by Jackie Snax
Rising tides, the wreckage of a post war Philly, and one family's journey to reunite.
- Xena -
The first time Xena fell, someone grabbed her, hoisted her upright. Someone who was on her heel like they were connected, someone who was sticking close by her side, and she had assumed, without thinking about it, that Tye was there.
Later on she tried to pinpoint the exact moment her mother’s presence had vanished, and she couldn’t, couldn’t place it, could only think ‘before the barricade’ because that was the last time she’d been sure, but that couldn’t be, couldn’t be, she couldn’t have just left her own mother that far back, took off without realizing.
She’d been near the front of the horde. They had.
Climbing - twisting limbs, stumbling, someone almost going over her, the pressure of the world beneath her, her own weight a tether on the screaming, soaring spirit within, the world moving too quickly and not quick enough, falling off the other side, gripping Goober’s harness. And that’s when the hands had come - they’d grabbed her shirt instead of her arm, she remembered, pulled her up by the collar. That was why - why she hadn’t known then, hadn’t gone back.
The mistake was a stone in her gut, enormous, making the only possible breath shallow.
It had been Hava. She found that out later, when they were already far away, when there were sirens chasing them and people kept yelling about it being too dark, about the street lights being down and the houses empty blackness and the light from the towers too far away now, they were on the fringes of the ground city, and she’d known, had been used to keeping track, the world a textured map in her head, the world there, bright as anything, and she’d said softly around the pounding of her chest, “We’re on Allegheny… if we get to Henry… more isolated,”
That’s when Hava’d spoke, in a shrill, warbling voice that was not Tye’s, not Tye’s smooth, low rumble, and Xena’d started like spooked bird at, “Hey, she says we’re on Allegheny! If we get to Henry, we can find the park, lose ‘em in the woods!”
Xena’d stumbled, stopped, tried to say, “Ma!” but her voice came up empty, pressure building in her chest and head, feet carrying her in a small circle, because Tye wouldn’t, would never be far, not now, not here, never, but no, no no no nonononononono-
Hava’s hand gripped her again, held her arm hard, “Xena, she’s not here,”
“I gotta go back, I gotta go back,” her own voice came out in a muffled echo, like it was underwater. At her feet, Goober was reacting to her energy, and Hava stepped back, letting go of her. Such an old hand, a different texture, pressure, shape than Tye’s, how, how could she have ever thought-
“You can’t. That’s a fact. You can’t, Xena.”
“I have to, I can’t-”
“She told you to run-”
“I can’t, I can’t-”
“Xena!” Sirens, getting closer. “Breathe. Breathe, girlie.”
Girlie. Tye, Tye talking about her grandmother calling her that, ‘girlie,’ how uncomfortable it made her, and how it helped her know it wasn’t what she was.
Negatives opening the possibility of positives, ignorance gleaming knowledge, the world, this intricate world. Thinking that stopped her mind for a moment, allowed a jolt, and in that jolt, Hava spoke.
“We need you. Your mama can’t be helped right now. You’d only make it more difficult for her, going back. But we need you. You know this part of the city, right?”
“Right,” Xena whispered, because she knew the whole ground city, practically, knew it all, “Right, right, right.”
Hava spoke quicker, the sirens getting closer, the group getting antsy. Xena could hear a smattering of footsteps break off, others crying out at being further separated, and she put a hand out behind her, leaned back for a moment against the pillar of the high-rise she knew was there.
This city lived in her head. Her head was a balloon, stretched thin around this city. Her entire world. The entire world.
When blind Xena started, the second thing Tye did was start taking Xena on walks. ‘Walking the dog’ she’d called it, and they’d set out at five am and get in at least an hour, every day. And every day, Xena had to name the street they were on, describe what was around her, smell it, hear it, recognize the light, the very quaking of the earth. Through this, and through her own static mind, easy to take something in if it was Important - she knew.
“So you have a job here, kid. Don’t you?”
Xena nodded, pushing up her glasses. Something solidified in her. She took a breath, and then started ahead, rallying Goober beside her and holding tight to her harness. She glided through a world of slides, slices of light and dark and the memory of shape to rely on from times she’d walked these streets at a calm pace, smelling them, and repeating their names. Now a rush - oddly free in the openness of it - the stampede in one direction, finally, the motion only forward, no dodging from side to side, the way she did when these streets were at their normal, crowded state. Hava in her footsteps, yelling back, “We just gotta make it to the park! To the park, come on, let’s move!”
She took them down a side street, and then another. The crafts had started after them late, and while they had the advantage of height, gliding over the ground city like birds of prey, Xena had the advantage of darkness. Once or twice they’d shine a light on the group - blinding, incredible, the world going white-hot for a second - and they would all be running again, running instead of sneaking, and Xena would have to wind them tighter into the hidden world of quick turns and shadows, sometimes even ducking through old subway tunnels, wading through dirty water to the other side and waiting till the lights passed to exit. She threaded them through until they were solidly, spectacularly hidden, the sirens a distant wail, her heart in her throat, slamming against the surface of her skin, her bones.
By the time they reached the park, she could hear birds, could see the hazy brightness of morning breaking over them, familiarity gone. So in light, she let Hava lead, let the other woman take her hand.
She could still hear the sirens, distant now.
Hava led them to where she claimed she knew about an old bridge, covered now in foliage, part of the old roads. Though they stayed on paved paths, Xena found herself tripping, now, stumbling over cracks and sticks and the plants that had pushed their way through the asphalt in the years since gasoline-fueled cars had used these streets.
Eventually, though it seemed no different a place, they stopped. Went off the road a bit, into the sloping green. Xena could hear water, and her chest burned, a low throbbing in the back of her throat, thirst like a wound.
Only a few people had brought things like cups, pots. Someone said something about boiling the water first, but Xena, along with many others, was already upon the stream. The water tasted like pennies, and chemicals, but in a thirsty enough mouth out came something else, something almost like fresh spinach from the Aquaponic farm stand in the market - deep, dark life. Xena could’ve cried into that water.
When she could speak again, she reached out and gripped the arm close by her, “My Mama, I have to go back, I have to find my Mama.” ‘Mama.’ She hadn’t called Tye that in years, but something raw and young seemed to be bleeding out of her core.
“Hava says you shouldn’t,” a voice that wasn’t Hava’s said. Xena’s hand shot back, her whole body startled, and then, even more frighteningly, she began to cry.
Sobs quaked through her in waves, uncontrollable, and the voice - a girl’s voice, awkward and scared as anyone called, “Oh, um… Hava? Hava?!”
Then Hava was there, and old arms, warm and thick, were wrapped around her like she was a baby, and a voice said, “Oh, hon,” and Xena found herself hating her, hating Hava for not being Tye, for putting the burden of their safety on her, for making her leave.
“It’s going to be alright,” Hava whispered, “You did the right thing.” Hate, hate, hate, hate. “If you’d stayed, they woulda taken you, too. She would’ve had to pay bail. And, this pup,” Goober had started licking Xena’s arm, concerned, her head lulling on Xena’s hip, “This pup wouldn’t’ve been with ya! Never. She might even be dead. And G-d knows, we might’ve been, too, if it weren’t for your smart noggin. It’s alright. You did good. You were brave, so brave. You did good, girlie.”
Xena stopped crying, eventually. Hava kept holding her, though, until the tears came back, and then left again, back and gone, like tides. Then she was lying down, her head in Hava’s lap, Hava stroking her forehead along her bandana, humming gently. Others were crying around them, other forms moving, the world all hot tears where they were, the world, changed, and Xena fell asleep thinking that - the world, changed, the world. changed, the world. changed.
The world changed.