When I had agreed with my mother that a change in scenery would be nice, I never thought that it would be my scenery that would solely change.
Sure, I may give a complaint or two about it being too hot in this place or it having too many bugs, but that doesn't mean that I want to leave. And I sure as hell don't want to be shipped off like some crate, boxed and labeled, to another country.
Looking past the green chipped paint of our porch and through the screen fence – the only thing keeping the mosquitoes and water beetles away – I focus on the sun. It's a little game that I play, sort of like a dare to the eyes. What you do is look straight into the sun, as though you are trying to find the puckers of flames, until you can't take it anymore and look away. Your eyes burn. Your breathing shallows. Your head becomes heavy. It was my mother's good friend, Phil, who had been the one to teach me this little game when I first moved here as a child. He said that the strongest thing in our physical world is the sun.
Nothing can compare to its strength and power. The sun nurtures our crops, which then feeds our livestock, which we then eat. The sun gives us warmth and guidance with its light. The sun was the first one to see the earth when it was created and it will be the last one to see it die. If it wasn't for the sun life, humans would never have thrived and grown; we probably wouldn't have been created.
Phil would tell me that to stare upon the sun and not look away was the greatest sign of strength. To go against the strongest power in the universe – to try and intimidate the power that gives you life – is the toughest obstacle one could ever try to achieve.
And what was once a little game later became my goal.
My mother used to always tell me as a child that Phil saved her; saved her from her past, saved her from her present, saved her from herself.
He saved her from her marriage.
It wasn't until I was older that I began to understand what my mother really meant when she that Phil as a savior. To me, he was just a man who would teach me games and give me sweets when my mother wasn't looking. But was something more to her.
Phil's the reason why my mother and I live in a secluded area twenty miles from the outskirts of Cape Town. Here, your closest neighbor is miles away and there's so much red dirt that it's impossible to keep it out of the house.
He's the co-founder to "New Age, New Life"; an organization that dedicates its time to helping the destitute citizens in Africa. Clean water and clothes are brought to the southern tribes. Medicine is brought to hospitals that have long been abandoned by the government. Their newest mission is trying to save young girls who are forced into genital mutilation.
My mother was offered a job as a campaign official after Phil saw her walking door to door in our small state of Washington and in our even smaller town of Forks. She was trying to get signatures from the neighbors to put up a gate around the school's park so that the kids wouldn't be able to run out and strangers wouldn't able to come in during recess.
She later told me that it was the death of Seth Clearwater – a boy who ran out into the street during recess and got hit by a pickup truck – that provoked my mother to try and get the gate built. Seth was only a year older then I was at the time. Mother told me that he had wild brown hair, brown eyes, and a dimple on his left cheek that would turn a cherry red whenever he got nervous. He would always draw pictures of cats with bushy tails, but would only use the colors green, blue and red; said they were his lucky colors. He wanted to be a firefighter on Tuesdays, a cowboy of Wednesdays, and a doctor on Saturdays; Mondays, Thursdays, Fridays and Sundays changed every week. But mother said that they always knew little Seth would join the army once he graduated from high school, as did his father, uncles and grandfather had done before.
The man behind the wheel made the decision to drive home, rather then call a ride to pick him up after a morning pint at the bar.
That was our hometown's good old Sheriff. Our defender of the justice and the consumer of the brothers of Daniel, Samuel and Jack. Protector, fighter, leader, drunkard; good old Sheriff Cullen. Mother said he was once a tipsy teenager. But then he turned into happy drunk cop and then into mean drunkard sheriff. Tipsy to drunk to drunkard was the series of our protector.
When word got around that it was Sheriff Cullen behind the wheel, the man was fired and shamed by the community, causing him to seek refuge in the bottom of a bottle.
Well, I guess it doesn't much matter now if that bastard burned the entire town to the ground by lighting up his booze or decided to 'be saved' by the Born-Again Christians who live in the compound on the outskirts of town. That town stopped mattering to me once Phil brought mother and I here to live with him. It stopped mattering to me once I realized that my father would never leave his God gifted town.
"Come on, come on, come on" I whisper as a mantra to myself. My fingers wrap about our metal porch swing and I can feel my knuckles becoming white. I stop my breathing and my head starts to feel the affects of that decision. I focus on not allowing my eyes to squint, as they are so desperately are begging me to, because that would be cheating. My eyes are burning and I have no doubt in my mind that if I were to poke my tongue out, I would taste salt.
"So are you going to talk to me now or should I just leave"
Startled by the sudden noise I swing my neck around, hearing a faint crack in doing so, and see my mother leaning against the doorframe of our house. Another battle between the sun and I lost.
"I was winning," I say to my mother before turning back and leaning back into the, once white, yellow cushions of the porch swing.
"I never got that game you play. I mean you can never win; you would have to live the rest of your life with your eyes unblinking and staring into the sun. Even if you achieved that, the sun wins when you die. It's fighting a battle you know you have no hope of winning", she said while walking over and taking a seat on the swing.
"Sort of like the battle of riding Africa of drugs and slave trafficking, huh?" I shoot back at my mother.
I know my mother wants to believe that someday Africa will be at peace within itself, but after twelve years of fighting this battle she needs to come to terms with the fact that it can't be won. My mother and the people she works with have saved the lives of many over the years. Crimes are like weeds though, you pluck one and three more pop up.
She asks, "Why do you even do it anyway?"
"It's complicated Bella, I just need to do it. It feels right", she says, taking her left ankle and crossing it over her right knee. She pulls at one of her shoelaces and wraps it around her finger.
"It's complicated. It's complicated. It's complicated. Haven't you come up with anything else when I ask you that? It's complicated."
Still looking out past our porch, I can feel her eyes on me. Almost picturing the faint slant her left eyebrow makes, allowing it to protrude slightly over the rim of her eye socket, whenever she gives one of her disappointed looks. I can never look her directly in the face when her eyebrow does that. There is always too much of a temptation to ask "Why so sad?" or "What's got you thinking so hard?" I'm pretty sure that's not what a parent wants to hear from their kid when they are attempting to discipline them.
"That's not funny Isabella."
Beautiful. That's what my name means, or actually, I should say my new name. Mother changed it five weeks after we moved to Cape Town a few weeks after my fifth birthday; said it would give me a new start. Said that Isabella sounded more exotic than my birth name and that it would help me fit in with the other expat kids.
But that reason was chucked out the window when I found out I was to be homeschooled by Phil's great aunt, Miss Kenkra. A woman who looked more like the fake leather of my dark brown backpack, then a woman who should be teaching me about the books it carries. You could even say that her entire face could be pulled from that pack; white buttons with black string for eyes, dark brown leather for skin and the rusted metal zippers for lips.
It also didn't help that I looked more like a fairy from the book Miss Kenkra is making me read, Midnight Summer Dream, than the 'natives'. Little moon is what Phil calls me. He says that I look like a full moon with my pale skin, round face and blonde hair. My dark brown eyes can even be the moon's reflection of the woods on the earth, he says.
Last time I checked, there weren't many native fairies in Africa.
"I never said it was meant to be funny", I said. "But if you want to laugh then, by all means, go for it."
"Okay Isabella Dwyer that's enough. I know your upset but that's no reason for you to act like a girl half your age. You're never like this so stop this attitude this minute. This is for the best and when you're older you will understand why I am doing this for you. For us."
"Liar, liar pants on fire." I softly chant the song and tap the handle of the bench. I rub my fingers together during the last syllable of 'fire' to feel that a chunk of rust has broken off from the handle. Must have tapped harder than I thought. Or this bench is older then I though.
"That's not true Bella and you know it."
"Oh really, then please mom, tell me how this is for my benefit", I snapped, sarcasm seeping into my voice. "Because from what I see, the only reason you are doing this is for you"
"Bella, I'm not going to sit here and explain my job to you. I'm your mother, your going to Washington, and that's final." Uncrossing her leg, she pulls her shirt down lower, covering what mother likes to call her 'mummy tummy'.
"Oh come on", I snapped. "Stop acting like this is a real job. You don't even get paid for doing anything. It's just volunteer work."
"I have done more then you know for this company." She leans forward and grabs onto the cushion on the swing, turning her body to face me. One of her legs is bent on the swing and the other is bent of the floor.
"It's not a company, mother. It's a charity. Most people go, volunteer for the summer, and then leave. How long have you been doing this for? A decade?"
My mother turns away from me, pushes her back into the cushion, and slides down until her thighs are dangling off the edge. Making her legs as long as possible, her shoes reach the fence, where her toes of her shoes trace over the netting.
"They need me, Bella, I can't just leave. Like I've said before, doing this feels right, and besides, I don't need to get paid. Phil takes care of us."
She pushes the fence, causing it to creak and a few stuck flies to drop to the floor.
"Oh, Phil takes care of us. Our hero"
"You love Phil, Bella, I know you do", my mother pulls herself up and sits up straight. I roll my eyes. "Don't act like you don't just because you're mad at me."
My mother starts to lightly pump her legs and we start to swing. Her sneakers are covered in reddish clay and they turn orange when the sun hits them just right. I hear her let out a sigh and, from the corner of my eye, I can see that she let her head flop back. She looks like a giant pezz dispenser; her neck waiting for those chalk candies to be loaded in.
Looking back at the screen fence, I start to lightly pump my leg along with my mother. I pump up while she pumps down, causing our bench to sway side to side, rather than back and forth. The bottom of my toes barely reach the wood floors when I bring them back up to the bottom of the bench. There's a scraping sound when my toenail comes to close to the wood.
The bench starts to pick up speed as I swing my legs rougher, harder, faster. The bench chains that are attached to the ceiling start to vibrate and the hooks begin to clank together. I push my legs faster – any and all pattern of motion long gone – and the back of the arm rests makes a loud bang as it collides with the back of our house.
"That's enough Bella", yelled my mom. She leans forward on the bench and slams her feet down on the floor, causing the bench to stop with a rough jerk.
"Why are you acting like this?" asked my mother, who leans back into the cushions of the bench.
I can see the wetness of the cushions from last night's rain begin to seep into her shirt, leaving a dark blotch around the collar of her neck. She arches her back against the cushions and the wetness spreads to her shoulders. Turning my head back to the fence, I bite the inside of my bottom lip, grinding it between my teeth. I push my tongue against the inside of my bottom lip and I can feel every vein.
They feel like little vines.
"I'm not acting like anything", I mumble against my bottom lip. "You're the one that thinks there's a problem."
I suck harder against my lip and can feel the indents of my lower jaw start to become deeper, more pronounced. I start to lightly push my leg back and forth when I feel them being pushed down. My eyes dart down to see my mother's hands on both of my thighs.
From the corner of my eye, I can see my mother start to lift her head, only to turn it to the right when the backdoor opens, carrying a squeak along with it.
My mother pushes herself out of the chair and brushes the imaginary wrinkles from her white t-shirt.
"Phil", exclaimed my mother. "Great you're here, I was just telling Bella about the new plans."