppered with frame after frame, each depicting various stages of her life. Her chubby fingers covered in glitter while she completes an art project. Her beaming smile as she holds up her kindergarten graduation certificate. Shots of summer playdates with her best friends since birth. Reluctant smiles as she grew into a teenager, not so eager to appear on camera. Candid shots of moments when she was caught up in the present that nothing else mattered. 

A whole life passes by her eyes as she follows her mother into the living room. She doesn’t know if she recognizes the girl in those photos anymore. Is she still there, hidden behind all the mistakes and brokenness? Or has she completely disappeared—not just broken, but shattered beyond repair?

Soft light filters through the windows, casting a dusty glow across the couch. Her eyes travel there, but they glance away nearly instantly, too scared to face that moment right now. 

Luna is playing on the floor, her small hands crafting towers and buildings from the multi-colored array of building blocks. Her tongue peeks out from the corner of her mouth, a sure sign of her avid concentration. As much guilt as she has built up, this interaction will be the easiest.

She bends down to meet the sparkling cerulean eyes. “Luna.”

The girl jerks her head up, and her eyes grow wide. The sliver of fear that Luna wouldn’t even recognize her disappears with the soft smile that appears on Zia’s lips. “Hi baby.”

“Mommy! Your back!” She’s too young to understand the ramifications—to understand why Zia left. All she knows is that her mom is in front of her; after two years, she’s back. 

She can feel the glassy tears in her eyes, but she holds them back. Not right now—not yet. Right now, she embraces the bundle of love and joy in front of her. She wonders how she could ever have left this. She wonders if she can hold on and stay this time.

With Luna still wrapped up in her arms, she stands and turns to face her mother. She’s barely said two words to her since she entered. Maybe she wasn’t ready—maybe there was nothing to say. But now she’s ready—now she has nothing to say. 

The guilt has never been this strong. She had known she made the wrong choice. She had known she messed up. But it’s never been as blindingly obvious as it is now, seeing the tears in her mother’s eyes—wondering how she could have ever left. Wishing she had returned sooner. Wishing she wasn’t still so scared. Terrified she’ll break and leave again. 

“I’m sorry.” She’s apologized so many times in her life, but she’s never felt the words course through her so strongly and purely as she does right now. The words mean something. They encapsulate so much—so many years. They aren’t enough, but they’re there. And they sound so right in her mouth. They’re a start. “I know that doesn’t fix it. But I’m going to try. I really am.”

She means it, as scared as she is. Gently, she places Luna on the ground. She waits. And she feels the tears run down her cheeks as, without a moment’s hesitation, her mother consumes her in a familiar hug. It’s a hug she’s missed for far too long. And the words that leave her mother’s mouth are everything she’s needed for the past two years. 

“I know. I forgive you.”

Zia steps back, wiping the tears from her face. “Is it ok if I step away for a moment?” It sounds so ridiculous, considering she’s been away for so long. But right now she just needs a minute. A minute to look around—to fully process the world that is changing around her. 

At her mother’s nod, she wanders down the hall. Her childhood bedroom is calling her name, and as she steps inside, the rush of memories makes her head spin. She settles down on the bed, gently rubbing the well-loved comforter between her fingers. She sees the desk, where she spent hours drawing, writing, pretending to do homework, very occasionally actually doing homework. She sees the bin of antiquated stuffed animals peeking out from inside her closet. There are all her old clothes, folded on shelves and hanging up from hangers. There’s the rug, that she spent hours sprawled across, reading or sometimes simply daydreaming. 

From the doorway, Julian softly clears his throat. She looks up, meeting his eyes. A million words are building up her mind, ready to crash through the floodgates, and yet, she has no words at all to say. All the words are not enough. 

“How are you?” he asks, breaking the silence. 

It’s such a silly question, she realizes. After all this time, everything that has happened that they’ve barely discussed, and he’s simply asking her how she is. That’s his first concern. And it’s so very much who he his—his essence—that it hurts. 

“I’m–I’m good.” She’s shocked to realize the words are true. She’s not perfect, she’s not amazing. But for right now, she’s good. And she’s sorry. She hasn’t said it yet, and she’s not sure why. Maybe it’s because they’ve never really had to say much to each other to know what they’re feeling and thinking. Maybe it’s because she’s scared he won’t accept it—scared she’s messed this up beyond recovery. 

But she needs to say it. Even if he knows. Even if he doesn’t accept it. He needs to hear it. 

“I’m sorry.”

He nods his head. “I know that.”

“I know. I still wanted to say it.”

“Ok.” He smirks. “I know there’s a lot you’re not saying right now.

She nods.

“Tell me.”

“Don’t you already know?”

“Maybe. But maybe you still want to say it.” There’s that smirk again. But he’s right, as frustrating as it is. She didn’t realize how much she’s missed telling him things till right now, when he’s standing there in front of her. She didn’t realize how much he completed her. She didn’t realize how much she wanted to—needed to—fix this. So she lets the words fall from her lips, in a cascading torrent of thoughts she barely knew she was having.

“You’re perfect, you know that? So perfect, and I love you. I don’t deserve you. I don’t deserve how many times you’ve forgiven me—told me it was ok when it absolutely was not. I’ve messed up a lot, but none like this time. And I need you to forgive me again. I hate to have to come to you like this, asking again for you to forgive me. And I know this all isn’t going to go away. I know I have a lot to fix, a lot of lost time to make up for. And to be honest, I’m terrified. I’m terrified that I’m going to hurt you all again. Maybe simply by being here I’m going to hurt you because you’re all too good for me. But even more, I’m terrified that I’m going to leave again. And I can’t do that to you guys again. Should I have just stayed away? Would that have hurt you guys less?”

“No.”

“What?”

“No, you absolutely should not have stayed away. That couldn’t possibly hurt us less. We love you, Zia. And it hurt that you left. I’m not going to lie and tell you that that’s just going to go away. But it means the world that you came back. And I understand that you’re scared. I understand that this isn’t the life you ever intended for yourself. But the fact that you’re trying? That is all you can do. And we are here to help you. I’m here to help you, Zia. Talk to me. Tell me how you’re feeling. Tell me when you want to leave. Because I can help you want to stay—if that’s what you want. If that’s what you really want is to stay. If you don’t—if what you want most is to be free—don’t let me hold you back. I love you, and I will let you leave again if that’s what you need. But if what you really, truly want is to stay, tell me right now. And I will never leave you; I will never let you go through this alone. But if you want to leave, I won’t blame you. I’ll let you be free.”

She’s speaking through tears now, but she’s never been more sure of anything in her life. “I want to stay. I really, really do. I thought I could get freedom through leaving, but I didn’t feel free at all. Even if it’s not what I planned, I know now that I can’t live without you guys—without you, my mom, and Luna. I want to stay. I just need you to forgive me.”

His smile is like a million twinkling stars as he reaches his hand out for hers. “Of course I forgive you Zia Jane, you crazy wild child.”

And for the first time, she smiles at the nickname.