Raythene was a stunner, her mother was a glory — lustrous, the pair of them.
The grandfather — people called him Beautiful Joe, and you know what that means.
Scare the shit out of Satan. If you claimed you weren’t afraid of Beautiful Joe you were a bad liar.
Their house — straddling and rising two stories above the streetcorner family deli — was a plain ugly rectangle but better than a palace, inside, for kids. I’d think it worth struggling through the blizzard from hell, if school was closed, to spend all day there with Raythene.
She’d been born somewhere else and after her dad died, her mother brought the kids — Raythene and the older brother, Stellan — here to be with family. Weird names — long stories attached to them, they said — but I called them Thene and Lany.
“From the war,” Thene said about Joe’s face that looked like crushed and corrugated steel. Vietnam, I thought, though no one could date an ageless face like that — and not like any grandfather’s I knew.
You don’t call a guy like that — you can’t call him “grandpa” or “granddad” or “pops,” you find some careful respectful way of getting his attention if you need to.
Thene’s mother worked in the state capital, thirty miles each way. The store stayed open late; Joe was always down in the basement with a ham radio or something; and the grandma — English still a little strange — Thene told me the name of where she came from but I could never get my tongue around it — and a couple of auntlike relatives cooking the hot takeaway food that brought in a lot of custom.
They were all courteous but didn’t spread their affections widely; that I never needed to knock or ask permission or wonder if I was really welcome anytime — I took it as an honor, though I had to grow up to properly define the feeling. It was even the more so because I hated so much to be at home.
I was getting older and I fought back harder, when my dad beat me, but of course it was an unequal battle.
“Wish I never ever had to go back,” I’d say to Thene sometimes.
“You only have to ask,” she’d answer. But what can be so easy?
Strange we were so close — how I fit like the third of a trio with her and Lany. I was bright enough but the way their minds thought was unusual.
We’d rattle around that huge house and time would vanish, until I had to go home.
I usually only cried over books and movies, I was too proud to let my father have any more of a victory than what he managed, but one day I skipped school and went straight to Thene’s; I had to go through the store since nobody was home upstairs. Joe had come up from the basement from whatever he was doing and saw me.
Under those expressionless burnt-plastic features something changed; I was as used to Joe as anyone outside the family could get, and I knew he’d intend me no harm, but God Almighty when he showed emotion it was worse than when he didn’t.
It was hot weather and I had on short sleeves and the bruises from where my father had hit me with a hanger were coming up. I guess he hadn’t been thinking. Usually he hit me where it wasn’t supposed to show.
Joe nodded towards the inside door leading to upstairs. What seemed like five minutes later one of the aunts came up carrying breakfast for me, a whole tray of everything a kid’d like to eat, and a mug — not a takeout cup — of hot chocolate with the works on it.
She switched on the TV and left the remote next to me on the sofa, smiling in a kindly auntlike way, and I finished everything she’d brought me and fell asleep.
When I woke up Thene was there, sitting on the floor near me, working in one of her notebooks.
“I’m asking,” I said, really intense but a little mocking at the idea that that was all it was going to take, my voice thick and lumpy in my throat because it had to struggle through the shame and rage and hurt of coming from a crappy family like that and not having any way out.
“All right,” said Thene, rubbing at something on her page.
I had one of those strange dizzy feelings you get when you’re full of so many different kinds of emotion, and you’ve felt hopeless and trapped and no matter how often you find a refuge for yourself, eventually you have to go back. I felt as though a current had been turned on and snapped off a few times, and now everything is beginning to hum smoothly but you’re exhausted from the effort of fixing it.
I put a hand on Thene’s shoulder and she turned her head to me and smiled. She and Lany had wonderful smiles, the way you’d imagine maybe Einstein would have had if he’d been divided up into a couple of really astonishing kids.
I reached for their phone on the lamp table and called my home. After a little bit of interference on the line, a message came on saying it was a nonworking number.
I tried to say something again; no real words came out but Thene knew exactly what I meant.
“Somewhere else,” she said; “do you need to know any more?”
I was fine with it, then and after. Nobody anywhere acted as though there had ever been fewer than the three of us kids always rattling around that house, with time vanishing whenever we wanted it to.
Sarah Crysl Akhtar‘s shtetl forebears gifted her with the genes that impel her to make much from little. So of course she writes flash fiction, cultivates orchards on her windowsill and bakes fabulous shortbread. Her son gives her what’s immeasurable — the best of all possible worlds. (Less miraculous fruit of her labors has appeared on 365tomorrows, Flash Fiction Online and Perihelion SF Magazine.)