Karen Crawford


Karen Crawford grew up in the vibrant neighborhood of Spanish Harlem in New York City. She currently lives in Los Angeles, where she makes a living designing movie posters with her husband. She has won an honorable mention on Short Fiction Break and writes to exorcise those pesky demons around her and within her. You can follow her creative inspiration on Twitter: https://twitter.com/kcrawford_

Home is a Four Letter Word


The concrete sidewalk sizzles as light rain hits the pavement and evaporates with a slow and steady hiss. The smell of steamy asphalt and oppressive hot air assaults my nose and stings my eyes as I walk down Second Avenue.

That smell.

It’s like air freshener trying to cover up the stench of an apartment whose windows have not been opened in a very long time. It’s a smell that only belongs here, in this city I used to call home.

It takes me back, and I am seven again, peeking outside our bedroom door with my sister, Frances. Holding hands. Holding our breath, as the battle rages in the living room.

He’s angry. She’s crying. We’re shaking.

She throws plates against the wall. He throws clothes into a suitcase.

She screams ‘get out.’ We whisper ‘don’t go.’

He looks back before he leaves, with eyes darkened by shame, clouded with regret and then a flickering glint of sunshine with the promise of his freedom. We hear quiet sobs through paper-thin walls, and we climb into her bed as salty tears cement our bond.

“Shit.” A lump is forming in my throat.

I sit down on a bench in front of the building where I lived as a young girl. A small step up from the projects, I look around at the congregation of buildings covered in yellowed pink bricks. They look tired and worn. Haunted by grime and time.

I hated living here. He left us. Left us in a shithole of loss and fear.

The rain starts pelting me with little wet bullets, and I dash across the street. My sneakers squish through murky puddles, while brakes squeal and horns blare. I slow down when I hear the beeping of sirens and the urgent screeching of tires.

Those sounds.

They stop me in my tracks. The police have a young black kid on the ground. Spread-eagled like a science project. They’re holding his legs. I’m holding my breath. The beeping of sirens, it takes me back, and I am 10 again, clutching my mother’s hand.

It’s a peaceful protest in the hood.

Until it’s not and batons are swinging.

There are broken legs and bloody faces.

With screaming and crying, and lots and lots of running.

I clutch my mother’s hand as we fly past crimson footprints. They look like violent Rorschach art blotted onto protest signs strewn about the street.

Fear. I can feel it dripping down my back.

Onlookers whip out their phones to record the officer as he yanks the kid to his feet. I can see their eyes shooting daggers.

Those looks.

I remember them well. They show me I’m not welcome here. My skin isn’t dark enough. I want to scream that I’m not the enemy, this is where I grew up. Instead, I hold my breath. Eye daggers. They take me back, and now I’m 13 again and standing in the doorway of the cafeteria.

New school. New girl. No friends.

The lunchroom reeks of lousy food and disinfectant.

I see cliques. Black and brown. English and Spanish.

I stand with my tray and feel the glare. Staring at me. Daring me.

There’s an empty table in the corner, and I make my way towards it.

I hear someone growl ‘stuck up white bitch.’

‘I’m not white,’ I whisper, as the daggers pierce my courage, and I feel their hate piercing my soul.

Pain. It’s everywhere. Inside and out.

I move along, anxious to get to my mother's block. The rain has stopped, and there’s that smell again. I see her building sandwiched in between two abandoned tenements. The street looks like a war zone with one very lush tree.

I spent so much time wanting to leave, and here she’s moved back, back into the neighborhood. I go inside, greeted by the soothing aroma of freshly brewed espresso wafting towards me. It’s like a little slice of Old San Juan right in my mother’s kitchen.

That smell.

The smell of summer. The smell of my youth. The smell of home. I breathe in deep. It takes me back, and now I’m 16 and sitting at the kitchen table with my sister Frances.

My mother is cooking and singing to Sly & The Family Stone.

‘Everybody is a star.’

She loves that song. I look out the window as the sun streams in over the tops of the tenements. The record is skipping so I get up to start it over from the beginning. Then Frances and I chime in.

Those lyrics.

“Shit.” A lump is forming in my throat again.



It’s a bittersweet thing, coming home. Revisiting places I tried so hard to forget. Where memories are wrapped in paper and stored in airless closets, like dark chocolate that never expires. They melt, they harden, they bloom, and then they melt again. I look over at my mom, a Taino warrior, resplendent in her armor, and now it is me that is melting.

 “You all packed?” She asks as the cab pulls up to take me to the airport.  She gives me a hug and puts something in my purse. I board the plane and pull a CD out of my bag: Sly & The Family Stone. It sucks the air from my lungs, and I squeeze my eyes to blink back tears.

The plane takes off, and I am thankful for the window seat because I can’t hold them back.  They fall like an avalanche in large droplets, sizzling against my cheeks, forming puddles in my palms. I turn my face towards the window and let them fall, soaking my shirt and my jeans. I watch the buildings get smaller and smaller and smaller until they disappear into the clouds.

© The Acentos Review 2018