SOUTHERN LEGITIMACY STATEMENT: My family moved from San Fransisco California to Orlando, Florida a year or so before I was born. They are originally from the Northeast – a mix of Canadian-Indian, French, and Mohawk/Pequot Indigenous – making me the only one of my family born in the South. I have a complicated relationship with the South. Not only am I the only one from my family that isn’t a “Yankee” but I also happen to live in Florida, the South’s red headed step child. I’ve learned to appreciate the little spots – overrun with nature and gothic hanging moss – and rub my grubby little artistic hands all over it. My South is in nature – in lakes and ponds and the wildlife. The animals were here first, after all. We built our homes on their land. One day, I’m sure they’ll reclaim it.
Ducks at Night
Charles knew where Nia went the night she ran away. Every so often, life as a foster child in the Azham home – with all of its nurturing and predictability – became to much, and would skim the night and camp out at the one lake in their small town.
He walked the two blocks from their house, all the way down Lake Baldwin, to the wooden boardwalk overlooking the marina. The docks themselves were early morning vacant, making it easy to navigate the stretch of moss water and concrete. Two walkways rose like surgically implanted veins on opposite sides of the water, giving way to unstable pagodas that held Nia’s body over the precipice of the water.
The click of his loafer gave way to the sounds of fish he couldn’t see, his feet guided by the few lights along the floorboards. He stopped a stretch away, standing at the compass painted on the ground.
She didn’t budge.
He spoke again, his voice booming but even. “What are you doing out here?”
Propping her back against the railing, her lips quivered before they shut. She was still expecting a rage he’d never shown her, but he was not to get too close, because the presence of an adult when she’d done wrong was still alarming.
They stood there, impasse, until she said, “I’m sorry.”
His eyes shifted to her belongings, scattered across the mini quay — backpack at her feet, flannel sweater in a ball, an empty bottle of water and if he looked further, he’d make out a book or journal.
He forced himself to turn away. “Get your stuff. Let’s go.”
“No.” Her whole body shook, like a submarine quake dug its heels into her bones.
Gritting his teeth, he said, “We aren’t doing this tonight.” He took two pensive steps forward, then stopped when her fists tensed. He reminded her, “I’m not going to hurt you, but I’m disappointed in you right now.”
She clutched one hand to her chest and held the other behind her back.
“You’re thirteen. This isn’t funny, and you should know better.”
“I know,” she told him.
“Do you?” He stepped closer, leaving a hint of space between them, towering over her to make his point. “This is becoming habitual, and neither I nor Valeria appreciate it. This isn’t just about you–consider how this makes us feel. We bring you into our home and this is how you choose to repay us?”
She told him she knew again, and he raised a hand to stop her. He didn’t miss her flinch, but was too impatient for reassurance.
“You can’t run off every time this comes up. I know you don’t want to go back to your family–” He cleared his throat. “To your mother. But that doesn’t give you free license to worry us like this.”
She leaned back over the railing, and when she didn’t move away, he stationed himself at her side.
His head turned down, unable to regurgitate this conversation, again. The longer he stared, the more he noticed water bulbs came to the surface.
Nia pointed over her shoulder. “Ducks. They graze around here sometimes.”
“It’s fish. Ducks don’t come out at night.”
“I’ve seen them before.”
He raised an eyebrow.
“Hey, it’s their house, not ours.” Slapping her hands onto the wood, Nia took a deep breath. “I thought you would be in your pajamas by now.”
Snickering, he checked her with his elbow. “Don’t change the subject.”
“But loafers in the dead of night is so much more interesting.”
Even in her jest, he noted the slight alarm making her voice shake, and how hard she pressed her fingers into the beam, using splinters to break her skin. On reflex, he moved her arm and told her to stop it; she yanked herself away, and he took a few steps back.
The mantra became more necessary. “I’m not going to hurt you.”
“I know that!”
“Apparently, it bears repeating.”
Huffing, she crossed her arms and stomped to the panel on her right.
He didn’t dare invade her scope, but wouldn’t let the topic die. “You’ve been living with us for the better part of the year. You should know we wouldn’t let anything happen to you.”
She had no response, not that he’d expected one. Nia never accepted their condolences regardless, and it was hard to blame her when she’d grown into the broken form of a girl. The unspoken memory of Nia on her first night at their home — cracked ribs that didn’t heal quite right, a stomach that couldn’t handle solid food, an inability to sleep until his wife held her hand — was now a whole person with no more fractures in her foundations.
That never stopped the water from leaking into her newly stabilized vessel.
“I’m sorry,” she said after a while, this time out of sincerity and not fear. “I panicked.”
She paused before answering, “I got scared, I guess.” Crossing her arms over her chest, she kicked at a loose nail in the walkway. “I’m happy with you two but can’t help wanting to just self destruct. Is it always going to be like this for me?”
He couldn’t lie to her. “Maybe.” Instant regret; maybe he should have lied. Respect wasn’t worth the subjugated shift of her face. Hugging her, tight and long, until her breathing became stable, he tried and failed to promise her it would be alright.
When she spoke again, her voice was coltish and unbalanced. “I just want to stay with you and Valeria for…Sounds stupid, but I want to stay with you guys forever.”
He tried to smile. “That can only happen if you stop running away from us.”
She laughed as much as possible, then managed to collect herself. As she gathered her belongings, Charles stood at the edge where wood meets concrete, the gap between the two giving yellow and black glimpses of the waves. The compass is at his toes again, pointed at south south west, across from Nia.
Her entire body stalled for a minute, now robbed of her tears and panic. Then, in fluid motions, she grabbed her bag and steadily made her way towards him, boots echoing against the wood. Once at his side, she let him collect her hand. The two walked off, bobbing and weaving through the darkness that threatened to deny them, but it couldn’t. They would find their way home.