Published online in Every Day Fiction
Isabella rises at first light, as always.
Fifty years in the same house. Seventy years with the same man, now passed. Nine children. Four boys, four girls, living. One boy dead.
Or was it a fire?
“Aye,” she whispers, scratching her head, staring out the window. Fog, like a gray drape, billows across the wet grass, obscuring the neighborhood.
Isabella ties her shoulder-length white hair into a ponytail, steps into slippers, wraps herself into a loose-fitting white robe, and shuffles to the bathroom. She tilts her head, trying to remember.
It was a fire.
In a hotel.
Isabella splashes cold water onto a hollowed face. Her weight keeps dropping. She forgets to eat or is not hungry.
Ni modo. It doesn’t matter.
She makes the sign of the cross and edges down the dark hallway, two bedroom doors on either side. The children’s rooms.
Isabella grasps the cold doorknob and cracks open the first door.
A brown woman with high cheekbones and thick, black hair sleeps on one side of a queen-size bed.
Isabella tilts her head.
Donde están los niños? Where are the children?
The second bedroom is empty.
She clasps her hands beneath her chin.
Warm light and the scent of fresh coffee beckon at the arched end of the hallway.
Isabella stops at the archway threshold.
A man in blue jeans sits at a faded yellow Formica table, his back to her, reading a newspaper, legs stretched onto a second chair.
Her eyes race to a battered crucifix above the sink, a Virgin Mary of Guadalupe candle flickers below in the window sill. A white refrigerator hums, family photos scattered across the front and sides. A creamer and a sugar bowl surround a half-empty coffee pot on the worn counter. The gas oven clicks on, heat wafting from the half-opened door.
Isabella clasps her hands again.
The man turns around.
“Coffee, Bella?” he says, revealing a crinkled, smiling face. “How’d you sleep?”
“Good,” she says, eyes heavy, wary. She clutches her robe to her neck. “And you?”
“Always sleep well when we visit the South Texas coast. Must be the ocean breeze.”
Isabella is silent, forcing a grin.
“Coffee’s ready,” the man says, folding the paper. “I’ll make more when Alejandra wakes up.”
“Aye, Alejandra,” Isabella said, eyes widening.
My youngest child. The woman in the bedroom.
Isabella shuffles to the coffee and turns her back to the man, stirring in cream and sugar, scanning the photos on the fridge.
She spots a younger, smiling Alejandra with two boys, a girl, and a tall man in blue jeans, brown hair, smooth face, but the same smile as the man in the kitchen.
Isabella studies the picture for as long as she dares. “Coffee’s good. Gracias.”
The man slides his feet off the second chair. “Sit here, Bella.”
“You know,” he says, as Bella sits and tucks the robe around her thin legs, “one of my favorite parts of our trips is morning coffee. You, me, before everyone wakes. Remember Thanksgivings with the kids. The house full?”
Isabella sips her coffee.
Was this man here when Octavio died in the fire?
“Actually, it was Thanksgiving when we met. Over thirty years ago,” he says, tossing the paper on the table. “Alejandra brought me here from grad school. I tripped and fell over the doorway. You laughed, but you helped me up. The sisters and cousins shouted, ‘Kiss him and make it better, Alejandra.’ Everybody speaking Spanish and English at the same time. All the cousins, second cousins, aunts, and uncles. I thought my family was big, but, wow. I’d never met so many people at one time in my life.”
Isabella smiles, remembering Thanksgivings. The feelings, anyway.
The man gazes at the scuffed linoleum floor, the face from the picture now lined, hair gray.
“But you put me at ease, Bella. Over morning coffee,” he says, tracing the rim of his coffee cup with a long finger. “That day, you said I made you nervous because I was an English major and a writer. You said, ‘My Spanish is better than my English. I’m afraid I’ll run out of words. Sin palabras.’”
“Sin palabras?” Isabella said, tilting her head, squinting at the man. “Out of words?”
She set the coffee cup on the table.
“You are Thomas.”
“The young man who fell on my floor. The man of many words. You love Alejandra.”
She laughs, and they lean forward. Isabella squeezes his hands and pats his knee. “Aye, Tom. Aye, sí. Of course, I remember…Then, I don’t.”
Their eyes meet fully for the first time. Isabella wrings her hands, still smiling, tears welling. “Were you here when Octavio died?”
Tom cups her hands into his, cradling them like a butterfly. “No, Bella. He died when Alejandra was a little girl.”
The oven clicks off. The coffee steams.
A door opens. Floorboards squeak.
“The children?” Isabella says.
“Alejandra,” Tom says, patting her hand.
Isabella pulls away and clasps her hands beneath her chin. “Who?”
Tom sits silent, eyes tearing.
“Happy Thanksgiving, Mom,” Alejandra says, bursting through the archway and kissing Bella on the cheek.
“Tom?” Alejandra says. “What’s wrong?”
“Sin palabras,” he says. “Sin palabras.”