Boris placed his hand on her back, assuring her it was okay to enter the cave. She felt him reach up and run his hands along the stone wall. She jumped as she heard a click.
“What was that?” she asked.
“Hmm?” he said.
Another click and the cave filled with warm light.
Boris motioned for her to sit on one of two large rocks that were positioned in the center of the low-ceilinged cave.
She did as she was told.
His voice came through the familiar sludge of his throat, though this time, the growl was gone. She listened closely and thought she heard tenderness.
“I want to say I’m sorry,” he shut his eyes, seeming to squeeze back tears. She could not and she started to cry. A slight trickle at first, but the fear and the shock at seeing her dad in such a vulnerable place turned to heaving sobs in fractions of a second.
“Please don’t cry, Tam. I’m trying to say I love you.”
She barely heard him.
“Listen to me. Listen.”
She tried really hard to stop crying.
“Tam, you are almost a woman. Are you listening, Tamella? You are twelve years old and almost a woman now. I’m trying to say that I’m sorry and that I love you. I want you to be a woman now. I am an old man, Tamella, and I can’t be responsible for a young woman.”
Tam blinked, squinting at Boris. She could barely hear him. He was whispering and not making any sense.
He cleared his throat and continued. “It is time, Tamella. Time for you to grow up. Are you listening?”
“I can’t take care of you anymore and you need to learn how to rely on yourself. I am going to leave you here, Tam. I am going to leave you here in this cave. There are two ways out. One is through the front entrance, where we came in. Are you listening?”
Tam was dizzy, her ears ringing. Her mouth was dry. She coughed and dry-heaved, missing what Boris was saying.
“…through the back all the way to the house. Do you understand?”
“Yes,” she lied. Her voice like glass in the quiet cave.
Boris nodded and got up. He leaned over and gently wiped her face.
“I trust that you will find your way home,” he smiled. “That’s my big girl.”
Tam was frozen. Her tears were gone. She struggled to hear what he was saying. She saw him moving, saw his hand reach out for her shoulder, watched his lips move. But she couldn’t comprehend what he was saying.
And then he was gone.
And she was alone. And in the dark. There was light earlier, she was sure of it. But no more. The light was gone and her father was gone and she was alone in the dark. But she didn’t cry. She just sat.
She was a woman now. That’s what he’d said. She was a woman and she could take care of herself. She could take care of herself on a rock, in a cave, in the dark, in the middle of the night on her twelfth birthday. She could take care of herself, because Boris trusted her. And he loved her. He even said so.
She got up off the rock and started to walk towards the entrance. Her shoes began to stick in the mud on the floor. She stretched out her arms, feeling for the wall. All she felt was cool air. She concentrated on the slurping of her feet and tried not to panic.
She walked and walked and never found the opening. Never touched a wall. She turned around to find the rock. She walked straight back the way she’d come, but couldn’t find the rock either. She twirled in the middle of the cave, desperate to find the way out.
Even though it was dark, she closed her eyes. She took off her shoes and felt the mud squish between her toes. She held her arms straight out. Leaned her head back. And begin to spin.
She spun and spun and didn’t quit until she fell in the mud, landing in a clump. She rolled onto her back and extended her arms and legs like the Vitruvian Man. She closed her eyes and concentrated.
She jumped up and ran as fast as she could, certain she’d found the way out. She held her arms straight out to the sides and ran in the mud. She felt the coolness of stone on her left hand and realized she’d found a wall. A wall! She’d find her way out for sure.
She clung to the wall and continued to run. Her breathing was short and shallow. Her heart beat wildly. Her lungs burned, as did the muscles in her legs. She ran blind in the dark, listening to the mud under her feet and her father’s words looping through her head.
You’re a woman now. You’re a woman. I love you. I am sorry.
She was so dizzy and couldn’t catch her breath. She needed to stop, to rest. How long had she been running? It was a small cave. She’d seen it when she came in. She’d been running for hours, she was sure of it. Running lost, thirsty, cramping. But not scared.
She was almost a woman.
She didn’t even realize she was on the ground when she fell. Her brain was swimming. Her leg felt hot, she reached down and it was wet. She was covered in wet. Mud she guessed. But her leg hurt. And now she was a woman. Boris trusted her. She was his big girl.
She closed her eyes and saw her dead mother’s face. She was smiling and she wore a bright red rose tucked over her left ear. She pulled out the flower and handed it to Tam. Tam took it and held it close to her nose, inhaling deeply, trying to pull her mother’s soul in through her nostrils.
“Tamella. My daughter. My love,” her mother said. The words tickled as they coursed through her ears.
Her mother scooped her up and carried her in her arms. “Let’s go home.”
Tam flew with her mother through the cave, turning left and then right, Tam clinging to her mother’s chest, savoring the smell of fresh roses.
Her mother carried her straight up to her room and laid her down on the bed. She pulled the covers up over Tam and smoothed down her hair.
Tam started to talk, but her mother shushed her, placing a bony finger to Tam’s lips.
“Not yet. Come find me tomorrow night,” she said and was gone.
¶ 1:00 PM
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