by Jackie Snax
Rising tides, the wreckage of a post war Philly, and one family's journey to reunite.
- Martha -
The Schuylkill river ran directly through what had once been central Philadelphia, before the war, before the bombs, before the river swelled up, before towers connected by high-rises, accessed primarily by hovercraft, so distant from the perils of the ground that the rising water was a crystaline dream. These days, the river was slightly South of what was considered ‘Center City’ by official standards.
Despite the fact that it was considered a flood zone and the homes there weren’t registered, there were homes - some folks squatted in the partially demolished buildings, ones that used to be considered ‘skyscrapers’ before the tower communities. The old Peco building was a popular squat, and the barren, partially collapsed art museum was still a grounder Philly tourist attraction, in its own way.
The primary attraction, however, was the house boats. Docks had been shoddily created and connected, homes that could survive the encroaching flood flocked together and pinned down. This is what was called Schuylkill, more than the river. The docks themselves had been built to float, and there was a familiar rope ladder down into the quickly filling concrete revine, and then the docks, connected by more ropes, the whole thing moving just slightly, dizzily, around her.
This was where Martha had been born.
That baby’s parents hadn’t named her ‘Martha,’ though, and as she stood before her aunt’s flaking pepto-bismo pink houseboat, this is what she was thinking of. Her name - her real name, Martha, perfectly plucked from a proud branch of her family tree and affixed where it had always been meant to sit, before her: Martha.
It was important. She didn’t even care much, most of the time - let the waitress say ‘sir,’ and greeted an ‘oops, i mean miss’ as if it was some welcome kiss smacked wetly on her cheek, just a plucky forgiving trans girl, friend to all straights! But her name. Her name.
Martha Ortiz the first had been a soldier, gone awol, gone activist, gone prisoner, gone writer. She was a legend, and had had soft warm hands and flowers on her houseboat.
She’d died when Martha was four, but she liked to think-
Martha took a deep breath and knocked. No point delaying it.
There was a shuffle from inside, a dainty cough, and then silence. Martha could feel an eye peeking at her through the window, but she didn’t glance over until the silence stretched long enough that she began to wonder, the thought sudden and prickly, if she was going to be let in at all. Then there was a click and the door swung open and her aunt Claudia was there, arms open. “Mi amor! Bienvenio, oh, I was so worried!”
The words came over Martha like a balm she hadn’t realized she’d been needing, the familiar Spanish placing her solidly in the world again, where things made the most sense and she could understand. She squeezed Auntie Claudia tightly, trying not to cry as she was hustled in and had a cup of tea handed to her before she could get so much as a ‘gracias’ out.
Martha took a deep breath. The air here smelled musty, incense, and she could see a candle lit at Claudia’s alter with - and this went over Martha in a wave - a picture of her.
But - not her, Martha, as she existed now. There must’ve been a thousand pictures taken between then and now, and Martha knew her aunt had access - her parents sent out personalized cards for every holiday - a whole slew, just for her Quinceañera a few years back. But this picture was old. This picture was from before.
Martha looked away, quickly. She told herself the intentions were pure, even though they weren’t. She told herself it would be fine, and sat down on one of the squat cushy chairs her aunt had crammed into a corner of the only real room in the boat. A familiar collection of small figurines perched crowded on a side table, most all religious, besides one - a tiny, cheap looking porcelain boy with a soccer ball. Martha had gotten it for her as a child - because she liked these fragile little dolls, just like mama, and because it was a soccer boy! A soccer boy, like Martha!
Martha picked it up. It felt cool in her hand. She had an odd urge to put it in her mouth.
“Oh chico, you must tell me everything! Have you contacted your parents yet?”
Martha put down the figurine. “I - not yet, no, I was actually wondering if I could-”
“Ah yes, of course, of course! I got an email from your mother earlier, chico, she is so worried, I’ll get the tablet-”
“I don’t mean to - I mean. Uh, just. Can you please stop calling me chico?”
There was a hefty silence. Auntie Claudia was in her room, supposedly getting the laptop. She was barely five feet from Martha in the tiny houseboat, but when she responded, Martha couldn’t hear her - just an odd mumble.
“What was that?”
“Nothing, love, here, take the computer. And - you are staying here, of course. Until your parents get home”
Martha could’ve cried. “Thank-you, Auntie,” she mumbled, and took the computer, grateful to her core, and quickly logged in. She had thirteen emails, almost all from her parents. They were on their way, they said, but travel into Philadelphia had become difficult if your identichip didn’t reveal an address in the towers. She responded to the last email, and then typed out a quick note to Tye, too, while she had access. Auntie Claudia, of course, had laid out around three meals worth of snacks at this point, and Martha devoured them hungrily - she hadn’t realized how starving she was.
“How did you get out, my love?” Auntie Claudia was still talking. She’d ranted nonstop about Martha’s parents gall, leaving their son alone like that, and Martha had gritted her teeth and typed through it, mumbling responses when necessary.
“I didn’t. They arrested me for a while, but a friend… well, she paid my bail.”
This got a response. Silent, but deadly. Martha quickly added, “I’m paying her back, though! I just needed to borrow money, it’s not - I mean, I’m paying her back.”
“Spanish, please, chico.” Auntie Claudia said.
Martha bit down hard on her tongue. It didn’t work, though. “Please stop calling me that.”
Claudia lowered her teacup from where she’d been holding it before her mouth, hiding her words like a secret - an intimate, funny kind of habit Martha recognized from her mother, Claudia’s sister.
“You would really punish your Auntie for using pet names?”
“That’s not what-”
“Carlos, your parents would be ashamed-”
“That’s not my name!”
Silence on the boat. Claudia took another sip, shaking her head like Martha was being childish again, telling a story rather than the truth. “I believe I remember your baptism better than you, Carlos. I know what name you were given before G-d.”
“Mama had a new ceremony for me! She knows my name, she-”
Auntie Claudia slammed her tea down; the cup cracked, the liquid spilled, she she hissed like a snake, lifting her hand, which was bloody.
Martha leapt upwards, dashing over to the sink to grab a towel - she wet it with warm water before returning to her aunt and, after a hesitant moment, handing her the cloth rather than cleaning the wound herself, as she might’ve done in another life.
Her aunt didn’t take the cloth, though. She was staring at her hand. Martha swallowed.
When she finally spoke, the words were hard, and plain. “In your own home, or in your mother’s home, you may live whatever sin you like. I worry for you, but I have no control. But in my house, Carlos, you will live as our heavenly father sees you,” she reached out suddenly and clutched at Martha’s hand, her eyes fever-bright, “may it give you the chance to atone-”
Martha jerked her hand back. She grabbed her things, not looking at her Aunt, who was quiet. Until she wasn’t, of course, because she couldn’t be - just as Martha was about to make her exit, she broke the silence with a quiet voice, dangerous in its meekness, its victimhood.
“You were always so… so manipulative. As a little boy. Turning on the doe eyes anytime someone might give you something, always managing to be the only one out of trouble, though I know, I know you lead my little ones astray every now and then. Never any malice, but - it was a game, you liked it, to play this game. Is that-”
Martha could hear each thumpthumpthump of her heart in her ears, steady as a drum. Could feel the hot bile of anger rising in her throat, her face was fuzzy with rage-
“Don’t you dare-”
“Is that what this is? A way to get closer to girls? Break into their secret world, their bathrooms? I know you like the girls; remember I’m the one that caught you watching that girlie movie, I know you’re not a homosexual, even if you think this is-”
“I am, though! I am! I’m a fucking dyke, auntie, I -”
“You will not swear in my house! You will not sin in my house! You will-”
Martha stared down at the tiny porcelain figurine, cracked on the floor, a dent up above in the wall beside her aunt’s head. The tiny boy head had been decapitated from the tiny boy body. She looked at her hand. “I didn’t mean -” she started to lie, but when she met her aunt’s eyes, she gave up and allowed herself to burst into tears.
Her aunt picked up the pieces of the little figurine. She looked uncomfortable, but Martha knew she couldn’t ignore crying - never could.
“Oh, Carlos. Fetch me the glue. All he needs is glue - just a little fix. Chico, you must watch your temper,” and then she looked up, a smile like she’d won a tiny victory, “All the men in our family have this passion, though. That is what we’ve always said. You must figure out a way to use it righteously! Be a good man, like your grandfath- Carlos! Carlos, come back!”
On her way out, Martha blew out the candle. She didn’t touch the picture, though. It was from when she was nine - she was in her soccer uniform, a ball under one skinny arm and a toothy grin on her face. She might even have liked it, before this moment. It was still her, after all. It was a picture of a little girl doing something she loved. But it had been poisoned, now.
Martha’s self-righteous rage lasted until she’d climbed the ladder back onto solid ground again. Then, with the earth not moving beneath her, what had happened hit her full force.
She had nowhere to go.
Martha wandered a bit, but it was getting dark, and soon she found an old, overgrown park that felt like safety, felt like faeries, and Martha loved faeries. She curled up on a bench with her backpack under her head and cried, softly, until the shouts of a group of drunk men roused her and scared her into leaving, creeping by them not creepily enough, jeers and laughter following her down the street, though thankfully, they didn’t follow far.
The AedosDynamic tower caught her eye as she turned down a small alley. It was a shining beacon in the dark danger of the old city. She wished she could call it ugly, but none of the towers were - they were pillars of pure light, vegetation bursting from parks up high, the whole thing fractured in some kind of important architecture way that made it disappear sometimes, turn into just the sky behind it on a rainy day, make that bursting garden top look like it was floating.
There were stairs up to the first floor of the tower. And then, buttons besides.
Martha did the only thing she could think to do. The thing Tye had told her to do - and Tye was smart, smart and hard and loving in a way Martha couldn’t be. So she could only trust Tye, really.
Lemon answered on the second ring. “Helllooooooo?” she said as her image clipped into view on the display screen. Her eyes widened at Martha, and Martha opened her mouth, ready to engage her prepared speech, but Lemon got in there before she could, “Sweet! I was wondering when you’d turn up, girlie. Come in - 744B. I ordered takeout.”
There was a long drone as the door unlocked, and Martha quickly ducked into the motion sensor and passed through.
A wave of air conditioning smacked her in the face.
She’d forgotten what that felt like.
Ignoring the odd looks of the receptionists, Martha made her way across the lobby, which was so posh it hurt to look at - plants everywhere, a fountain, a chandelier, dripping with crystals. Martha felt like a plain stone in a box of diamonds.
Lemon met her at the elevator though, cheesesteak in hand, and to Martha’s shock, she handed it over immediately. “I ate the other one. One and a half. Whatever. Anyway, sorry. You were late.”
Martha laughed, despite herself, and took the cheesesteak. It was heavy with grease and loaded down with fried onions and mushrooms. It felt like the first real thing in this sterile world of wealth. “I won’t stay long. I mean, my parents are-”
Lemon grabbed her bag for her and then strutted down the hallway on a mission, calling back, “Well then it’s time to get the party started! We gotta have some fun before they get here. Come on in, then, babe. Bet you can’t beat my deaths-per-game count in Overwatch.”
“Oh man, I am gonna love showing you, come on come on, let’s do this!”
Martha followed, an odd hope alighting in her chest.
She could do this. Alright. She could totally do this.