The Word

“They might say some things that are… offensive,” her mother told her. “We just want you to be ready in case they do.”

Cara didn’t understand what that meant, or which word would be the word. She’d heard plenty of bad words, especially when her dad got frustrated when he was working on something in the garage. She wondered if she would know it when she heard it. Her mother would be furious if she knew that she had tried a few out herself, just to see what they felt like in her mouth.

Her parents said they had to visit Aunt Millie while they were in the area. She’d only heard stories of Aunt Millie, but they insisted she’d met her when she was little, before she could remember. She guessed her aunt was one-hundred-seven years old. People on that side of the family were practically immortal.

Aunt Millie’s ramshackle house sat stuck in the hill like a card poking out of a deck, just hanging there like it could fall at any moment. The backyard was at such a sharp angle it would be impossible to play there. As the van pulled into the drive, something else caught her eye. A collection of broken appliances lining the porch like they guarded the place. She laughed to herself, nudging her brother.

They climbed the jagged walk to the rickety porch and went inside. The smell of old caught her by surprise, like the aroma of the antique stores her parents dragged her to on the weekends. The narrow halls were stacked with a random assortment of junk just like the antique stores, floor to ceiling, so close she had to walk through them sideways.

Aunt Millie welcomed them in, a tiny, skinny creature with white hair and sunken eyes who spoke with just a hint of a Carolina twang. She was introduced to Aunt Millie’s children, Fran and Lenny, older than her parents and still living at home tending to their mother. She’d been told the two were warned that if they ever got married and flew the coop, Aunt Millie would die.

She treated them to lunch, southern style, with homemade biscuits baked this morning and jam made with fruit from the garden. A crackly AM radio station played in the background as they insisted everyone have seconds, and thirds, of everything. When they finished, Aunt Millie got to her feet, washed all the dishes, set the table for supper, and covered the whole thing with a tablecloth. “A fly might’a looked at it,” she said.

They gathered in a tight living room with couches older than her grandparents and in the corner sat an ancient television set with a dead television stacked on top of it. Long metal bunny eared antennas spread out in a wide V on top. Everything felt borrowed and dusty, like it would disintegrate if you touched it. She wasn’t sure if they even had indoor plumbing, but if they had a bathroom, she didn’t want to use it.

The adults talked about the drive down and what they’d been doing on vacation, and she sat with her knees together, peering around the long, heavy curtains and wondering when they could leave. Her mother was a talker, keeping the conversation flowing. Cara cast a pity glance across the room at her brother, who looked as eager to flee as she did.

They talked about the past, of times before her and relatives she’d never met. They talked about her when she was a baby, which was the last time they’d seen her, and she was distracted by the way Lenny smoothed over the thinning strands of hair on his comb-over. He bragged about working at Walmart, and having a girlfriend. Her nose curled at the thought of him with someone else.

Then, during a break in conversation, Aunt Millie said a word. The word. A word that started with an N and ended with an R. A word she wasn’t allowed to say. A word she didn’t think anyone was allowed to say. Cara tried to keep her eyes from going too wide and neither parent looked at her.

Her father nodded, his eyes far away, and said, “Yeah… yeah.” He was smart. She thought he’d have better words. Cara looked at her brother. He didn’t look back at her, fiddling with his fingers in his lap. Why did she want to know that? Why did she ask them something so strange?

She saw herself running out the door, past the graveyard of appliances, jumping off the crooked staircase. She saw herself diving in the van and rolling the door shut and hiding from them. She was related to them. They were her family. She knew they shared blood, but she didn’t want to be close to a person who could say something so heinous.

Cara knew her parents would talk about it in the car, the safe place where they could be honest, when the secrets they stored in their mouths came pouring out. But the conversation went on, just like that, like everyone was immune to what Aunt Millie said.

A different time, she told herself. A different time.

The afternoon couldn’t end soon enough, and it didn’t. She was trapped, walking along the fence posts of the pasture across the road, wading through the tall grasses and petting the snouts of the cows that wandered over to investigate her. Out there in the low and golden light, she wondered how someone could stay the same as the whole world changed.

It wasn’t until that little shack in the holler was framed in the glass window behind her that she stepped out of the past and back into a time that was familiar and right. When people didn’t say those words. When she wouldn’t have to visit Aunt Millie again.

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