There was a baby, and it was hers, but Sara was busy with other things and the baby cried and cried and needed things that Sara couldn’t give it, and so Sara cried and cried and woke up in the middle of the night behind the wheel of a borrowed car, baby in the seat beside her, childhood home in front of her.
There was a rap at the window. “Were you you seriously gonna leave a fucking baby on our fucking doorstep?” Hanna demanded, and shouldered the shotgun.
“No,” said Sara, but wasn’t actually certain.
“Fuck,” Hanna said, and then, “he has the sweetest fucking face. Bring him inside.”
Cid wanted soup. His nose was red and running and he looked hilariously irritated with himself, and Sara felt something flutter in the veins at her wrists, like all her blood had started rushing double-time. It made her arms twinge, deliciously, all the way up to her elbows.
She wondered if that was just part of the package, motherly instincts manifested as arm pain.
“Hey, sweetie,” she said. She handed him a tissue from the box she rustled up from the pantry after she heard him sniffling in the shower. Sara was anticipating. God, that sounded like a page in a kid’s book. A for Anticipation. B for Blood. C for Cid. “What kinda soup?”
Cid considered the question. “You should use up the vegetables in the fridge,” he told her. “Before they go bad.”
“We can just throw everything in, then,” she said, “and see what comes out.”
“My mommy called that stone soup,” he said. The irritation gave way to stubbornness, mouth set firm and unhappy. He looked up at her through his eyelashes. It should be charming.
“I love stone soup,” Sara said, and opened up the cupboards.
“That’s not the pot that mommy used for soup,” he told her.
“I love pots,” she said, determined, aware that the conversation was about to derail but wanting to maximize the amount of time before she had to break and run.
Behind her, Cid took a deep, fortifying breath.
Sara used to belly up to the bar maybe one night in three.
There was one in particular she liked, nestled away in a mid-class neighborhood. It was somewhere between the overpriced haunts of the asshole loopers everyone pretended not to know about, and the rundown drinking holes of the sort you only visited if all you had in the world was half a baby-food jar of silver flakes and a burning need to spend it all on something cheap and potent.
She took a lighter out of her pocket, lit the cigarette in her mouth while her hands were occupied with other things, and waited for the drinks to start to slide over. She took men and women home to her bed and bought her own breakfast in the mornings before work; she didn’t get much sleep, but the city had cures for everything that ailed you and half the stuff that didn’t.
She hit the other bars sometimes; killed herself laughing in the bathrooms where she excused herself after ruining people’s nights. TK was a party-trick, but it really only worked when you were the strongest one in the room. Sara was good at that.
She never looked back across the miles of city, out toward the gravel roads and the yawning emptiness of the fields. Boring. She’d been gone three years by the time she hit eighteen. She didn’t miss it.
Her daddy was a farmer; a little guy scraping by in a continent of city-states and company farms. The old rolled-up map shows blocks of territories spanning square mile after square mile, rudely interrupted by the odd quarter acre of stony, sandy ground. The holdouts. As long as they played by the rules, they weren’t enough trouble to be anything but left alone. Her daddy was a holdout. He died with his boots on.
Hanna was a farmer, like their daddy, and Sara supposed that technically she died with her boots on, too. The bits and pieces of her were buried in a box at the edge of the cornfield -- not her body, no, there was nothing left of that. Her perfume. The little snow globe collection Sara wasn’t allowed to touch when they were kids. She swept it all up one night, careful, careful, and put it in the biggest soup pot, sealed shut with packing tape, and then into a cardboard box. She shoveled open a shallow dark hole at the edge of the home quarter where the last breakable parts of her sister could be safe.
There were drought years when Cid was five, and six, and eight. The grasshoppers showed up in clouds just shy of a plague. At first he ran around outside, each step making the ground ripple around him, but then he picked up on the way the fields died no matter what Sara did with them, and his grasshopper-stomping became more vicious in nature. Sara wasn’t exactly subtle with her displeasure, either; she cussed out the hoppers, and the burning sun, and the shitty broken-down farm equipment in the shitty broken-down barn while Cid frowned at her like all this swearing was unfamiliar.
“Maybe I can make it rain,” he said. He started talking a year ago: full sentences, to match the way he watched her like a grown-up.
“Nobody can do that, monkey,” she told him. “But it’s a nice thought.”
He shrugged, solemn, and studied the sky from their front porch. He stayed like that for half the day, and by suppertime his lack of progress had put him in a foul mood.
He refused a story at bedtime when she tucked him in, brow furrowed and eyes dark.
She found the old tree trunk behind the house, after. When she buried the axe in, the force of it moved up her arms. She swung it in time to the way Cid slammed his bedroom door upstairs, over and over, hinges wobbly where she had tried to screw them back in.
He gave up before she did, and she fell asleep to a symphony of crickets and the throb in her hands.
There was a phone call: bad news from home, the kind that came in the middle of the night because no one could afford to wait. Sara cried and cried and everyone at the party looked at her like she was an alien, and so she borrowed a car with no intention of returning it, and she white-knuckled the wheel the whole way home.
There was a boy on the front porch; a sweet baby boy with Hanna’s way of tilting her head and Sara’s own blood inside him, and a great rush of love hit her like a thunderclap, as though Hanna’s absence left a vacuum inside her and Cid was rushing in to fill it.
Her sister was in the morgue and her son and her mother were right in front of her, and Sara knew, in this moment, that she’d made her choice; that this was it. Stubborn, stubborn, Hanna had always said.
“Baby,” her mom said, the next night, after a whole day of Cid making strange while Sarah’s ribs pulled together in a tightening band around her lungs, and all three of them tripping into the empty spaces Hanna had left behind. There was a wet washcloth on Sara’s forehead; her mom’s hand dry and cool against her cheek like when Sara was a kid. The borrowed car had no drugs for weaning off. “Baby, we need you here.”
Baby. She could hear Cid crying in the next room.
“I came back,” Sara said. Everything ached like a cold snap, when the chill had gotten inside your bones, bitter and brittle. Her son wailed on the other side of the wall. Her mom’s face as she glanced out the door, careful and steady, a secret there that Sara didn’t know, yet.
The fever broke, and Sara stayed, and later, when Cid was once again tucked safe in bed, her mom said, “He fell.” There was no body for the morgue.
Cid called her mom “Nana,” and he didn’t talk about Hanna at all if Sara was within earshot.
“Sara,” he said.
Nana died, and Sara and Cid missed the funeral on account of trying not to kill every single one of their neighbours.
Cid thought a monster must have stolen into the yard when none of them were paying attention, and he clutched a screwdriver in his fist like it was a sword. “It was her heart,” Sara said. Just her heart; there was a body. She died with her boots on, hoeing in a line of potatoes.
“Monster,” Cid insisted. He had a tendency to get angry when he thought he wasn’t being taken seriously, and then frightened of his own anger: a neat, agonizing circle. The house shifted around them, like it was settling in the cool of the evening, but Sara knew better.
“Don’t be scared,” she said. “There wasn’t a monster, but I’m always gonna protect you, okay? Don’t be scared. I’m right here.”
He was dubious. The screwdriver dropped out of his hand and then lifted straight back up into the air. One more minute, she thought, inhaling, sharp. The air tasted like ozone. One minute longer than last time. She held herself upright and felt the chills crawling up her spine, goosebumps rising right along with his voice, and only broke and ran when the buzz built up strong enough to start vibrating inside her skull.
And she came back.