Freedom – A Short Story, Part 3 (The Finale)

Have you read part 1 and part 2?

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I finished my last forkful. Mom held the door open and Jacinta stepped cautiously onto the muddy sand. The three of us walked barefoot toward the rising ocean. My feet and Mom’s turned pink. Jacinta’s faded to a colorless off -white. We followed the shoreline to the barn and the fields. The sand was so cold it burned. Gusts of wind flew so fast that we had to shout to be heard over them.
“It reminds me a little of Portugal, on the north coast where we would go sometimes in the summer.” Jacinta rubbed her arms.
“Are you homesick?” Mom asked.
“I miss my family, yes. But Portugal… that is where I was born, I’m una Portuguesa, but I have spent most of my life abroad. Always moving, always new. I never felt I was tied to any one place.”
“It’s like you’re at home everywhere,” I said, walking backward to face her.
“Or nowhere.” Jacinta laughed. She looked down at the crooked outlines of her footsteps. “But, you know, there is freedom to that mentality.”
“And now you’re going to San Diego,” Mom said.
“Well we aren’t sure. There’s a chance we’ll stay here. I think that’s what Ryan wants, secretly.”
“But do you like being a nurse?” I asked her.
“It’s sometimes difficult, but I do love it, yes.”
“Then you should go. Ryan doesn’t want to hold you back. And neither do we. Right, Mom?”
I expected her to tremble with a whistling, throaty laugh and say something to get back at Jacinta for keeping Ryan from us for so long, like, “Then why’d he marry her?” But instead she shook her head no and walked ahead. The tail of her oversized coat flowed behind her, like the beige sails of the older boats in the harbor. Her forehead glowed orange in the falling sunlight. The sun illuminated her wrinkles, her thick brow bone, her silver earrings with the turquoise jewel that Aunt Jane had brought back from a weekend trip to Arizona.
We reached the barn just as it was starting to sprinkle again. Raindrops echoed against the tin roof. The barn smelled musty, like wood and dried horse poop. Apple, Spirit, and Oriole breathed heavily as we approached their stalls. Jacinta offered her hand to Spirit’s wide black nose. Spirit closed his eyes and lowered his head, and Jacinta stroked the white circle of fur on his forehead.
Mom scooped a bundle of hay from the plastic storage container. I rubbed Apple and Oriole’s ears. They looked at me sadly like they knew I was thinking of leaving them. I grabbed the other shovel to help with the hay. Jacinta hovered near Spirit. She began to hum.
“What’s that you’re humming?” Mom asked.
“When we were living in Spain for a little while we would play with the neighborhood kids. We were near the countryside, and we would follow them to the end of a dirt road where there were two white horses. Every year, they said, on the horses’ birthday the kids sang to them the Spanish birthday song: estas son las mañanitas que cantaba el rey David, hoy por ser día de tu santo te las cantamos aquí. And the horses, they would become very excited. We were there for six months only, but we got to sing with them once.” Jacinta faced us. Her bangs were crooked and frizzy from the wind. “Oh—do you need help?”
“No thanks, dear,” Mom said.  “Margaret and I have our routine down. Don’t know what I’ll do without her.”
I imagined it. I imagined Dad out on his fishing boat for another three weeks, sweaty but cold, falling asleep to distant metal creaks as he stared at the family portrait he kept beside his bed. I imagined Mom at home, wide and bulbous in her chair, squinting at the TV; I imagined her turning down customers who needed a guide because she was too big to ride anymore; I imagined her hunched over, catching her breath and brushing away flies as she shoveled hay; I imagined her halfheartedly rinsing dishes, the carpet left un-vacuumed.
I’d always thought Ryan would be back in town before I left. I never realized Mom would have to be alone.
I kissed each horse on the nose, whispered goodnight in their ears. We closed up the barn and stood for a moment beneath its overhang. The rain had returned. Everything smelled like mud, like metal, like the fir trees on the hill above the ocean. Jacinta and I ran onto the sand. The wind pelted us with water, blown from the tips of waves and from the sky itself. Our feet were buried by the high tide; by the foamy, speckled, freezing sea. My blouse clung to my skin and I clenched my teeth. Jacinta shivered with her shoulders high and stiff. Mom walked behind us as we jumped through the rain. Her eyes followed us carefully, like an adult watching children.
By the time we reached our house the downpour had slowed again. Dad sliced store-bought key lime pie, and we ate, still wet, on the floor in front of the TV.
Later that night, when everyone else had gone to bed, I stepped silently into the kitchen and tucked my college application deep into the trash. It would be less noticeable there than in the recycling. I thought about ripping it up for good measure, but that seemed too loud—Jacinta was sleeping right there, on the fold-out couch in the living room. The envelope was smeared with coffee grounds and pie frosting. I shut the lid, turned away from it, and went back to my room. It took me an hour to wipe the moldy scent of the trash from my nose. It took two more hours for me to fall asleep.
Jacinta and Ryan stayed with us for a month and a half. Then they rented a moving truck and drove down to San Diego. After that life was normal and quiet. Dad divided his life between land and sea. Mom and I worked with the horses. I had almost saved enough money to rent a studio apartment in town.
One particularly stale, windless day I checked the mailbox and found a stack of bills, a Capella’s summer catalogue, and an official looking envelope. It was addressed to me. I ripped it lopsidedly open as I walked back to the house. It was an acceptance letter to the university.
“Mom! Mom!”
She didn’t answer, so I rushed out to the barn. My feet pounded hollowly against the earth. I ran down the path, across the sticky sand. My cheeks felt thin and elastic from smiling. Mom was brushing Spirit’s coat with a round, soft brush.
“Mom.” I bent over and laughed thoroughly. “I got in.”
“Oh, Margaret.” She hugged me with the brush in hand. Her body was soft and still. She smelled like the warmth of horses.
“I’m not really sure if I want to go anymore,” I mumbled, unwilling to pull away. I tightened my arms around her stomach. “I even threw the application away—”
“I know. I could see it poking through the side of the bag,” she said. “Now, I don’t want to hear any of it. You’re going.”
We both laughed. I felt Spirit’s breath on my arm. I felt Mom’s heartbeat on my chest and the morning sun on my back. I heard the distant exhale of falling waves.
“Don’t worry,” Mom said. “You can always come home again.”

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