By Cat Cura
Her mother was going to kill her.
Thea Santos set the safety scissors down on the bathroom counter and looked into the cracked mirror. She shook her head, her reflection echoing the movements; she marveled at how light it felt now that she’d stripped off at least a dozen inches of hair. Gone were the stifling mornings where her mother’s uncaring hands would work her hair into twin braids so tight her scalp would sting for the rest of the day, the sweltering afternoons spent avoiding the sunburned back alley boys who’d pull on her ponytail and jeer when she ran away. She turned her gaze downward, to the long, dark brown locks strewn across the worn tile floor, and smiled.
She should clean the mess up. Dig up the broom buried in the depths of the downstairs closet and sweep away all traces of what she’d done. But she didn’t. She wouldn’t. She’d let it all sit there for everyone to see; she would let herself relish the results of her work. Thea felt something bloom in her chest, petals of pride unfurling and reaching towards her thoughts, where they burst into a dizzying sense of satisfaction.
Her mother was going to kill her, but she had never felt so free.
Cutting off her own hair had been her first act of rebellion. Leaving the crime scene untouched would be her second.
Her third act of rebellion would be the hardest yet. Thea had never snuck out of her house before. And yet, as she tiptoed out of the bathroom into a dark hallway and down the equally dark stairway, all she felt was a sense of exhilaration that grew with every step she took.
Thea found her family in their kitchen, although it wouldn’t exactly be theirs for much longer. As always, her mother was hard to miss; she was pacing back and forth, one of her hands gripping a cellphone to her ear while the other flung open and slammed shut kitchen cabinets at will. She screamed in Spanish, her words blurring together so rapidly that Thea could hardly understand her.
Then again, Thea supposed she did not need words to understand rage.
She reached the last step, and, as she peered through the minefield of half-finished suitcases and hastily signed papers, Thea had to remind herself to breathe. She would be safe as long as her mother’s attention remained with the poor soul on the other end of the line.
Thea’s mother, Magdalena, had always been a thunderstorm of a woman, with electricity in her voice and crackling, churning eyes. Long ago, when Thea’s memories were free of any clouds, her grandmother had whispered that Magdalena had been born in a stroke of lightning, and, as children who don’t know any better often do, Thea had believed her.
If only she had noticed the sadness in the old woman’s smile.
Thea found her sister Rosario crouched on the floor, her brows furrowed as she scooped up shard after shard of shattered beer bottles with hands that had long since gotten used to this practice. Rosario was eighteen to Thea’s fifteen, but she had taken over as the head of the household even before their father had packed up and left a mere three months ago; she’d traded in her sketchbooks and paintbrushes for wooden spoons that had to be replaced every month and cleaning rags that could never quite get the liquor stains out from the countertops. Even from her spot in the shadows, Thea noticed the hollows that slumbered in her cheekbones, the bags that had taken up residence under her eyes.
She wanted Rosario to see her. She wanted her sister to look up and find her hiding place as if this were nothing more than a childhood game. She wanted to see her dark eyes shine with something— sadness, surprise, solidarity; she’d take anything.
The moment never came. Rosario remained silent and searching even as her mother screeched at her to get out of her sight. The glass fragments in her palms glowed green and amber, their edges sharp fangs that sneered at Thea from under the kitchen lights.
Thea remembered the discarded hair upstairs, another mess left behind for her sister to attend to. She blinked, and felt wetness building in the corners of her eyes. Her adrenaline fled, chased away by fear and shame and something deeper, something bitter settling in her stomach like a stone.
She had to get out of here.
She squeezed her eyes shut, drew in a shuddering breath, and all but flung herself towards the front door. She snagged the spare keys from the hook, felt the doorknob squeal under her fingertips. She didn’t care if anyone heard.
There was a push, her body falling forward, the door obeying and opening, the first hit of humidity as Thea spilled over the threshold and tumbled onto the front porch. There was the door closing behind her, giving her up to a Houston summer dusk.
There was quiet.
Thea wasted no time in picking herself up, brushing herself off, and running.
Thea had seen Magdalena and Vicente Santos’ divorce coming from well over the horizon.
Her father’s absences were directly correlated to how often her mother drank. Her mother’s drinking was directly correlated to the frequency in which she’d rip apart Rosario’s sketches, threaten to break Thea’s headphones, tear through all of their bedrooms and leave everyone else to pick up the pieces. Magdalena’s storm had been building for years.
The clouds finally burst on a mid-February night. Thea hadn’t seen the event unfold herself, but, if Rosario was to be believed (and she always was), her parents had gotten into another nasty screaming match in the kitchen which promptly ended after Magdalena threw a twelve-dollar bottle of red wine at her husband’s head.
She’d missed. Barely.
Thea didn’t know if she believed in Hell, but, if it existed, she was absolutely sure that it couldn’t be that much different from the next few months living under her mother’s roof.
The lawyers were the worst part. Thea still remembered how they shuffled around like a flock of geese, all of them sickly pale and always looking at Thea and Rosario as if they were a pair of abandoned kittens on the side of the road. They had the decency to be discreet about it at first, but after Vicente publicly stated that he would not fight to get custody of his daughters, their pitiful stares became unabashedly open.
Thea didn’t end up liking them very much.
Yes, she’d known what was coming, but that didn’t stop shock from coursing through her veins when her mother had barged into her bedroom earlier that same day, nursing her second bottle of cheap tequila, her words already slurring as she told her to pack her things, that the divorce had been finalized, that her father had won the rights to the house.
That Thea, her mother, and her sister were moving from Houston to El Paso in less than twenty-four hours.
Thea didn’t have to go very far. It would truly be hard to miss the broad swath of forest at the dead end of the street she’d lived on since she was a child. The last rays of sunlight were waning as Thea approached, crowning the treetops with soft haloes of violet and gold. A hot June breeze buffeted her back, stirring the quivering oaks and leaving their leaves shivering, reaching for her on their spindly stems.
It was now or never.
Thea loosed a shallow breath and ran a hand through her hair. The ends were choppy and rough, spiking up under her fingertips like porcupine quills. Uneven. Unfinished.
Just like her.
Thea turned around, looking back at the way in which she’d come. The street was a darkening band of asphalt, a frozen river of deep gray flanked by happy suburban houses. She fought back the urge to creep over and snoop inside their bright windows; she had a pretty good idea of what she’d find, anyway.
Families eating dinner as one, commiserating on the living room couches, tucking their little ones into bed. There would be no shouting, no walls dented from a particularly hard punch, no cowering under beds. Just love and light and laughter. Whole families in whole homes.
Must be nice, Thea thought.
Thea looked back to the woods ahead. The breeze behind her beckoned her forward, and she stepped up to embrace the verdant depths. Twigs cracked under her boots; branches whipped at her arms, but she did not care.
If she moved fast enough, maybe she’d be able to reach her sanctuary before the truth nipping at her heels caught up with her.
Stepping into the trees felt like coming home. Pines and oaks and sycamores intermingled, their twisting branches forming a patchwork quilt of lights and shadows over Thea's head. The earth beneath her feet was as heavy as the air around her, still as stone and thick with life left drowsy in the fading evening heat. Thea breathed in (fresh leaves and rich dirt), breathed out (the promise of a Texas thundershower just beyond the horizon); the wilds pressed in around her, their rippling languages all lost in translation, but she was not afraid.
She had never been afraid of the forest.
Eventually, the trees thinned and the ground sloped downward, and she found herself at the edge of a small, circular hollow ringed by young pine trees. A layer of soft needles carpeted the ground and silenced her every footstep; she inhaled, and, through the pines, she smelled lavender.
There was a girl waiting for her in the center of the hollow. Moonlight caught in her eyes as Thea approached, her lips curled up into a broad smile.
Thea’s steps and her heart both quickened.
“Yeah,” Thea whispered; she wasn’t sure why— it just felt right, “sorry if I kept you waiting.”
Newt shifted on her feet and shook her head, her every movement outlined in silver. “Don’t worry,” she said, “you didn’t.”
Thea Santos could not remember a time in her life where Newt Larkins did not exist; there was no before, only after. Once upon a time, they were neighbors, little gap-toothed girls who would peer over fences on their tiptoes to catch a glimpse of the other. Each was raised on the other’s front yard, stuffed animals strewn across the grass as they made wreatjs of flowers and swords out of sticks and pretended to be faeries, or huntresses, or something equally fanciful and impossible. Cut lawns and trimmed hedges can only keep a child satisfied for so long, of course, so as soon as Newt’s mother forgot how to give her daughter a mindful glance (and whenever Magdalena became too drunk to care about Thea’s whereabouts), they took to the forest.
They matured underneath dappled sunlight and grew into rain-speckled shirts, running through the same paths and hollows until they were up to their knees in mud and earth and fallen leaves, They stayed out until the stars claimed the sky because Newt couldn’t sleep right since her little sister was born and Thea would rather be eaten alive by mosquitos than spend another night watching her parents’ shadows argue.
Thea always found something sacred in those hours spent alone with her best friend. Quiet laughter, intertwined fingers, a kind of comforting warmth. For years, she was more than content with this kind of companionship— it’s not like she was going to find it anywhere else.
Somehow, lately, not even this was enough. Lately, Thea would look at Newt and she’d feel her body warm up as if she were tinder and someone had just struck a match.
She didn’t know when Newt had started to have this effect on her; there was no exact day that she could pinpoint on a calendar and write this was the first time my cheeks grew hot around her or today she laughed at a terrible joke I made and all of my thoughts promptly shut down. It was just there, a strand of thread pulling them together in a way that Thea was not exactly equipped to verbalize. All she wanted to do was know more. About her, about this, about them—
She remembered what awaited her at home, and reality swept back to claim her.
“You cut your hair.”
“Oh,” Again, Thea thought of the inches piled up on the bathroom floor, and a part of her wondered if Rosario had found all of it yet. “Yeah. I, uh, did it myself. Just now, actually.”
“I like it,” Newt said, her smile softening, “I think it suits you.”
The warmth crept up her neck, settled in her cheeks. “Thanks.”
“Can I, um…”
The next thing Thea knew, Newt was reaching out for her, brushing her fingertips over the top of her hair with the lightest of touches. The world fell away; there was nothing but her heart beating faster than a hummingbird’s wings and fueling the fire that raced through her veins. Newt’s fingers slowly grazed over the close-cropped fuzz behind her ear, down to the nape of her neck, and giggled. “It tickles a little.”
Thea forced herself to breathe. Her skin tingled under Newt’s touch.
She was overthinking things. This didn’t mean anything. It couldn’t.
But Newt still wasn’t moving her hand from where it rested against the back of her neck.
Slowly, achingly, Thea looked up. She met Newt’s gaze and saw fondness in their depths, tenderness in the slant of her smile. She’d never seen this before—hadn’t she? Maybe she had, and she’d always tricked herself out of realizing it. Why was she realizing this now?
Thea swallowed, hard. There were so many things she could say. So many things she had to say. She would have given anything for an eternity of this, but it was too late now.
Thea had run out of time.
“I’m moving away.”
Her words seemed to blot out the final gasps of daylight. She heard Newt suck in a breath, saw the warmth in her eyes slip away with the sun. Newt pulled her hand away, and sudden cold stung the back of Thea’s neck.
Newt opened her mouth, closed it, opened it again. Shadows settled in her furrowed brows. “What?”
“It’s true. I’m leaving tomorrow,” Thea choked around a sudden lump in her throat, I—I don’t know what time.”
“Where are you moving to?”
Thea hadn’t even finished her sentence before Newt was flinging her other arm around her, pulling her close, pressing her into a tight hug. “It’s okay,” she took a quivering breath, “we’ll still be able to visit each other, right?”
Silence. The earth pitched beneath her feet; the trees melted into shadowed swaths. Thea grabbed Newt tight, buried her face into the side of her neck, squeezed her eyes shut.
Newt smelled of cinnamon. Her mother’s bitter laugh rang in the shell of her ears. She couldn’t breathe.
“Right?” Newt’s hold tightened. The tremble in her throat crept into her voice. “Thea?”
Burning. Her throat burned. Her eyes burned. The spot on the back of her neck, the place where Newt had just been touching her like they were the only souls alive— that burned, too. She couldn’t breathe.
“I don’t know,” Thea’s answer was a ragged whisper. “I don’t know.”
That was the truth. She didn’t know. She hadn’t known what to do since her parents had first started fighting, since she’d first started locking her bedroom door at night as if that was all it would take to hold the hurricane at bay. She’d stared through the peephole of Rosario’s door, silently watching as her sister declined acceptances from four different universities and sobbed for the rest of the night, because the fact that their family was unable to pay for a decent college was the least of their concerns.
All this time, she’d had no one to turn to. No one, she thought, except for Newt. And now, she was going to lose even her.
She couldn’t let that happen.
Thea pulled back just enough so that she could look at Newt again; she opened her eyes, fell into pools of liquid amber. She was enough to feel Newt’s warmth, the rise and fall of her chest. A tiny voice in the back of her mind urged her to withdraw, warned that she had already stepped over far too many boundaries.
Thea ignored it all.
A teardrop spilled over Newt’s eyelashes, and, before she could stop herself, Thea reached out to brush it away. Newt’s eyes widened a fraction, but she still angled her head and deliberately pressed her cheek against Thea’s palm like it was the most natural thing in the world. Thea felt her own body move like she was in a dream (maybe she was— God, if this was a dream, she never wanted to wake up), felt her fingertips curve along Newt’s cheekbone and settle in the spot between her ear and jaw.
Newt didn’t look away. Neither did she. She was falling into those sweet, sad eyes, like dimming embers, and she knew that she never wanted to come back up for air.
The next thing she knew, Newt’s free arm was tightening around her waist, and they were close enough to share the same breaths. Thea’s lips parted, desperate to ask a question, but the words died on the tip of her tongue.
A heartbeat later, Thea realized that there was nothing left to say.
She stood on her tiptoes, wound her arms around Newt’s neck, and kissed her.
It was a clumsy kiss, fumbling and desperate, but neither one of them seemed to care much. All Thea could focus on was memorizing every detail of this moment; she wanted to remember how Newt tasted like honeysuckle, the tiny whine in the back of her throat before their lips first touched, how they were kissing with a longing so strong that Thea could feel her heart ache with the force of it. She wanted hours of this. No, more than that— days, months, years.
The kiss was over as abruptly as it started. Neither one of them moved away. Thea pressed her forehead against Newt’s and heaved in a breath; she shivered, but it had nothing to do with the cold.
“What happens now?” Newt’s voice was hoarse. “What… what do we do?”
Thea wished she could answer that. “I don’t know,” she said again, “I wish I did.”
Newt shifted, resting her chin against the top of Thea’s head. “It’s okay,” she finally said, “we’ll figure it out. We-we’ll text and call and stuff.”
“Okay.” Thea heard her voice from somewhere far away—she was still lost in Newt’s heartbeat, the warmth of her embrace. She hoped that enough of her heart was in the answer, “I can live with that.”
Neither one of them said a word after that, so the wilderness spoke for them. A cold breeze rushed through the hollow, rustling the pine trees and pushing Thea further into Newt’s arms. Crickets called out, finding and losing each other as they moved through the darkness. Thea pressed herself against Newt’s chest and finally, finally let the dam burst. She didn’t know how long they stood there, but it wasn’t long enough.
It would never be enough, she thought.
The crescent moon rose. The crescent moon fell. Thea watched it settle on the horizon, a thin silver smudge through her tear-drowned eyes. Then, the sky started to melt into shades of violet, and Thea knew that it was time to go.
She had to say something. She had to. But how could she, when even thinking of the truth sent a dagger slithering between her ribs to pierce her heart.
Thea could not imagine what words would do to Newt right now. What they had already done to Newt. Words that had dulled her light and made her cry. Words that she had said.
She deserved better than that.
Thea cried anew the entire walk home (it wouldn’t be her home for much longer, her mother’s voice taunted). The door squeaked open under her touch, but there was no one there waiting to berate her. Rosario must have given into exhaustion, and her mother…
Thea didn’t want to know what her mother was up to right now.
She crept up the stairs and fell into bed with her clothes still on. She could still smell Newt on her shirt, lavender and cinnamon and pine.
For her last rebellion, she would let that scent stay for as long as it could.
Thea, her mother, and her sister left three hours later in the glow of a rising sun.
It was an hour after that, once Rosario finally maneuvered the battered station wagon onto the I-10, that Thea, staring out the window at a burning dawn, realized that she hadn’t even said goodbye.
In a forest hollow lit by the first rays of that same rising sun, a girl finally walked away.
About the Author
Cat Cura is a 21-year-old college student from San Antonio, Texas, where she is currently pursuing a Major in English and a Minor in Creative Writing. She identifies as a Latina butch lesbian, and she wants to use her skills with the written word to inspire other young, up-and-coming queer authors to embrace their identities, share their voices, and write their truths. In the future, she hopes to be a creative writing professor as well as a doting mother to both a Xolo dog and a Sphynx cat alongside her loving partner. In addition to her appearance in Cleaning up Glitter, she has also had work published in her college’s literary magazine, the Trinity Review.
Feel free to contact her through her email, firstname.lastname@example.org!