Before I Go…

We met under the stars on a night I when felt so low. My own graduation dinner and I didn’t think I had a single friend in the crowd. I remember my reflection in the fountain and not having to look up to see others having a good time around me and without me. Honestly, at that moment I was wondering if this would be my entire life: always alone and on the edge wanting in. You strolled up to me like a dream at that moment, a miracle appearing right beside me. Your very presence felt like the answer to a prayer I’d whispered for six straight years, every night begging to be delivered from the curse of loneliness. I needed you bad and somehow you knew that without me needing to say it.

For the first few months, our good times carried me on a cloud of passion I never knew could be open to me. For every good thing that came my way, I thought of you as my good luck charm. The crook of your arm felt like the only place for me. I preened in your sight like a cat in heat and ignored the draining of my soul each time you had a better suggestion for any part of my life. Looking back, I can see how, inch by inch, you brought me down to the floor.

Everything was perfect until perfect wasn’t good enough anymore. Just as I was relaxing in the security of “us”, the beautiful parts of your mask began to split at the seams. My hair was suddenly too short and coiled, my waist too thick, then too exposed in the tight tops I bought once I was proud of my weight loss. I was too tall in the heels you once said I had the perfect legs for and they were for whores, anyway. You joked about my coltish walk to your friends so often that I gladly went back to flats without protest. It wasn’t fun pretending to be happy all the time, you said.

The first time it happened, I blamed myself for the time of day and for the food being too hot. I’d cooked late, figuring your favorite meal might cheer you up. Things had been funky between us for more than a week and, yes, I had hoped to get you back on my side. I want you to know that it took hours to get every bit of macaroni and blood off my kitchen floor. I almost lost my new job waiting for my face to heal enough so nobody would ask any hard questions. You didn’t see what it almost cost me because you didn’t want to. You left and still I swallowed my anger with the thought that it was somehow my fault.

Every time it happened again, I felt the same for a while. Like a ghost, your anger would sneak up on me. Those were the days when even the sun shone with a grey tint and I felt so confused. Many times, I sat in corners with my head spinning and fresh bruises threatening to expose our ugly truth. I came to expect the trinkets of forgiveness and the veiled joys of “pretending to be happy” again.

I bowed to you until I just couldn’t anymore. I woke up on one of those grey days thinking of the blind eye of an old woman who didn’t leave in time, the death of a young one who decided to stay. Stories woven into the fabric of womanhood and told to me when I finally got the nerve to show someone my face without cover-up. Even with my eyes closed I can still see your fists coming at me.

That’s the last time I’ll allow my existence to be an excuse for your temper. You can find all the junk you gave me in the trash bin outside. I’ve gathered myself again and now, I just want what I had before. My life wasn’t much, but I was free 
and I didn’t have to flinch for anyone’s satisfaction. You’ll never see it that way and it doesn’t matter anymore. I refuse to waste another year drowning myself in you. I won’t ask you not to look for me. I know you will. Don’t bother finding me, though, because it will not go well for you.

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Writers Unite! Short Story Contest Winners!

Writers Unite!

Our FaceBook sister page Writers Unite! Short Stories hosted a contest in January 2017! We would like to present our winners.

The contest criteria:

Theme:  Love Conquer All

Genre: Open

Word Count: 3,000 words or less.

First Place:

The Girl With the Razzle-Dazzle Eyes by Milton Trachtenburg

https://docs.google.com/…/1NlKgkyQrq4_tBteGNQFx6xEKbT…/edit…

Second Place:

Paradise Beach by David Weeks

https://docs.google.com/…/1SHSTxf4bCz74_q1TlGPVdUzsmz…/edit…

Third Place:

Even From Behind These Walls by A.M. Ameenah M Hassan.

https://docs.google.com/…/14EKxFsSirU0k4TNDCE-n-4xrHM…/edit…

Honorable Mention:

A Mother’s Reflection by Leonie Hearn

https://docs.google.com/…/1_C5HyHW0rxl3M6btLBY-y4iDex…/edit…

Please join me in thanking our judges, Mandy Melanson, Dennis Takesako, and Dusty Grein. All excellent writers and all devoted to sharing their expertise with aspiring writers. I encourage you to visit their FB pages and author pages.

Also, special thanks to all who submitted entries. The judges were faced with a very difficult decision.

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Flesh

Did I leave a good enough note for Jamison? Good.  Keys. Why I need them? I don’t.  Should I call mom? I think that would just worry her.  This will already be bad enough.  When I’m dead or days away from here, she’ll know.  They all will.  You can’t just crash down on someone all the time and think they won’t find a way out.  I don’t know the building I’m headed to but I feel like my who life will start on the other side of its front door.  Kale is so sweet and perfect, I can’t believe my luck.  He understands me like no other.  I told mom how old he was last week and she made a big deal, threatened to call the police and everything, how dare she try to ruin my life again?? she thinks because she’s so unhappy, that we all have to be, too.  That’s why Anna wants to go live with dad now, ha!  She can’t hold us down.  Anyway, he said don’t worry about bring too much stuff and I know he’ll take care of me.  Already in just these few months, he’s sent me so many things. You can guess mom is still jealous about that.  I love him and I’ll do anything.  We’ll be a team for real now, just as soon as I get there.
***

I can’t believe mom is calling already, Jamison must’ve told anyway.  The bastard.  That’s the last time I ever drop him a line.  Anyway, L.A. is great so far.  The weather, the people, the trees- everything is gorgeous.  Perfect for a girl like me and the other girls.  We all wanna be the next big thing, but unlike them, I actually have what it takes.  When I first met Kale in person, I was disappointed at first because he wasn’t as tall as I expected, but I got over it quick.  It’s ok now.  In his studio, there are four of us so far.  There are two tall Lebanese girls, one with blond hair all the way down her back.  I was crazy jealous when I met her because she’s clearly Kale’s favorite.  The third girl is a little older than the rest of us and says she’s going to leave soon as she pays everything back, whatever that means.  I don’t care. The studio is big and awesome and this month it only cost me two hundred dollars to stay here.  It might’ve been more, but Kale let me slide with what I had.  All of them have to go out and work, but I get to just take pictures and soak in the sun!

***

We get up early most days, but this day I woke up before everyone else because I heard crying.  I guess the other girls couldn’t hear from their beds, but on the floor, I can hear everything going on down stairs.  Kale was loud for once and one of the girls, I’m not sure which.  A few good whacks and I can tell she is getting beat good.  She must have stolen something serious, I know a girl had told me before not to get behind on my rent around here.  Maybe that’s what it was.  We’re not supposed to ask each other stuff, but when I see her, I’m gonna ask anyway, maybe slip her a note or something.

***

Kale found my note and he wasn’t happy.  It wouldn’t have happened if that girl would’ve reached out and took it instead of looking at me like I was handing her a goat’s tongue.  Bitch, maybe she deserves her busted up face.  She’s on house duty now, that’s what Kale called it, and has to do everything for us.  She even made tacos just for me, all I had to do was go get the ingredients from the store because she’s not allowed out.  It’s kinda funny, but kinda not.  We make sure not to laugh where she can hear.

That older girl left today, walked right passed us all with her duffle bag while we sat around watching some stupid show.  Kale was at his real job so I couldn’t tell him until later.  He slapped all of us until we fell around the living room like dominoes.  My lip got busted and my ears hurt.  I feel like he hit me harder than everyone else.  After, when he was pacing around, yelling into his phone at every person who answered, the blonde girl whispers to me not to ever volunteer bad news to him. She said next time to just act like I don’t know anything and didn’t see anything.  Kale came back in and said we were all on street duty now, but he said it looking at me. 

***

I found out what street duty means.  Kale took me to some dirty guy’s house, then got all mad when the guy called him back to say I wouldn’t do anything.  He was so fat and pathetic and I was only supposed to be there to take pictures for him.  Not.  It was funny to me, then Kale came storming in.  I don’t want to remember much after that.  The black eye I get lasts for a week, though.  Can’t forget that.

***

 I wish mom would find a new way to call me.  Some creep took my phone and Kale says I don’t deserve a new one, yet.  The other girls now laugh at me under their breath. 

A new girl is here.  A skinny black girl with wide eyes like a scared deer.  Kale takes her everywhere.  I’m so jealous, I could die because he’s never given me the attention he promised before I got here.  That blonde girl is so upset over it she can’t seem to do anything right anymore.  She mutters about leaving now that it’s not all perfect for her anymore.  Ha-ha, guess who’s not the queen after all! I want to say, but I don’t.  I take her advice and act like I don’t even hear her plans, even though I really want to go with her.  She also told me that the reason Kale won’t touch me is because I’m too fat.  I’m crushed, but online he used to always say I was perfect for him, so saybe she’s just jealous of me, too.

We have a client to do together, me and the blonde, and from the start Kale thinks it’s a bad idea.  The place is far off the highway, so he dropped us at a spot where we’d have to walk a bit.  Doe Eyes was in the passenger seat, looking like a goddamn princess, while the two of us walked toward the house in the dark. 

 After the guy put us out, she didn’t call Kale like she was supposed to, tell him we were ready for the next one.  She called someone else and wouldn’t let me call my mom, even after I begged to use her phone.  When a blue car pulled up, she told me to wait, jumped inside and they took off.  I was so mad about the phone that I was thinking of ratting her out to Kale for having other clients, or whoever she left with.  That would’ve backfired, though, and bad. After a while, it got so scary and quiet around the house that I went back to ask to use the guy’s phone, for a favor, of course.  Almost two hours later when Kale pulled up, I was still waiting by myself.

***

I’m on house duty until the welts on my back heal.  They are mean and ugly, like Kale, and there are so many.  When he left the house, another new girl, this one Hispanic or something, counted twenty-eight long red marks and was nice enough to put some kind of cream on them.  I hope the others don’t rat her out for helping me.  It’s been three days and the blonde still isn’t here.  I don’t think she’s coming back and I don’t blame her, just wish she would’ve taken me too.  

On the bright side, Kale got me a pretty new phone because of this.  He even kissed my forehead when he gave it to me in a glittery gift bag, saying he knew I would’ve called him sooner if I could’ve.  I won’t make that mistake again.

***

It’s June 4th and it’s my sixteenth birthday.  Nobody cares until we all see my face the news.  Missing from Illinois since April 26th, but it feels like it’s been so much longer.  I miss my bed, the smell of my room.  My mother whose worried face I can’t even look at when they play a clip of her pleading for me to return.  All the color went out of Kale’s already pale face as he shushed us all, just so he could focus on what was being said.  He even stopped stroking the new dummy sitting on his lap.  I joked about it and wanted to turn the channel.  Really, more than anything in the world, I wanted to jump through the TV screen and magically end up home.  I want this all to be a bad dream.

***

We’re somewhere else now, in Texas, I think.  At least that’s what the last sign we passed said.  Welcome to Texas.  Yeah, right.  There are other guys here and we’re with even more girls are in a building this time.  Kale’s different now, won’t really talk to me at all.  Before we left California, he let me know that I’m on very thin ice because people are looking for me.  I’m bringing him too many problems, more than I’m worth, he said.  I hear him and two other guys talking about me.  I hear Kale say they can’t let me go home.  Something about how he should’ve left me on the beach like that blonde girl.  I guess he did find her, after all. I’m one house duty until he figures something out, and one of the new guys, worse than Kale, is assigned to make sure I don’t run away.  I can only hide these papers and hope they get to my mother somehow, someday.  I even wrote my home address and mom’s phone number on several pages, just in case.  Maybe one of these girls will have a heart and do the right thing with them.

It was found, read and kept by another girl in the house.  Three years later, when that girl was murdered, it was burned along with all her other things.  Meanwhile, a girl with big dreams from Illinois is still considered missing.

Good Marks

Its 6:45am.  Time to get up.  My eyes open and watch the sunrise turning the cracked white of the ceiling a cheerful peach color.  Today is going to be different.  I know the battles waiting for me outside these walls, nothing new or surprising if I’m lucky.  I sit up, even my feet feel steadier than ever.  If I get this right, I have one more year before I don’t have to worry anymore.  Well, I won’t have to worry as hard as I do now, I hope.  Nothing is a guarantee, though.  I hear my grandmother’s voice in my head as I iron my clothes for the first time, if you ever want to be anything, you have show up and give it a try.   Today is the first day I will show up and try.  I take my shower, exactly ten minutes and try to eat enough toast to keep my stomach from rumbling too loud.  At school, I’ll get more.  Always do when I’m early enough.

At 7:30, I head out the door, smiling inside at the fact that my homework is all done and every book I need is in my bag already.  In my bag, as in, my bag is not flat today.  It feels good to carry more than make up and gym clothes.  Whoever says detention is a waste of time is wrong.  Three days in a row got me all caught up to where I’m supposed to be.  Now, I won’t be so mad if I ever have to go back.  I tip-toe passed my mother’s room and take my little brother by the hand.  I like his smile when he looks up at me.  I want him to be able to stay looking like that, care-free like the kids on TV.  I have enough time to walk him not just to school, but to his class when I hug him for the first time in a long time before running to the number 23 bus stop.  If parents knew how much madness goes on between the morning hours, they would never let their little kids out alone.

At 8 o’clock, the world seems to start.  The bus is packed, but on time when it opens the doors for me.  Perfect.  I don’t push to the back even though I see Naiya and Denise as soon as I show my bus pass.  They see me too, but I’m not going to sit back there anymore.  I wave and wedge between two old ladies in the only front seat left.  I see why nobody took it- they smell.  Naiya says my name loud along with something slick that I didn’t catch because of the noise.  I know it was slick because the crowd in the back got louder, some laughing, others loud for no reason.  I can feel my friends whispering about me already and it’s just day one.  I swallow my anger and put on my head phones, tell myself that standing alone won’t be so bad.  I can deal with it, I have to.  It might sound corny, but a change has to start on someday.  Soon, I’m thinking about the whole lot of things I don’t plan to do anymore.  My eyes tear up, remembering how this light finally got turned on.

Mr. Lattimore pulled me aside after math yesterday afternoon.  I just knew I was in trouble again and was all tuned up to defend myself from whatever it was this time.  I even rolled my eyes for extra effect, much less than what I usually do.  This time, it was my grade from the huge monthly exam he made us take just because most of the class didn’t bother to listen or take notes.  I just stared at my paper and red 98% at the top, stuff we learned way back in September.  I had gotten good marks on the other ones, high 80s, but detention gave me the time to study a little for this one.  I wasn’t as shocked as he was.  He handed me another paper, and gave me twenty minutes to do the fifteen problems on it just to “make sure I wasn’t a cheater like the rest of them”.  When I finished, he looked it over and wrote 100 at the top with a star before getting serious about the real reason he was having me miss half of my English class.  The city’s education board was offering a new math scholarship and apprentice program for “kids like me”.  You know, poor ones “who don’t even bother to dream of education beyond high school, if they even finish that”.  The ones who have to struggle against all odds and still only make it if they can stand the alienation from everything they come from.  Around here, when a somebody wants to go study something other than the two black-approved majors, business and general psychology, they either don’t tell (sick of explaining it) or stopped telling (sick of being laughed at).  Anyway, the program would give five thousand on tuition each semester every year and, more importantly, a stipend for weekly part-time work with professionals in math related fields around Buffalo.  In a place where connections could make or break you no matter what you did, this was the sweetest part.  They wanted “total package” kids.  “Prisons are full of brilliant people who couldn’t get their act together”-  I knew because my own father being one of them.  If everything fell into place, Mr. Lattimore and a few other teachers would recommend me for the program when I came back in the fall for my senior year.  The college brochures he laid out made a fan on the desk in front of me, next to a small book on math related careers.  These were things I never thought much of before, even though I secretly loved math.  I stopped asking questions because I didn’t want to cry and gladly took all the materials with me.  When I got to cafeteria, I just let my friends think I was in trouble, even as I sat alone to look over my new treasures.

Last night, I stared up in the dark, thinking thoughts far away from Fillmore and Bailey, the danger of unnamed bullets that comes with this neighborhood.  The fights and drama, the friends I wouldn’t have time for I really stepped into my own shoes.  I wondered if my best friend would be happy for me and how I would even tell her all this.  She’s the only other girl I know who loves math.  Neither of us ever bring up her dropping out last year, even as she jokes that I should have a baby before hers gets too much older for them to be friends.  I will have to try not to change my face when I talk to her now, because of all these thoughts in my head.  Now that I have a real chance at something other than “best looking girl” in the yearbook.  I fall asleep thinking of what could be like to not wake up hopeless or wanting to fall of the earth.

Right now, As I slide into my homeroom seat before anyone else is even in the room, I think of how delicious it would be to leave the east side for good.  Soon, my plan will be obvious even if I don’t say it.  Many people I know will say to my face, “you think you’re too good,” and “don’t forget where you came from”.  All I knew right now is that I want to show up and try.  I pull out another one of the brochures, the colors alone giving me a hope I don’t usually have as the room starts to fill up.  In the middle of the latest news, somebody’s uncle got killed over the weekend, I force my mind back to the things I’m going to change.

Fireworks in Winter 

Jenessa sat on the cold examination table with her posture rigid as always, nothing giving away the silent avalanche going on inside her.  Minute by minute, the only hint of the devastation was a growing quiver in her maroon-painted lips.  Just moments ago, she had been snapping photo after photo of her perfect face, trying to capture the perfect doctor’s office selfie worth sharing.  She had even been thinking on what to say in the caption, something witty and cute that would convey the message of being beautiful and healthy.  The only trouble in her head was what kind of outfit she’d able to find for the New Year’s Eve party later tonight and if she would once again be able to outshine all her friends.  This “little stop” she’d had to make was smack in the middle of her already full afternoon and she almost wished she’d ignored that steady, but small voice that talked her into showing up.  She had even considered prattling off her plans to the nurse, but that was all before she came in with the serious face of bad news.  Now, Jenessa’s mind was a million miles from the thought of how many likes she would get today and who she’s see this evening.  Each time she tried to get back to planning her night around the glitter stilettos waiting for her at home, everything broke into the grey and black pieces of now and the bitter taste of a tragedy that she would never be able to outrun.  
The nurse’s shoes clicked outside the closed door and Janessa steeled herself for what could possibly be next, hoping that some of the hopelessness she was feeling would escape once the door opened again.  It didn’t.  A doctor with a pleasant brown face led the way inside, the nurse was behind him this time, the cold, mock-like concern still in her eyes.  Jenessa wanted to fall off the table.  Sure, she expected to see the doctor, but why now? What was the point after the death blow had already been delivered. She could feel the panic showing through her hazel eyes, a look she actively discouraged all her adult life, and decided to stare at the ceiling as they talked to her.

“I understand this is very difficult news for you, Ms. Jennings” The doctor’s accent laced with curry and the dramatic strumming of a sitar.  Yeah, right, she thought.  He most likely had no clue how difficult this was- most people didn’t and good for them.  She did her best to tune out his words and tune into her own ” … There are many support groups and medical therapies…. this is, however, only manageable. It is not curable….”.  This isn’t really happening to me.  It’s wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong…

Her eyes filled with warm unwanted tears with each pause in his speech about the best way to move forward.  The last thing she wanted, other than this news, was to have swollen eyes for Alexa and Chanel to keep asking about.  This cannot be happening to someone like me.

It took every bit of her pride just to become humble enough to ask a simple, loaded question.

 “Am I going… to die?”

The five second silence made her snap her eyes down to meet the doctor’s, a pool of tears escaping as she stared at him in need of a quicker, easier answer than what he obviously had in mind.

” Well, if you take care of yourself, not necessarily.  You’ll need to start a course of medications right away and we will refer you to all available therapies. There are many available.”  He read her mind and patted her arm, a touch she would have normally rebuked if she hadn’t been feeling so alien.  “You can be treated here if you like, or at another clinic of your choice, but you must be in regular treatment somewhere.  HIV is not like it used to be.  The illness is the same, but the treatments are lifesaving.  With proper care, you could most likely live a normal lifespan.”

” Most likely?” her eyes were now much wider and afraid than they’d ever be allowed to be outside of this room.  She wondered how she’d keep this look at bay after all this. 

” We still need to run a few more tests so we have a better understanding of what we are dealing with.” Again, he read her mind. “How advanced it is at this point.”

Jenessa opened her mouth and a quiet sound of ruin fell out and she went back to staring at the ceiling.  Her eyes, clouded again, landed on the clock.  Five after three.  

“I have to go.” she abruptly got off the table, grateful that she hadn’t had to undress.  What she really wanted to do was sit there and listen to everything the doctor could tell here, maybe follow him home so he could answer any question she had as they popped into her head.  Perhaps even move into his office so he could answer any questions she ever had and tell her every day that it would be ok.  But, for right now, appearances called.

“Here are your prescriptions, and I have made you an appointment for the additional lab work and a follow up here next Thursday.”

 She jammed the papers into her purse without looking at them.
Once she got into her car, a brand-new, jet black treat she was leasing for all her latest accomplishments, Jenessa stared into the mirror searching her face for any traces of shock or pain.  There they sat in every crease and smudge and in the distance of her gaze.  Her eyes were still worried looking and unacceptable.  Tears had run her mascara and put streaks in her blush.  Nothing Visine and a fresh face can’t cure. That word ran cold through her whole body like a childhood taunt as she attempted for fifteen minutes to redo her whole face with shaky hands. Cure.  Again, she tried to fantasize about the treasures she’d find at the mall she was on her way to, the joy of seeing her two best friends she could never mention a word of this to.  They would never understand.  She even forced her train of thought onto the student loans she didn’t want to repay while squiggling the lines of usually flawless cat eye- anything to get away from the knowledge of what she would never be rid of.  Incurable.  Jenessa became still, aware of the growing desire to smash her own face into the steering wheel as many times as it would take to die.  Instead, she gripped the felt eyeliner pen that she’d worked so hard to master holding between long fingernails and bent it until it broke, flinging bits of wet kohl onto her tan, calfskin coat. 

“Fuck!”  she hadn’t meant to bang on the horn, nor did she think so many eyes would be on her when she finally stopped pounding it after seven or eight blows.  She sped away from the clinic as fast as the icy streets would allow, welcoming any wreck that might claim her life. 

“Ugh. look at you,” Alexa’s sharp eyes peered over the rim of a coffee cup at Jenessa approaching, nearly an hour late for their weekly shopping trip. The puffy bun at the top of her head making her look smart that she was, or so Jenessa thought upon seeing her this time.  Still, she immediately wondered what about her was off.  What naked emotions were still bleeding though even after she’d sat in her car for another twenty minutes, just around the corner, trying again to blend away sorrow.  Chanel just smirked as they both watched her join their small table, noting the way she sank into her chair but saying nothing.  Looking into the faces of the women who knew her best, she knew they had been talking about her.

“Well, I’m here now.”  Jenessa heard the tired whisper of her own voice and it surprised them all.
“That’s all?”  Chanel just wanted to see if she would sound like a dying monarch again.  Jenessa couldn’t help it.

“Are we gonna eat first or no?”

“We ate. You want to order?” Alexa kept her gaze steady, always looking down her nose at whoever she was talking too.  They all did.  That look so commonly described as smug or, in her circle, bougie was the brand of their trio.  Jenessa being considered the worst.  She, in her younger years, she had even prided herself on her ability to make a person question their entire existence with a cold stare.  Second best was Alexa and Chanel would just tell a person flat out, they were “not up to standard”.  Their clique was wider than the three of them, but many a girl had been expelled from this inner circle and it didn’t take much to get cut out of their perfect picture.  Now, in this new filter, Jenessa felt for the first time in her life what it was like to not be able to stand against the heat of that look.  No, they would never even care to understand this. Already, she felt the sharp pain of splintering ties even though she couldn’t fully say why. 

“No. let’s hit the stores.”

The three queens of Hamlin Park walked as they always did, in a fashionable row, heels in sync and gabbing about the latest who’s and what’s.  Jenessa tried to stay in the loop, tossing in whatever dirt she had on each topic, always highlighting someone else caught in a lesser moment.  She spoke even though the hiss and fire in her usual gossiping voice was gone.  Like three birds they squawked, two not hearing the third fading back to silence.   They had been in and out of two stores before Chanel noticed and stopped in her fancy heeled tracks to look at the woman whom she considered closer than a sister.

“Jenessa.  What’s wrong?”  her expressive, chocolate face showed true concern.  Jenessa knew that if she could tell any of her friends, Chanel would be the least likely to give her secret away or save it to be thrown in her face at a later time.  Now was just not the time.
“Nothing.  I just want to get an outfit that will look good with those shoes.”
“I told you they were going to be hard to match.”  Alexa chimed in with a playful frown.  It was true, the glitter of the heels was a rose gold that wouldn’t go with any color, even the neutrals she had in her closet already didn’t look completely right.  So far, fining her dream outfit wasn’t turning out easy and she was sick of looking.  The whole while they’d been here, she’d been trying to force her mind off the pills she needed to get before all the pharmacies closed and stop being mad at herself for not going there instead coming here or wasting time tearing up her car and makeup along the way. Then, the thought of were exactly this sickness had come from popped up with horns of its own.  She hadn’t been with too many guys, but had preferred not to keep track in the past few years.  Most, she never even asked for their phone numbers or real names.  What her mother called “whorish”, she and her friends called “free”, often trading the wild details of their latest “freedoms” over spiked coffee and pancakes in the mornings after.  The high price of freedom was something left out, a unwanted drop from the cloud nine of their own created legacies.  Now, she had no idea who to kill for cursing her or how long ago it might have happened.  Really, Jenessa just wanted to go home and fall apart alone. 

“You should give them to me, I got the perfect dress for ‘em.  I would loan it to you but, well, you know.”  They chuckled at the familiar cattiness and walked on. 
By the time Jenessa got home, it was after seven and she had just one bag from the mall- six chocolate chip cookies and a sub from the food court.  Every pharmacy was closed as she’d predicted, leaving her most important task to wait until after the weekend.  She drew a bubble bath and slid in, Coltrane played softly in the living room as she contemplated sliding under the water and what it would be like to force herself to stay there.  If it was possible to drown yourself when it seemed so much easier than facing life.  She sat back and cried into the stream rising from the water, not sure if she would be alive come Monday.  She was expecting to be picked up by their limousine around ten.   Any party or event they attended to bring in a new year had to be over the top.  There would be seven divas inside, including Chanel and Alexa, herself being the unspoken leader of the pack.  It had been her idea as always and, as she stared at the frothy bubbles covering her breasts, she wished to be poured into the mold of the confident woman she had been just this morning.
“Aye, I was hoping you’d be here!”  Alejandro air-kissed both sides of her face as soon as she stepped into the crowded ballroom.  “You look fabulous as always!” as gay as he was, he still made a show of looking her over from head to toe, the mess panels of her black dress accentuating her perfect hourglass shape, a pair of old but gorgeous black booties on her feet. Jenessa silently thanked herself for sticking it out at the gym all these months and put out of her mind the memory of her brand-new glitter heels full of knife holes and now resting in the dumpster outside of her apartment.  It was show time, not a moment for reflection upon her latest outsource of rage.  She batted her long lashes gratefully and made her way through the crowd. 

 At the table, the chatter from was even more like the chirping of birds.  A flock of beautiful, brown birds all in the height of their lives and silently, savagely competing with each other.  When any one of them got up to dance or otherwise, the others would close in on themselves and whisper about her.  A coven for the lonely and glamorous, but not for the ruined.  Even as they all glanced at her for approval, Jenessa could smell her own blood in the water and found herself falling silent and afraid to leave the table for the knives that would be thrown at her own back.  

As midnight drew near, the table was empty except her.  The many men who knew her flocked to her, one or two at a time, for the chance to talk to her without being eaten alive.  Normally she would never go home alone and, still now, she didn’t have to if she could stand her own recklessness afterward.  When a pair got the hint that she had no intention of leaving her seat to dance or do otherwise, they’d leave and quickly be replaced by one or two new contenders.  
Nothing was pulling Jenessa out of herself and, when the coast was clear of both spying friends and eager men, she made a break for the balcony.  In the cold night air, she found herself mostly alone looking at the open black sky above her and wondering where she’d go if she fell by accident.  Would onlookers be fooled? would God?  She looked at phone for the time. ten to midnight.  Soon, fireworks would light up the winter sky and, if she chose, would be the background to her suicide.  What a way to go.  If mama could see me now. 
She leaned on the railing to look down at the city below her, not a soul down there or anywhere knowing what she was about to.  Who would know and catch her?  Who would care enough to stop her if she told?  as she tried to imagine when she might land, Chanel appeared next to her, a gentle hand on her shoulder.

“Hey, girl. You look kinda sad. What’s up?”  she looked down to see what Jenessa could be looking at and only saw traffic like toy cars with lights.  

For a moment, their eyes lingered in each other’s, the transmission of plans too painful to be spoken aloud.  Chanel’s eyes went wide and she cocked her head to the side.  It was three minutes to a new year.  

Behind them, more people began to crowd the balcony, waiting for the impending lightshow, pushing the two friends even closer together.  Their eyes never left each other’s, and Chanel watched as Jenessa’s face hardened to sad determination.  She moved closer until they were mouth to ear. 

“What happened?” Chanel had whispered it so softly that even Jenessa wasn’t sure she had really heard anything, even though she could only tear up in response. Slowly, her lips parted, ready to push out the words necessary for signaling help.

Just then, their other friends found them and the bird chatter resumed on all sides.  The crowd got louder as the last minute of 2016 began and Jenessa found herself jammed in place by the railing, the balcony now too packed for that accident to happen gracefully.  She didn’t have space to climb over the railing even if she wanted to, so she looked back at Chanel, who was now smiling passed her.

“Today, I- “, Chanel put up a hand to Jenessa’s face, stopping the poisonous truth from oozing out.

“There’s Jason! Oh, my God, I knew he would come.  Please. Excuse me for a sec.” she kept her hand up as she pushed through the masses and had no true plan of returning from the company of a guy that Jenessa was secretly finished with last year.  Chanel didn’t even look back.  If not now, then soon. Maybe never, I don’t know.  Everyone around her shouted the countdown 

from ten, and for the first year that she could remember, she didn’t shout with them.  When the sky lit up with plumes of blue, red and gold, Jenessa stood alone, surrounded by her closest enemies, and counting the growing list of things she’d have to keep locked away safely inside herself.

“Gone, Part 2”

For three days now, my phone has been ringing and I don’t answer, too ashamed and lost in myself. I let the hours tick away without saying anything to anyone. I look through the few pictures I’ve taken since June and don’t have any of Gil. Messages pile up, mostly from Arlene, but a couple from LaToya to see if I’ll be back to work next week. Every friend I thought I had, before slipping back onto this black hole, is gone. Amazing how fast people can disappear from your life.
On Saturday I wanted to go, I did. I should have, but when I didn’t show up, I wanted to explain why. How could I look at him in a casket, cold and still perfect, but never to comfort or encourage me again? Would the casket even be open? Was I to act like a daughter or a lover? What could I say to anyone there, his whole family who I’d never met. Most of the people there simply knew me as Arlene’s adopted daughter and I couldn’t stomach having so many strange feelings while being stared at and whispered about. I’ve been nauseous every day because of all this. In my mind, I could see myself puking everywhere and the service coming to a stop while everyone turns to look where I’m already trying to hide, way in the back. I’d laid out four dresses, half-did my hair, and mentally rehearsed, over and over, what I would say when I saw Arlene; all while deciding not to go. When I finally sat down to let her know in a text message, my stockings were already on and I was ignoring the blowing horn of the taxi waiting for me downstairs. She would never understand that some things are just not that simple for me. I should’ve guessed it would start another war.

“I’ve been going through Gil’s papers, and Missy, we need to talk immediately. You pick up this PHONE NOW!”
That’s Arlene’s morning voice message to me on Sunday. The one she’d left after the three from yesterday evening, each letting me know that I was dead to her for missing Gil’s funeral. By four, she knows I’m not going to call her back and it’s too much to handle. Really, what could I say to that? I am panting through jumping jacks, hoping to get my weight loss back on track, when the pounding on the door is so loud that I think it’s the police. It’s Arlene.
“Yes?”
“Yes? You open this door!” I lean against the wall, my heart beat still slowing down. I close my eyes to prepare for the worst.
“What do you what?”
“Excuse me? how da- “she exhales, a bull ready to charge, “you open this door and see just what I want. We got lots to discuss.” She sounds like a witch from a fairy tale, trying to lure me out, but I know I’m no innocent here. Not this time and, in a way that I shouldn’t be proud of, I’m glad that I am not a total victim for once.
“I’m dead to you, remember?” we are both shocked by my flat tone, me sounding as hollow as I feel, even as I slump to sit cross legged on the floor, I have nothing inside.
“Cierra, just open the door.”
“No.”
The whole door shook in its frame as she banged it over and over.
“You open this goddamn door, you ungrateful little bitch!” I can hear one of my elderly neighbors softly ask her what’s going on, she didn’t answer because, of course, such people are so far beneath her.
“After all I’ve ever done for you, this is how you turn out! this is how you treat me!” she pounded some more, then her voice got close and muffled, like she was leaning against the door.
“What about Gil, huh? Did that work out ok for you?” her laugh was sharp, “Honey, you need to let me in because I don’t think you want all these people here, who think you’re so perfect, to hear what I got to say.”
For a second, prickly icicles went through me, making me sit up straighter. I took deep breaths to keep me in my seat.
“Please. Go away.”
“Damn it, Cierra!” she got far and hit the door before coming close again. “You’re pathetic, you know that? I came all the way to this shitty neighborhood to have a real conversation with you, since you can’t face a phone conversation. Get all the way over here and you can’t even show your miserable face. I just lost my husband, and you didn’t even think enough of me to come to his funeral, AFTER ALL HE’S DONE FOR YOU! It’s never enough for people like you. Someone can never do enough, you just suck people dry and go crying to the next fool willing to help.” She laughed how people do when they are disgusted, not amused.
“So, what’d it cost you, huh? Think I don’t know anything, huh? Well, I knew Gil and I know you. So be a woman, now, honey. Tell me to my face how long it went on.”
“there’s nothing to-“
“You want to lie?” close again, “Don’t!” the word came as she hit the door again. Tell me, I can take it. we were getting divorced anyway, but I found all the receipts, honey. All the records. Any fool can figure it out.”
“Well, then, what do you want from me?!”
“I want you to admit it! Come on, explain it in a way that’ll make you feel like less of a tramp!”
She came close again. “Let me tell you a little secret, honey. Gil liked girls like you and you certainly weren’t the first.” She whispered and laughed, “Oh no, honey, he ran around with a whole lot of confused, pathetic mixed breed whores just like you. I just never thought my own daughter would be one of them, but I forgot you have the common sense of a rock.”
The first thing I notice is the strain of my eyes from being held open so wide. Then the fact that I am panting, her words falling on me like a storm. I only feel my tears after they get cold on the front of my shirt.
“Upset? Did you think you were special?” she let out a real laugh. “Life is cruel, isn’t it?”
she doesn’t speak for a while and I guess because her ear is now to the door.
“Honey, listen.” Her voice was softer now, a trick I grew up with. “I’m not even sure I’m mad about this. Gil saw easy meat and took it. I’m just sorry it had to be you this time.”
I surprise myself when I jump up and snatch the door open. She would’ve fallen in if I hadn’t shoved her back out. She looks at her shoulder where my hand had been fast as lighting.
“Was it the same with daddy? Did you feel bad for the easy meat then?”. Her eyes got as big as they could without falling out of her head, thin lips forming their famous frown. “Or was it more convenient to ignore back then, while you got yourself together”? I feel the burn in my eyes and realize that I am biting a fingernail for the first time since I graduated high school.
“What are you talking about?” she pushed through her teeth, shaking.
“How much did you know? My guess is everything. Every time.”
“You’re crazy. Whatever sick things your father did to you, I- “, she put her hand over her mouth and looked away so her tears could fall. “Whatever he did. I- “
“You knew.”
“I did not!”
“You did.” My own teeth closed around the words I’d been wanting to say to her for years, “and you know what, I knew that you knew. Even daddy knew that you knew! Maybe you didn’t talk about it, be he told me many times that you knew all about it and I didn’t believe him until I could see it in your eyes for myself. It was all over you face, the whole time. The day you left, after everything was in place for you, you didn’t care at all about what happened to me after that. Now, who wants to stand here and lie?”
With that, she frowned again before slapping me in the face for the first time ever. We both held our hands to our cheeks with wide mouths, staring at each other more in shock than pain. It seems like minutes go by before she snaps her mouth back into a frown and points her manicured finger in my face.
“I knew nothing of whatever filth your talking about, you hear me? nothing.” The growl came out as a hot whisper directing in my face, her scalding eyes still on mine, wanting me to look away first.
“You knew and nothing is going to change that.” I push my face toward hers until we are almost nose to nose. I know full well that she would never, in a million years, back down to anyone, least of all me. I catch her hand as she raises it to swing again.
“If you hit me again, I. Will. Break. Your. Arm. I Promise.”
The first time she tries to pull away, I don’t let her go and I feel bad. I don’t want to be like them, forcing people to do what I want and leave them to swallow the shame of it. I don’t want to use any part of myself against anyone, because I know all too well how long that kind of pain lasts. I just want to live in peace. The second time, snatches her hand out of my hold and stomps away, turning back once again to point, the words that were supposed to go with that gesture coming put as an exhale. When I hear her car speeding out the parking lot, I become aware of the surest thought I’ve had since I could remember: I need to be anywhere else, far away from here. I don’t know how or care where I end up, but I’m leaving and I’ll do almost anything to make that happen as soon as possible. Florida has nothing to hold me anymore.

On Monday, I show up at school for the first time in weeks and I pull myself together enough to be friendly with the librarian and other students in the computer lab. I have no idea how to do most things I need to do, but I’m set on figuring most of it out today. I surprise myself, again becoming that sparkling girl who walked into Dixie’s for a job not so long ago.
“Strange question. If someone wanted to find an apartment in another state, what would be the best way to do that?” I ask a redheaded guy on the computer next to me, who’s happy to pull out his headphones and listen. I don’t even feel shy when he talks to my cleavage. I guess Gil was right when he said that what boobs are for.
“You can find everything on Craigslist. Just type in apartments and what city.”
“Thanks.”
I spend the afternoon doing just that. I feel stupid as I skim a few reviews for different cities and read others. More often, I wonder if I’ve finally gone crazy, like daddy always said I would. Most of all, I feel done with everything and everyone. I feel cooked and ready to move on. Get out from under every shadow. As I decide to skip California altogether, I think of Arlene. With my whole heart, I wonder what she would think of this. Not wanting to get sucked into the panic I was starting to feel, I google a map and literally close my eyes while pointing at the West Coast, telling myself the biggest city near to where my finger lands is where I’m headed. I open my eyes and Portland, OR is where I’m going, a city I’d never even thought of in my whole life and that doesn’t even matter.
At work, I move faster than I ever have, wanting to make up for the days Latoya gave me off for Gil’s funeral.
“Are you ok, sugar?” her voice is soft when I hang up my sweater, my mind a thousand miles away already.
“I’m ok. I’ll be ok.”
“Your mother called. She wanted to know if you were going to be here today.”
I couldn’t move from the doorway, my heart almost stopped.
“What’d you tell her?”
“That I’d call her back after I looked at the schedule. That was a few hours ago.”
We just look at each other, her eyes reaching into my soul the way and reading me without needing to ask, a gift I imagine all maternal women have. My eyes are so clouded that I can only make out her blurry shape coming toward me, her soft arms and sweet perfume around me before I could resist. I melted into her before I could stop myself.
“It’s all gonna be alright. What’s wrong? You can talk to me.” Her voice is like warm syrup in my ear, making me cry harder and her hug only got tighter, instead of wanting to let go. “You too sweet to always be so sad.”
“‘Toya, you wouldn’t understand.” I am shattered and her chuckle shakes us both.
“Sure, I would. I’ve raised five daughters. There’s not much of nothin’ I haven’t heard once or twice.”
She doesn’t push for it after that and I can’t bring my lips to spill the same sob story that I’ve gotten sick of telling, even to myself. I want to say I’m fine, but, more than that, I want to tell someone what’s on my mind. I pull away so I can see her face, see if she really wants to hear. Her open and kind eyes, urge me on.
“ I can’t take living here anymore. I can’t… I don’t want to talk about why. I just need to get out of here.” I say this, half expecting her attitude to become cold, maybe even to get fired before I get a chance to walk out on the job. Instead, LaToya just rubs my back and looks relieved that that’s all it is.
“Well, honey, that’s easy. You know where to?”

I end my shift grateful to have told someone my plan and to have kept my main problems to myself. On my way to the bus stop, I see Jesenia heading back into the hair salon. We wave, but otherwise keep moving in our opposite directions. It’s been a long time since I’ve stopped in to chat and my frizzy hair and plain nails show it. on the way home, I catch myself starting to dwell on all the little, unimportant things I can’t afford anymore, until the apartment listings I printed earlier call me to more hopeful thoughts. Getting out of here. By the time, I get off my second bus and am walking toward my building, my whole sense of self is feeling a tiny bit less broken and more resolute.
When you don’t have any roots holding you down, it’s scary and liberating all in one. Everyone wants to have a place they can call home. The feelings of danger and uncertainty that come from not having any safe corner to lay your head and be accepted are never-ending. On the other hand, the world is an open place for people like me. The universe, even. Really, I could move to Mars and not a soul on earth would care or try to bring me back.
Not long ago, that fact would crush me. Now, I sit up straight with a cup of coffee while circling anyplace that sounds affordable. I don’t even flinch when it becomes clear that a room is all I’ll be able to afford on the slim savings I’ve managed to hold on to, and that’s only if I find a job immediately. Otherwise, I’ll soon be finding out what the Portland homeless shelters are like- either way, I’m still going. LaToya promised to always give me a good job reference and I take her advice on applying to jobs before I get there and letting that be my safety net, something I hadn’t thought of. “Don’t go there totally blind.” she’d said and I loved her for that. After putting in a dozen applications, I pick up my phone with shaky hands to make calls to the other side of the country. My voice is calm as I talk to several people looking for a roommate and as I leave messages for a few more before heading back to work at twelve.
I happily train the new girl in Ana’s spot. Between showing her how to tag and where to put things, I catch myself smiling, a glimpse of real joy from nowhere. When I’m alone again, I wonder if it’s real. I search my heart for the ache that’s always there and I have to dig to find it.
When I get home, not even the eviction notice taped to my door upsets me. It’s November fifth and I have no plans to pay my rent here. In fact, counting my upcoming check, I’d only be leaving here with twenty-five hundred dollars, and a good part of that had been given to me by Gil. I’d be a real fool to be straight with the landlord now. I just rip it down on my way in and start thinking of what I will take with me. I delete three more messages from Arlene without even listening to them first. I just don’t care anymore.
I’m sweating and throwing up my life on a Friday when one of the room renters calls me back. I’m off from work, which I hate and I pull my face away from the toilet to run to the phone. Her name is Nadine and I like her as soon as she adds a few laughs into her description of the apartment and lets me know upfront that they need a third roommate as soon as possible. With my stomach still heaving, we talk for nearly an hour, long enough for her to know that I’m coming from Florida with the simple hopes of getting a fresh start and nothing more. For a moment, I wish I had started my search after getting there, maybe it would’ve made more sense. All the same, I’m willing to say anything to get a yes and a move in date. After another thirty minutes, we agree that I will move in on the twentieth of November. When I hang up with her, I immediately call Latoya and let her know I will be leaving much sooner than expected.
“Honey, that’s not two weeks’ notice. Hell, on the bus, it’s gonna take at least three days to even get there!”
I roll my eyes and close them, not knowing what to say to that. I don’t want to say that I don’t care about anyone else’s plan right now, but it’s exactly how I feel.
“I’m sorry, LaToya.”
“Well, don’t be sorry.” She softens, “You gotta do what you gotta do. Are you sure you want to leave that soon?”
I think about the calls I’ve been ignoring from the landlord, my school and everyone else except her, and that was mostly because I worked in her shop. I think about the scene with Arlene, her denials and my own faults wanting to cave in on me.
“Yes. I have to.”
****
I take three buses and walk a mile in the early morning sun just to finally lay flowers on Gil’s tombstone. It’s big and showy, something I wonder if he’d picked out for himself for whenever he’d need it. I put down the yellow tulips and trace my fingers along the letters of his name. Gil Jamison Hasting. Born November 12, 1977. Forty years ago, today. I sit down in the neat grass and lean against the cool granite for a picture, the last one I’ll take in Florida and the only one I’ll have of any connection between us until sometime next year. There are others, from a summertime barbeque shortly after I got here and Arlene insisted we smile and bunch in close, but I don’t plan on ever seeing that photo again. I went back to the school library one last time, after my clinic appointment yesterday, just to print his portrait off his company’s website and thanking God they hadn’t taken it down yet. I’ll keep it forever, I’m sure, along with the photo albums from Maryland I almost wanted to leave behind in Gather Bends. I write down everything on the headstone, hoping I’ll have the nerve to tell it to our child someday. I’m only seven weeks along and I know I’ll protect this child with my life. Already, I want to give it everything I have missed out on forever. I shed a few tears, still not sure how I really feel about what happened between us, but wishing with my whole heart that Gil was still alive.
Three hours later, I’m standing in line for the bus headed out west. It’s three and a half days’ trip and I made sure to pack enough snacks and blank paper, hoping to sort several things out along the way. Looking at the people around me, I wonder how many others are running away to a mystery, held down by nothing but bad memories. I’ve talked to Nadine every day and call her now to gush about how excited I am to finally be on my way. Really, I just want to hear that she is still looking forward to it, too. Makes neither of us any difference right now, it seems- a stranger is stranger, until you know them.
I pull my three suitcases behind me and show my ticket before heading to the loading dock, grinning and tearing up again behind my sunglasses. My heart is light after having decided that I won’t ever again talk with the cloud of my past looming over every word. I’ll never again let anybody do what they want to me and hope they won’t make it hurt. I won’t just lay down for abuse. I feel that could be who I’ve always been, but it won’t be who I always am. Twice I’ve pulled out my phone, wanting to text a thoughtful goodbye to Arlene, or even call her to let her know that I’m gone, but twice I put the phone away without bothering. Maybe someday, maybe not. I call LaToya and almost cry when she sends nothing but goodwill, telling me again, to call her if I ever run into deep trouble, anywhere. As I settled into the farthest seat in the back, I exhale and it seems like the weight of another old disaster rolls off me and out the window, crumbling the further it gets away from me. The bus jerks away from the dock, causing two tears to roll down my face, and here I go again, hoping to get something right this time.
End

“Gone”

It’s a weekend again, seems like it always is. I sit looking though old pictures, trying to find a clue that I already know isn’t there. When didn’t I feel like I do now? when wasn’t I a lost cause? In dozens of pictures from school, birthday parties, my failed piano classes, family portraits- you name it- I see the same blue look on my face, year after year.
I look at myself in the mirror for as long as I can stand and I only see a girl who will fall for anything with eyes wide open. Walk right into the fire, convinced that it won’t be hot. When the fire is thrown on me, I just crouch down in it, thinking it will be kind to me. I stare into my own eyes until I see the fool that everyone else must see. I look until I feel it’s best to just cover it until someone different can look back at me.
Gil comes and goes whenever after he surprised me by letting himself in with a key he had made. I don’t know what to think, only that my stomach twists each time I hear the locks turning for someone I didn’t buzz in. Even when he gets out of my bed at odd hours, I still don’t know what to think. I just watch him go and try to tune into the mixed feelings that run through me long after he’s gone. It took just twelve days for this to become a regular thing. I don’t need to name it for anyone to understand what it is, not even to myself do I call it in truth. Each time I want to cry, let out the ball of anger inside, but end up calling him just to say “hey”, instead.
Most of those twelve days I went to school, but I don’t need a memo telling me that it’s not going well. I see the professors faces when they hand me back graded assignments that I’ve spent no time on, so wrapped up in nothing. I don’t blame them for 60’s and 70’s, just tuck them in my bag and move on.
Michelle asked me what’s wrong, and I started to tell her until I heard myself sounding bad, too.
“So, you sleeping with him? For money.” Her lips made a maroon frown, the best shade on her new Fall palette. she didn’t give me the sad eyes one gives to an abused child, something I expect. The disgust in her voice rang clear as a bell.
“I don’t think it’s that simple.” I couldn’t even look at her, but when I did, I caught her looking at me like I was the devil and she didn’t try to hide it.
“But it is. You ain’t a kid no more. Can’t nobody make you do it. At least, not the way you’re telling it. What you sayin’ just sounds like an affair.” We just stared at each other after this logic busted through my bull crap. I felt the distance growing between us right then and I wasn’t even surprised when my next few calls to her went unanswered. When she gave me only a short smile from her new seat in class, however, I felt more burned than usual. That same day, I went to the advisement office and dropped that class from my schedule.
At work, I asked Latoya for more time, not caring what the hours were.
“You quitin’ school already?” she eyed me suspiciously through her new, honey blond bob, her hands not missing a step in tagging the new sweaters.
“No. I… I just need to work more.” I sounded as stupid as I probably looked and if Ana hadn’t just put in her notice, I’m sure I would’ve been told no. Instead, though, on the ninth day of this thing with Gil, I started working from twelve to seven, five days a week.
Today, I go in with a blank mind and nothing to show that I’m breaking my future apart. I don’t think I care to think past tomorrow anymore. It never works out.
When Gil doesn’t contact me all day, I figure he’s still mad at me about the school thing. I text him before I sleep just to apologize again, for the fiftieth time today. The no reply I get feels like a kick in my pathetic ribs.
Monday. All day at work, my mind comes to the rejection. I greet customers thinking of the reasons he should be mad. Anyone would be. I delete two missed calls from Arlene and I spend my break pledging to pay him back the tuition in text messages. When Arlene’s number buzzes my phone again while I am out on the floor, I go numb, feeling like a spotlight has been placed on me. I go home early because I’m unable to keep my hands from shaking with the thought of what she could possibly want to say after a month of us not speaking. No Gil is waiting for me and I catch the bus with a new set of what-ifs to cry about.
I fall asleep on the couch and dream of poison dripping though the ceiling and me jumping around to avoid it. The ringing of the phone snatches me upward in the sunset living room.
“I’m glad you’ve finally decided it was important enough for you to pick up. I’ve been calling you all day.” the venom in Arlene’s voice almost made her unrecognizable, I could see her, in my mind, fuming though clenched teeth.
Had I not been willing to talk to anyone at that point, I don’t know if I would’ve answered at all, and that wasn’t entirely her fault anymore.
“Well, What’s wrong?” my heart starts racing as she cries into the phone.
“Don’t you sound innocent.” She hissed.
“Mama?” that familiar fear winds up from my toes to my chest by the time she pulls herself together enough to let it out. I steady myself for a knock down.
“Gil was… In a car accident, this morning.” She whispered, both of us clouding over as I strained to hear her now small voice, “he’s…he’s dead.”
Her screaming didn’t even hurt my ears as I sat too frozen to move or think. The urge to also scream rose in me and died just as fast. Arlene cried long and hard and, still, I could only feel bad for myself. My body was just a shell, full of the dirty and broken glass leftover from a spirit that never wins.

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