penance

Her hands shake as she puts the kettle on. Her fingers are knotted and swollen with age and she moves slower than she would like.

When the old kettle whistles she fills her favorite cup to the brim, steeping the strong black tea.

She adds three sugars and a splash of cream and places three shortbread cookies on the saucer.

She shuffles into her bedroom and places the cup and saucer on the nightstand. She stands for a moment beside the bed and stares at her heart, watching the steady rise and fall of his chest.

Later she will curl close to him and rub her cold feet against his until he opens up for her, but not now.

Now she will sit until the tea gets cold. She eats one cookie and decides to read for awhile.

As her eyes grow heavy she stares at the tea with intention.

***

“You’re late,” he smirks in the dark.

She gives him a wide smile.

“I’m never late. Here,” she offers the steaming cup of tea and the cookies.

“You ate one,” he accuses her. She shrugs.

“Be glad I brought any. They’re your mom’s recipe.”

He stares down at the cookies wistfully.

“I miss her,” he says. He always says that.

“I know,” she replies. She always says that, too.

“How much longer?”

He shrugs. “Time doesn’t work that way here.”

She is silent for a long while, watching him.

Time has ravaged her. It has thickened her knuckles and thinned her hair. It has amplified her step and silenced her voice.

Time has pulled pieces from her memory and chipped away at her so that she has the task of rebuilding and viewing herself from fragmented memory like a kaleidoscope.

He is frozen in time, still a young man. His skin glows, his smile is perfect. She thinks he does this for her, this presentation of perfection.

Where they meet time cannot follow. It waits for her at the precipice and sometimes he peers over, brow furrowed with remembering. He can’t remember though. He can remember the snapshots but not the whole. Not the painful whole that they on the other side carry.

She supposes this is a gift given to him. If he remembers time then he will remember how little he was given.

“Your mom is close,” she says at last. “Another week or so.”

“I want to see her.”

“You will.”

“Not yet. I’m not finished yet.”

“Well finish. You have time.”

He takes a long sip of his tea, thinking.

“There was a boy in the neighborhood. He was small and weak. I hit him. He was bullying your sister. And I hit him and I liked the way it felt, his cheek in my palm. So I hit him again and again and again. Until his cheek was wet with blood and I was satisfied.

“He wasn’t the first or last. But he smelled. He smelled like stale urine and fear and I recognized it. And I hit him until the only smell was his blood.

“I think about him. I didn’t then but I do now. I’m sorry. I hope his way wasn’t hard.”

She doesn’t respond. That isn’t her way. She is only there to listen. It is his turn to speak.

These are their roles and they do not change. Not here. Not now.

“I think I’ll be ready to meet her. My mom.”

She understands what he is telling her.

“Where are you,” she asks him. She always asks this at the end.

“Just beyond. And close. So close.”

“Tell me again.”

“There is only light. Endless light. There is peace and joy.

“But first there is penance.”

She feels tears blistering her cheeks. They are always here at the end. She stares at him, memorizing his timeless face.

“We miss you here on earth.”

***

In the dark her husband rubs a calloused finger under her eyes.

She cries in her sleep.

With a shaking hand he takes her tea and pours it down the drain, placing the cookies back in the jar.

He brings the empty cup and saucer and places both on her night stand.

He lays gingerly in the bed, arms open expectantly, awaiting her return.

Wash Day

A young man from the old neighborhood has died, her mother tells her. She enters her house in her modern, diverse neighborhood with a yawn, kicking the door shut behind her. Everything is in its place, and she takes a moment to breathe in the sweet magnolia scent of her spacious, dazzlingly white home.

“Oh? Who?” she is uninterested, but her mother and father perusing the obituary and reporting faithfully the names of the departed is a tradition she does not wish to wrest from them.

Her mother gives the name, but she is distracted by her young daughter proudly shoving a jagged hand turkey composed of dull red construction paper into her stomach. She retrieves the turkey with an exaggerated smile and kisses the girl on her silky ringlets. The girl’s cherub cheeks redden and she beams.

Her own hair is thick and coarse and it is wash day. She gazes at herself in the mirror in the parlor, proud of her high cheekbones and deep brown skin. She’ll need to hang up soon. Washing her hair is a ritual that requires singular focus.

“I’m sorry, who did you say again?” She asks her mother respectfully. Her mother repeats the name and her own heart skips several beats.

“Oh, wow. What happened?” She knows that the obituary will not say. Her mother clicks her tongue.

“It’s a shame, all of these young black boys dying.” She gives an obligatory nod, no longer listening. 

She scrolls through her newsfeed until she happens upon her high school best friend’s page. Her friend has posted a photo of the newly deceased with the caption, “gone too soon,” beneath.

His skin is dark, so dark he is hard to see in the blurry photo her friend has chosen. He smiles so brightly she can’t imagine that the light in him is already out. 

She feels a pang in her chest and tells her mother goodbye.

She moves into the airy kitchen where her husband is making dinner with their oldest child. Freckles spatter her husband’s face and his reddish brown beard has turned to white in spaces. She watches her husband with their children for a few moments before making her presence known.

He greets her with a kiss and she tells him, abruptly, of the young man’s death. He does not know the young man, nor any of the stories. Not the ones set in deep, scabbed over but raw beneath. 

“I’m sorry, honey,” her husband responds, an automaton.

She nods but does not speak.

She bites her lip and goes through the ritual of washing her hair, detangling her hair, conditioning her hair rinsing her hair combing her hair conditioning her hair, twisting her hair, and covering it. Her fingers are withered and numb when she finishes. When she last saw the young man who died her own hair was fried and covered with an ill-fitting sew in. She smiles mournfully and her husband catches it.

He apologizes again, thinking that she is upset. She shakes off his offered grief and they tumble into bed together.

She cannot sleep. 

She thinks she should send something to the family.

She pulls out her stationary and sits with her pen poised above the paper, remembering.

She was the dirt that they gleefully trod upon.

It begins with one boy, the one who is the dead young man now. 

They are in the cafeteria before school begins, sitting as a group in the Black Kids’ Section. The white kids do not eat breakfast in the cafeteria, but the black kids do, and even if you eat breakfast at home you sit in the cafeteria lest you are caught loitering around the building.

A semicircle seems to break around the boy as he directs his gaze at her and she meets his eyes over her book. 

“Why you look like a monkey?” he asks her, all teeth. Her heart hammers in her chest so loudly she is certain they all hear. 

“Ooh ooh ah ah,” he taunts her. The crowd around erupts into laughter and she tries to laugh, too. 

“What you laughing for, monkey?” another boy pierces her. Again, they laugh.

This is the opening that she remembers. 

At lunch one of the white boys joins in. “Hey, gorilla,” he sneers. “ooh ooh ah ah.” She pauses for a moment. Her town is small and southern and segregated. She imagines for a moment that they, the boys who look like her, the ones who began this, will protect her.

Here, though, a bridge is made. They all erupt into laughter again and she hates them.

She is small for her age and wears cheap round glasses with thick lenses. Her legs are scarred and her hair is fried. Her nose is wide and her skin is dark. She over enunciates every word and she is accused of liking white boys. She hates her face. She hates her flat chest and her scarred legs. She hates her nose and her dark skin and her nappy hair. The bridge of her nose is deep, her forehead wide.

She thinks she looks like a monkey, too, feels it deep within her bones, and she despairs.

For six years more it continues. Everyone knows that she is the monkey. They walk down the hall making hooting noises and, when particularly emboldened, offer bananas to her. 

             Once she walks the halls with her crush, her heart fluttering wildly. They move past a group who whisper hoots. She pretends not to hear them, afraid her crush will hear. Their taunts dig deep into her skin and scar even her bones. 

Years later she wants to accuse them, all of them, for all of the world—even white people—to see. She knows that to air your dirty laundry is an offense that will send you to hell, but to air it so that white people can pick through and claim it? That will send you to hell here on earth. 

A girl whose name she does not know tells her, rather abruptly, that everyone experienced the same trauma. That it isn’t an excuse for hating herself. Childhood trauma should be left in childhood. She wonders if this burgeoning physician will heal herself; bitterly she resigns herself to the knowledge that some trauma is to be buried deep. 

In some part of her she knows the girl is right. Boys who looked like her weren’t the only people to put her beneath their feet. She cannot reach the others, though, and so she hates the ones with skin as dark as hers, noses just as wide. The ones she constructed herself against. 

She thinks she rids herself of this later, when she exchanges her desire for straight hair for a desire for the hair that grows from her scalp like a crown. Though her husband has skin as fair as milk she considers that she chose him in spite of this. She works as an activist and though she does not live in their neighborhood, works with underprivileged youth encouraging them to see their black as beautiful and to write their path from darkness. She loves her skin in its sable smoothness. 

And yet.

Her pen is poised above the page where she should indicate shared grief. 

Years of fury boil up over her in a rage. He has moved beyond the veil and she thought she had rid herself of her hatred but she wants to scribble it on the page and send it to those whom he has left behind.

I hated myself because of him. She wants to accuse him, though she knows it would be a lie. She aches with knowing.

She throws the stationary away and settles for, “I’m sorry for your loss,” on her friend’s page. 

She avoids her bedroom mirror and moves through her white, gleaming house, in the dark. 

Occurrence on King Drive

I.

A man kneeled on cracked cement on King Drive in the South Side of Chicago, staring down the barrel of a .40. The man’s wrists were not bound, but hung limply by his sides, weighed down only by the heaviness of his coat. On either side of the man stood faceless, nameless men in uniform. They stared ahead, unseeing, performing their sightless speechless duties as required—no more, no less. 

Beyond the uniformed, nameless figures was no-one. The business conducted in that alley was publicly private, and not even the brilliant flashes of blue and white could draw forth witnesses. Just one block from the alley lay another world entire: suits and dresses and the rhythmic staccato of the world beyond. Later these would be spectators and later still carrion, but the wall between the alley and that world had not yet been sold. 

All were silent and still in the alley. The captain stood stiff and red-faced, breathing heavily. He knew what would happen next—what must happen. His lieutenants awaited his sign, and he would not rush it. He had read somewhere that “death is a dignitary who when he comes announced is to be received with formal manifestations of respect, even by those most familiar with him.” He wasn’t sure where he’d heard it, but he had known death and thus, he gave deference to him, death, when he came. 

The kneeling man was no more than twenty-seven. He was a man whose being was formed almost assuredly by “The Hood;” an oft referenced but rarely sighted section of Blackness, more prescient than his own name. Even if he were not raised there (he was not), he was a part of them, The Streets, and they a part of the construction of him. He had familiar features—wide nose, dark skin, thick lips, coarse hair, and muscles rippling naturally from beneath his oversized hoodie. His eyes were large and dark brown, and his expression was defiant and accusatory. He had not been here before, but all was familiar. He had seen the scene before, if not with his own eyes. Being wrestled to the ground and staring down the barrel of a Glock for the crime of not passing the paper bag test was genetic memory now. Those whose ghosts kneeled before were gentlemen, girl, and goon alike—when the moment came for sacrifice (and the moment was moments, now, one right after the next) all blood fell even.

Now was his moment. The lieutenants stepped aside—their part here was finished for now. It came to the captain; he had not had his turn in awhile, and the use of the captain was simple and effective. The story would always be clean, but this helped ease the stomachs of the lieutenants. They would quickly become accustomed to such methods, but too much of this justice would sour them. 

Should they go before the world to be judged it would come out in their favor. The performance of this type of justice, here, in the streets, was for the people, and the people did not damn those who enacted their will. Certainly all parts would be played as what is right and proper, but they would extinguish him and hang him by the invisible noose of justice and after the appropriate time would receive commendations for their part in assuaging the burden. 

The kneeling man licked his lips and let his eyes wander for a moment. How curious that they would wander now; a gun pointed toward the center of his face, and steel cuffs now chilled his wrists from behind. He noted a silver glint in the corner of his eye and he followed it. The strain was too much though and hurt his eyes, and he lost the glint just beyond his field of vision. Perhaps it belonged to the cavalry, all of those whose face his represented now. Perhaps a gun pointed at his accuser, its barrel caught by the light. Perhaps a small puddle reflected the sun peering at them from behind a slow moving cloud. 

The kneeling man closed his eyes and thought of his parents and his siblings. Beyond his thoughts he could hear the bustle of people moving unaware of his ending. He could discern the city swell and a coming rain, but beneath those a new sound. The toll of a bell—how poignant! Were he not in the kneeling position as the condemned man he wouldn’t believe it, a bell sounding the hour of his death—though more likely it sounded noon. They must move soon if their story was to hold. The sound of the bell drawing him closer to an end cut through him like a knife, and he thought he might be sick with the thought. 

He closed his eyes and saw the glint again. “If I could loosen the cuffs,” he thought, “I might distract them enough to run out of the alley. Run down __th and 1st, reach the boulevard, take the train and make my way home. They won’t come down there, thank God. My mom and the others are still beyond their reach.” 

As these thoughts came upon him the captain nodded at the sergeant, and he did not hesitate.

II.

Adwin Frost was a man unmoored, a drifter hailing from generations of drifters. They worked—one could not eat if one did not work was an early lesson Adwin’s mother taught him—moving from odd job to odd job. The drifting was in desire more than station. His generation was unafraid of moving and desiring, they seemed to be inspired by an insipid notion of self-worth and happiness. Adwin’s mother had hoped he would let go of foolish notions of happiness and instead “make something” of himself. She never revealed what making something of one’s self meant, so Adwin supposed that sleeping somewhere that wasn’t outside—though the somewhere was not always better than sleeping outside—was making more of himself than others, but less, admittedly, than most. Adwin had envisioned himself an artist, and though he performed his civic duty and, impossibly, pulled himself up by his bootstrap, attended college, paid student loans when he couldn’t afford to pay rent, opportunity and luck passed him by. While his mother did not state that being an artist wasn’t the same as being, Adwin could feel the impression of her mild disapproval whenever he spoke of his choice. 

To be an artist was to feign freedom, to move about the world in a daze, seeing things for what they were and what they could be. There was a curse in this kind of knowledge: room for any concepts of freedom when there was work to be done—and there was always work to do. Adwin’s mother did not disapprove of the type of art—Adwin wanted to be an architecture, and saw only beauty in the structures—but the way in which Adwin’s eyes were always drawn above where she felt they should be. Adwin would not be safe staring above when the threats below were ever shifting but prescient.

Though he was “well spoken” (people who knew told Adwin this enough for him to believe it himself; somehow well spoken meant acceptable other), he could not turn this into a career. In spite of his intentions, Adwin left college with a degree and contacts who were little better off than he, and no real insight into The Way The World Worked. For all of his scholarly knowledge, Adwin was wordly dim, and he could not seem to ease his way into the circles that would grant him passage into the elusive Middle Class. Adwin was pleasant to hear but not pleasant to see; a bit too dark with a voice a bit too deep. And his eyes. They were soul searching eyes: they suggested all manner of thought and purpose and rebellion.

While searching for a career after graduation Adwin took in menial jobs. He could not be satisfied in any one place; he had to be moving somewhere, towards something. A name for himself. For now he did what he had to do to make an (honest) living for himself and his mother and father, his siblings all grown up and moved away. His mother would have killed him herself if she so much as dreamed that Adwin did anything untoward. She had “raised him right.” He would respect authority. He would not clip the ends of his words. He would “make it out.”

Armed with a degree more than an education and connections only useful in the three block radius surrounding his childhood home, Adwin spent time doing what he could—yard work, carpentry, and construction work, when available. He would do this work for his parents, and eventually he would do something for himself. 

Though his mother desired—she had, at a low point, begged—that Adwin turn to architectural design, Adwin insisted that through visual art he would find his voice, and through his voice he would be fulfilled.

He did not anticipate the years of silence.

Adwin’s circumstances made him pauper, but his imagining named him king. As a king he donned himself in the type of naivete that sees its wearer conned: of what, only time would tell.

One morning Adwin, his mother, and his white friend Cain were seated in their small kitchen, feasting silently on a breakfast casserole. The table and chairs were built by the elder Frost himself, of strong oak, the eye of the tree rugged and searching in the center of the table. Adwin’s father took his coffee on the back porch while reading the paper, his only sound the occasional rustling of the turned page. He always began with the obituaries, sucking his teeth when he spied unreasonable ages. Adwin’s father rested comfortably in his wife’s shadow, and though he could hear the breakfast conversation and engage if he wished to, he preferred not to speak, as she had words enough for them both.

Adwin’s mother turned to him and said, “Adwin, George Willington is coming through town again. Did you hear?” 

George Willington was a large part of the reason that rent had skyrocketed in Adwin’s neighborhood. He called himself a “revitalizer,” raging through communities like a fire. He burned the tenants and their savings and took what was left, sanitized it, and sold it. The people who were ravaged were cluttered in the only place they could afford, just south of the city, right inside the last train stop. Adwin and his mother still lived in the neighborhood of his youth, but only just. All of the others were gone. Cain came after the Williams’, the Frosts’ neighbors for more than twenty years, were asked to leave in thirty days, fourteen if they could please. 

Cain lived in an apartment purchased by his parents, in cash. They were the “pick yourself up by your bootstrap” type, though the boots were patched and passed down, like new. Cain had not introduced Adwin to his family. They felt guilty about the imagined eyes pressing into their living room, the displaced children playing in the community garden. This guilt quickly gave way to a more comfortable, righteous indignation that said proudly, “we belong here” and, quieter, “I’d like to report suspicious activity.” Cain wasn’t like his parents, of course. He preferred to stay away from the drama. He knew that if both sides just listened they would come to a consensus. There was blame to be spared. On both sides.

At his mother’s announcement Adwin felt a creeping heat at his collar. If George Willington was back that meant his eyes were set on their dwelling. They were the only ones left.

“You know, I’m tired of seeing everyone we know stuck in a small space with no way out while interlopers come and take everything.” Cain was silent here, his chest burning. 

Interlopers? This idea of belonging—of people like Cain not belonging, rather—kept certain ideas alive, of that Cain was certain. Cain could feel a palpable rage roiling from Adwin’s skin. 

Adwin was unaware of this rage, as he was always in it. He was born into it. It was passed from parent to child, a shared trauma written into his dan, a shield against the type of naivete that made one think they could write down a badge number or call a commissioner or complain. This was the way of the world. The Frosts were pressed into this small pocket of their own paradise and they created a home from it. The community was vibrant and rich and safe. The “Chiraq” that sold ads and stopped dissent was unfamiliar to them. The new coffee shop and yoga in the park was also unfamiliar. Cops who were previously too afraid to move into the area that paid just as much of their salaries as Hyde Park now found themselves being called by hipster elites to check on suspicious men taking out the trash from their own kitchens. 

“How would you, you know, protest?” Cain asked this carefully, staring deeply into his plate. Adwin’s mother thought a moment before responding for her son. She did not trust Cain. He spoke too freely and wanted too much.

“Well, they’ll have a town hall next week. They could use a voice like yours,” she nodded at Adwin. Adwin scoffed.

“What can a voice like mine accomplish? They won’t hear me. They’ll see me, but they won’t hear me.” Cain relaxed a bit. Adwin’s mother felt a tightening in her chest, but she swallowed it back. She chose her words carefully; Cain was nice enough, but he was new. He had a look about him. It said “economics is the real problem” and “I don’t see race” and, working for free on behalf of the devil, “I can see both sides.”

“They’ll hear you if you make them hear,” Mrs. Frost assured Adwin. He nodded slowly.

“They don’t want your voice, son.” Mr. Frost said this while rustling his paper, flipping the page thoughtfully. All heads turned to the door which hid Mr. Frost from view. Mr. Frost paused a long moment before continuing.

“They want your blood.” 

All in the kitchen were silent then. Adwin shook his head furiously.

“No, Dad. You’re wrong. There’s a movement growing. People are different now. They listen and if someone can get them together. . .I could. . .I could form a silent protest. Get a couple of guys. Meet George Willington right there in the middle of it.” Even the thought made Adwin’s heart quicken. Cain’s heart beat fast, too. Mr. Frost’s sank, like a rock, to his feet. He sat stone still, his paper clutched to him.

“We can’t let them take what’s ours,” Adwin stated assuredly. “Not without fighting.” 

“We can’t let them take what’s ours,” Adwin stated assuredly. “Not without fighting.” 

After a few moments more Cain thanked Mrs. Frost for a lovely breakfast. He was barely past the front door before he pulled his phone from his pocket, warning his old friend of a troublemaker and his riot, all notion of the power of both sides gone from him; his only concern his property and its value.

III. 

Adwin Frost jerked backwards as something searing hot moved through him. He landed on the ground as one already dead, a sticky wet warmth enveloping him. He blinked rapidly, resisting the overwhelming urge to sleep. Excruciating pain radiated through his temples and throughout his body. His very sinew was aflame, and each pulse of his heart seemed to carry with it lightning designed to strike him at every nerve’s core. His mouth felt full and he thought he might vomit. He was panicked and could only succumb to this panic; from afar he heard voices screaming. Were they for him?

At once he felt a coolness and the earth beneath him; without thinking he ran. He drew a painful breath into his lungs; it burned and ached and the light around him was blinding. He dared not look back, and indeed could feel the whizzing of bullets as though they were jolting through his body. Perhaps they were, but he could not chance the glance downward. 

“I will not go down like a dog in the street,” Adwin swore to himself. “I will not.” 

Adwin was conscious of an ache in his shoulders, and remembered at once that he was still cuffed. The keys were tucked into the cuffs, presumably to be removed later as his murderers would have likely positioned him in an offensive position complete with a gun. Still, the strength to turn the key seemed just beyond him. The cuffs cut into his wrists like razor blades, and with great strength Adwin turned the key and wrenched his wrists apart. His arms felt heavy and not his own, but on their own they grappled at the warmth on his face. The hot pain that burned through him had subsided now, and a rapid cooling was taking its place. He knew he must continue if he were to make it home.

Gasping for air Adwin stumbled blindly into the street; he had an awareness of cars whizzing past but he could not see them. He could only see home. He could feel his mother’s warmth and her terror as she took him in. She would be grateful that he had survived, but angry that he had confronted George Willington alone. Shouts behind him caused Adwin to start, and he could hear the whiz of a bullet move close to his ear. He wanted to turn and look back, but the pain in his head made moving any direction but forward impossible. 

Adwin closed his heavy eyes for a moment, and was immediately disoriented. He had thought that he was on MLK Drive when the initial shot missed him, but now he was near the train tracks. He supposed his adrenaline made the passage of time finite and infinite. Still, Adwin thought he might be sick, and he swallowed back the bile in his throat. The lights from the oncoming trains were blinding, and Adwin wanted to rest and reorient himself to the city for a moment. He focused on a singular light just before him—he supposed it was from the station. It seemed for a moment to grow larger in the dim around him; somehow the presence gave him peace. From behind he could hear the rustling of the officers and he knew that he would not find rest until he returned home.

He imagined that George Willington was among the officers, pointing at Adwin as the rabblerouser who confronted him. Adwin wasn’t armed—of course he wasn’t armed—but George Willington exclaimed as though Adwin had threatened him. In the commotion Adwin lost his cool. He had been taught to remain calm, of course, but he was angry and he was frightened and before he had even walked through the door it was clear he had lost. 

He shouted in George Willington’s face. Shouted at George Willington’s friends. Threw up his hands in a rage. Pleaded for understanding.

His audience was impassive and unmoved. 

Every face was white but his and his friends, who were detained immediately. Adwin was led away, uncuffed. He searched the white faces for friendliness, but all were impassive. 

He did not want to think about the circumstances that led him to running for his life, but he could not contain himself. 

He did not recall being quite so far from the meeting hall before, but perhaps the unquenchable thirst made it seem so much further away, home. He thought of his mother and his father, and the thought of their pride in him urged him forward. They would be upset that he had spoken at all, but they would only be upset with him because they had no access to Them. Once they saw what he had accomplished—he was certain something would be accomplished—they would understand. He would get home and explain everything.

There before him was the road to his house, wide and inviting, a pale smattering of stars pointing him home. The pain in his head threatened again to overwhelm him, and a sticky heat trickled slowly down his forehead. He reached for his face—only to find he could no longer control his hand. Indeed, he seemed to be rapidly losing control of all of his functions. His legs, so strong and powerful, were empty space beneath him. 

At once Adwin was before his own house, and his heart fluttered rapidly in his chest. He did not remember walking, yet there he was. The door was flung open as though just inside his parents were already waiting for him. Sun enveloped the house and the warmth that always awaited him in youth was there now. His parents step through the door, smiling down at him, his mother softer than he has ever known her. Even his father appears pleased. 

Adwin reaches forward, and at once he feels a blow to his face and a sound like a shot—then darkness, and silence.

Adwin Frost was dead on King Drive in the South Side of Chicago with a single bullet to the brain, all that he once was and everything that he would never be leaking out silently into the unforgivingly cracked, hard street. 

A Round The Way Girl

“You aren’t fast like her,” my mother tells me.

My throat burns as Tashae swings her hips. I hope she doesn’t speak. If she speaks my mother will respond and later I’ll hear about inviting her in.

“Heyyyyy Amber,” Tashae calls. I smile weakly.

My mother sucks her teeth loudly before responding for me,

“Good morning, Tashae. You coming in?”

She does. My mother will say, later, that it’s tacky for Tashae to enter when my mother was so clearly being polite with her invitation.

Good girls understand this.

While we walk to school Tashae entertains me with stories. They usually center around her Uncle Jimmy, a violent drunk. His violence is almost singularly directed towards Tashae’s brother, Malcolm. According to Uncle Jimmy Malcolm is a pussy and a nigger with a hard er. Malcolm will knock Uncle Jimmy “the hell out” when he leaves elementary school. He swears this. Tashae laughs when she tells Uncle Jimmy tales.

I wonder if Malcolm ever laughs.

“Last night he didn’t even make it up the stairs. He tried. He kept taking the step but his foot missed. He swore if he made it up the stairs he was going to “whip that pussy ass nigger’s ass for making him look like a fool.” She doesn’t say it exactly like this and I have to wonder if Uncle Jimmy really used “ass” that many times in a row, but I discern Tashae’s meaning.

“He fell asleep on the stairs. Vomited first. Then fell asleep. Malcolm made sure he was good and passed out before taking his foot and kicking Uncle Jimmy right in his nuts.”

I’m not sure which part is funny, so I chuckle every time Tashae takes a breath.

We get to the corner before Tashae’s first cat call.

Mr. Warner leans out of his truck, teeth gleaming. His foot is on the brake, but only slightly, so his truck creeps by as he grins at Tashae.

She grins back. I stare at the ground, hoping it will swallow us.

“Hey baby girl,” Mr. Warner coos.

“Heyyyyyy,” Tashae calls back.

“Come over here,” Mr. Warner demands. Tashae smiles, her eyes meeting the ground.

“Nah, I can’t. I gotta go to school.”

Mr. Warner scoffs. “I can teach you everything you need.”

Tashae laughs lightly, but doesn’t respond.

“When I need that kind of learning you’re the first person I’ll call,” Tashae promises. Mr. Warner hits the steering wheel, laughing.

“Do that. Amber tell your momma and daddy I said hello.” I swallow hard and nod, meeting his eyes once before looking away.

Good girls don’t give off the wrong impression.

Still, his gaze lingers awhile before he drives off, slowly.

“Is he gone,” I ask, my eyes still on the ground. Tashae laughs.

“Amber, why are you so scary?” I shrug.

“I don’t like that.” I mutter. Tashae shrugs and begins walking.

“Do you?” I sound like a baby when I ask this. Tashae offers me an incredulous stare, but I don’t catch its meaning. Does that stare mean, “of course not,” which is the only answer a good girl can give. Or does it mean, “why wouldn’t I?”

Some girls like boys calling and staring while their hips sway. Those girls twist their necks and laugh so loudly their own throats hurt, especially when boys walk by. Those girls have flickers of smiles when boys offer the world for three minutes, and they don’t mind fighting after school for a boy who was already gone. Those girls don’t wait and they give but they never receive. Around the way girls, my mother calls them. Tashae’s mother was a ‘round the way girl, and Tashae will be, too. She has never met her father, but she supposes he lives on the west coast. He was going to be an actor and he wasn’t from around here. Just passing through.

Tashae has been my best friend for three years now, since Brandon Duke and his friends began making monkey noises when I walked by. Tashae was bigger than the other girls and all of the boys were crazy for her. She could get them to do anything. When she told them to shut the hell up and leave me alone, they did.

The first time I brought her home my mother sucked her teeth and let her eyes roam Tashae in a swift rebuke.

“Mom—“ (my mother is a “mom,” not a mama. She said mamas are only good for spoiling and raising reprobates. Moms or better yet, Mothers, know how to maintain proper distance and command respect. They raise men and women worthy of the world.) “—this is Tashae. She—“ mom never found out what Tashae did. She held up a hand and stopped my words.

“I know who she is,” mom said coldly. Tashae’s face fell and my cheeks burned. Tashae left about ten minutes later and my mother rounded on me.

“I know I’ve told you about whom you associate with. You bring a girl like that around here and it sends the wrong message.” I never told Tashae what my mother said and she didn’t ask.

After school Tashae convinces me to go with her to the mall. She saved a few dollars babysitting to buy cherry lipgloss. We enter the store together, chattering and laughing. I don’t notice the awkward presence of the cashier over our shoulders until we’ve been in the store perusing the makeup aisles for about ten minutes.

“Why is he staring at us,” I whisper to Tashae. She cranes her neck, but doesn’t have to work hard. The cashier is so close he can probably hear what we are thinking.

“Can I help you?” Tashae demands.

The cashier flushes. “Just wanted to see if I could assist you with anything.” Tashae rolls her eyes. I don’t speak.

“We’re good, thanks,” Tashae dismisses him. The cashier stalks away.

“Let’s get out of here,” I suggest. Tashae thrusts her lipgloss back into the bin and we walk out. We head towards the book store. I like it because it’s quiet and has nice couches that you can use to read or study. The people milling about seem classy and smart, and I like that they meet my eyes with smiles.

I’ve saved my allowance for the next book in my favorite series. Tashae reads them after I’m finished, so I know she won’t complain about going in.

We are greeted as we enter the store by a white woman with graying hair and thin lips.

Tashae and I are chatting over the cover of the book when a shadow looms over us. The man is huge and pink, a thick mustache covering his upper lip.

“Yes?” I inquire. There is no timidity in my voice, which shocks me.

“You girls just left the cosmetic store?” I shrug and nod.

“A few minutes ago, why?”

“Cashier said there was a disturbance. Cashier here said you two have been loitering.”

I stare. “We went in there and the cashier was rude. So we came here to get a book.”

“This isn’t a library. Get your books and get home.” Tashae opens her mouth to speak, but I stop her.

“Sir, we’re just looking for a book. I’m not sure—”

“Are we having a problem?” The man shifts, and his hand moves to his waist. There is no gun there, only a walkie talkie.

I swallow hard. There are a number of things I want to say and do. I would like to say yes, sir, there is a problem. I would like to smack him in the face, hard. I would like to spit on him.

Instead I shake my head. I can feel heat radiating off of Tashae. This is not how she wants to handle it.

She says as much as we leave the mall.

“Couldn’t be me,” she keeps saying. She directs this at me, as though I failed by not showing the rentacop my power. Finally I turn on her.

“It was you,” I spit. Tashae’s eyes widen.

“If it weren’t for you they wouldn’t have treated us like criminals.” Tashae scoffs.

“Me? Please. You are just as black as me.” I shake my head at this.

“I’m not going places like I own them. I’m not walking into stores looking like I’m going to steal. I don’t have boys chasing me thinking they’re next in my line.” Tashae’s face falls.

“That’s what you think? I have a line of boys chasing me? Guess that’s easy to see when the line next to you is empty.” Tashae smirks at me.

“You’ve wanted to talk trash about me since we met. You think you’re better than me. You think you’re smarter. You aren’t. We’re the same.”

She walks ahead of me and doesn’t wait for me to catch the bus. On the bus she sits next to the aisle so that I can’t sit next to her. I want to apologize but I don’t.

I move my lips to form the words but they don’t come out.

We get off of the bus and fall into step together. I play with different ways to say “I’m sorry.”

“I don’t think I’m better than you,” I begin, but she stops me.

“Yes you do. You think that and your mom thinks that.” I swallow hard, but I don’t correct her.

Tashae shrugs. “I’m used to it. Your mama prepared you for me. My mama prepared me for the world and people like you. I feel sorry for you. And your mama. You think there’s a difference between good girls and everyone else. You think you can talk your way out of being black. You think boys aren’t going to make up stories about you. You think other girls aren’t going to say you’re loose. They won’t call you a ‘round the way girl. You think you can press your legs closed tight enough that no secrets can get out. But you’re just as black as me. No matter how proper you are. How many books you read. How far down you put your head. You can go into stores and pretend you’re different, but you’re not. You’re a black girl, same as me. If I’m a round the way girl, you are, too.”

Tashae gives me a quick nod and makes her way past my house and up the street. She swings her hips and offers shy smiles to her admirers, but she keeps walking. Her head is high and her back is rod straight.

My mother greets me at the door, sucking her teeth and shaking her head, staring after Tashae.

“You don’t need to keep hanging around that girl. You’re a good girl,” my mother says. “Nothing good can come from hanging with a round the way girl.”

Jabberwock

I am not an evil person, but I do evil things.

My fingers tremble for the first time after our hundredth time. I am sitting on the edge of a bed that isn’t mine, idly grazing my hands over the coolness of sheets that I myself would never choose.

He never says anything about me smoking in his bedroom.

In their bedroom.

I buy the cigarettes for this. I buy a new package once per month. I smoke two cigarettes and I throw them away. Recently I have thrown them away in his trash can, the one just outside his garage door. It is between an apple tree and a basketball goal, its backboard lowered for his children.

I don’t like smoking, but I do it for the aesthetic. It gives my hands something to do, and it gives me a reason to linger. I have recited, absurdly, the same poem in my mind all day. Now I let pieces pass my lips.

“Twas brillig, and the slithy toves. . .” This fills the silence briefly.

I spent a great deal of time psychoanalyzing myself. Why did I stay? Why didn’t he ask me to leave? He never looks at me after, nor I him. When we face each other he looks just past my eyes. I stare at his lips, which I have never kissed. I imagine that they might be soft, but his tongue would likely be too forceful and wet. He would be an insistent kisser and I would sigh, exasperated, into his mouth. I wonder if this is why he does not kiss me. His lips would be permanently smudged with my favorite red. I bought it on a whim after we began, but it is not for him. I wear it even when he does not call.

I hesitate before leaving and he clears his throat.

“I don’t love you,” he offers gently, as though this revelation will offend me. He says it apologetically and I feel a flash of anger.

“I’m glad to hear it,” I respond honestly through the smoke.

He pauses. I’m not certain what he was expecting, and this makes me uncomfortable. This thing works because he is predictable, if not a bit boring.

As a husband he is this way, and as a lover he is this way, though he is thoughtful in a way that could almost be too much.

I should clarify this. He is not my husband. I do have a husband.

He is perfect.

R. is my husband of fifteen years. We have two children: J, who is 14, and L, who is 7. R. is currently the primary breadwinner, housekeeper, and caretaker. He attends every sporting event, remembers every birthday and anniversary, and kisses all of the boo boos. Or he did, when the kids still called them that. They go to him for everything.

Now I take care of doctor’s appointments, vacations, bills, spring cleaning, and all of the small forgotten (some might say unimportant) things. I sound bitter. I am not bitter, but since I was placed on leave (paid) this is the role I fulfill.

Some might call this thing an act of desperation. I wish I had thought more about it. I’d like to say that it is a cry for help, but it isn’t. It is something to do. An annotation that will be marked in my life somewhere between picking up the dry cleaning, killing someone, and meeting the girls for hot yoga.

We stand in silence in the dark for a few moments more, not knowing what to say. I’m not sure if this is ending. I would be alright if it ended, I think.

I grab the cigarettes and head for the door. He follows slowly, and I wonder if he’s trying to think of the right words for this finale.

I want that moment.

I turn to tell him that I’ve had enough, but I don’t get the chance. He presses his lips to mine and turns on his heel.

Shocked, I drop the cigarettes. I don’t bother to pick them up. I wonder if he will find them. I hope she might.

R. greets me at the door with his eyes. “Hey hon, how was your workout?” He asks. He is staring at his phone as he does. I’d like to say this with scorn, but him looking at his phone doesn’t have the impact that my secret does.

“It was fine,” I sigh. I sit on the couch beside him. I wonder if R. can smell him on me. His cologne is soft and nothing that R. would wear. If he notices he doesn’t say anything.

“Well I’m going to make dinner,” R. says.

We don’t eat dinner together. When I was working my shifts were sporadic and I would end up eating slumped over the sink or in the car. They ate together. They sit at the table and I take my dinner to the bedroom. R. comes and retrieves my plate and I brush my teeth.

He comes to the bathroom and puts his hands on my hips, pressing himself into me. I moan playfully.

“You like that,” he teases. I nod and moan.

This will lead to nothing, so I don’t mind the play.

“Are you ready for tomorrow?” I hate this question. It isn’t always tomorrow, of course. It has been, are you ready for next month. Next week. Now the day has come and of course I am not ready.

“Beware the Jabberwock, my son! The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!”

“Yep,” I lie.

As the team speaks—and I have been given a team, which worries me—I hear nonsense. Perhaps they said, “open and shut” and they likely said, “mistake” and “measurable harm.” What I heard was, “One, two! One, two! And through and through. . .”

My hands are idle and I begin drawing our names in large bubble letters. I place my name next to R’s. He can’t sit next to me during the proceedings, but he will be there in the gallery.

The short story is that I had two brain surgeries. One was successful. One was not.

No, I was not under the influence. No, I was not tired.

I was distracted. It was not intentional. In spite of what the family claimed it was not intentional. Yes, I had an unpleasant exchange with the patient prior, but she was difficult.

Yes, I was angry about the exchange. My credentials are—were—unmatched. She had no right.

But no, it wasn’t intentional. She went fast and they said she didn’t suffer. I don’t know. I was shocked and people freeze. It happens all the time.

Right after I stood trembling in the theater. It had not yet been cleaned but it was painfully sterile. It wasn’t silent—I’m certain it is never silent—but I couldn’t hear a thing. He came in from obstetrics. We were only friends then—not even friends. We saw each other occasionally in the halls and rarely our patients were the same. But we were nothing.

He was there and then we were something. He wrapped his arms around me and I was falling. I had never been a damsel before and suddenly I was.

He is in the gallery now, too. Behind me and to my left. R and the kids are to my right.

The team doesn’t think I should speak on my behalf, but I have to.

It isn’t a memorable statement and the words that I need haven’t been invented yet.

“I’m so sorry,” is all I remember. I am looking at R. when I say this. His eyes fall to his lap.

“And hast thou slain the Jabberwock?” I hear, right before my sentence is handed to me.

I am exonerated, but this does not mean I am not guilty. R. used to say this. I was found not guilty, but I am not innocent. The judge says this, I think.

There are sobs from the gallery. The family is there, pale faced and grieving. I’m not certain if I should look at them, but it doesn’t seem right to look away. He pushes through the crowd and holds out his hand. I catch the pack of cigarettes before they fall. His eyes are fire.

“Why did you leave those,” he asks. He doesn’t bother to lower his voice. My throat is dry.

It seems such a small thing now. All of this seems like the culmination of small things.

He balls his fist and I wonder if he considers hitting me. I wonder where she is. R. catches my eye and I hold his. He whirls around and I think he is going to tell him. I want him to tell him.

He doesn’t.

R. and I sit in the car after the kids have gone inside. We won, but it isn’t a victory. I will be able to work again in a few months, but I will be on probation. My reputation is ruined and her life is gone. I force myself to think of other things. R. is waiting for me to speak.

“I had an affair,” I state boldly. I own it in this way. It is the only thing I own.

R. takes my hand in his. Immediately. There are tears in his eyes.

“I know,” he says. My hand goes limp.

“We make mistakes. You were hurting and I wasn’t there.” I want to slap him. He was there. Of course he was there. He is perfect and I want to slap him.

“We’ll get through this,” he offers. I don’t tell him that I don’t want to “get through” this. I don’t know what I want and I don’t know why I’m angry.

I pull the cigarettes from my pocket and toy with them in my hands. R. tugs them from my fingers gently.

“Since when do you smoke?” He demands with authority.

“It’s something to do,” I state. He rolls his eyes pityingly.

“We have work to do, but we’ll get through this. We always do.”

R. leaves me in the car to stew in my guilt. My phone vibrates in my pocket.

I’m sorry. Does R. know?

Yes.

So this is over?

It should be. I still have my marriage. I still have my career.

I bite my nails, forming a new habit.

It doesn’t have to be.

Death and Mr. White

Death and Mr. White is a collection of short stories, gifted from those who have gone, to those who remain.

 

Death and Mr. White

by J. Wilkerson

I. Mr. White had stopped smoking back in ’85, when the first grand girl was born. It wasn’t because of the grand girl–she lived in Kansas and would only be seen every other Christmas. Sandy had bought him a coat for Christmas that year–camel? Had searched the city for it. Sandy wanted to be a doting daughter, she wanted him to be a loving father. She had always wanted the coat for him, but he could not figure out why. She bought the coat and he dropped the cigarette on it. It wasn’t the fault of the cigarette of course; it was that or the glass of scotch, and the sacrifice of the cigarette seemed obvious.

The ash of the cigarette fluttered down onto the sleeve and settled like snowflakes. Mr. White supposed then that he really should give up smoking; he could not finish this thought, as he was jostled and the cigarette fell, right onto the sleeve, burning an immediate hole into the hair.

The Yarborough’s were having their Holiday party and their obnoxious music was only surpassed in stupidity by their sweaters, the noise of the crowd almost oppressive, but still. Sandy seemed to hear the whisper of the fabric above the cacophony of meaningless chatter as the fur sizzled and died away. She materialized before him, fixed him with his ex-wife’s doe eyes before she vanished, tears in her wake.

He picked up the cigarette, made certain it was out and for many years did not light another.

Two years ago he picked the habit up again, as easily as he used to collect the paper. Griffin was in the hospital room just beyond the window, his body still warm but the Griffin he knew long absent. He wanted to think about other things and not the loneliness.

In the remnants of the unforgiving midwestern winter he found himself entirely alone, save for his thoughts. From Griffin his mind passed easily to years past, years he had not considered relevant until now.

For a moment he was again a boy, and he imagined in his mind Grace. Grace with her pigtail twists and bobby socks. Grace with her dark eyes and gray skin. Grace with her dress coat and stiff, two-dimensional dress. Grace was the sister he had seen so often, the sister he had heard about so often that she seemed a memory and not a two-dimensional figure captured forever in memory not belonging to him and in photograph. She seemed much more than the figure that he never got to meet, much more than the sister that he had been required to replace.

There were so many of them. Never another girl. Now he is alone entirely; he can share the memory of youth with no one who remembers the other side of the story.

How strange it was to be the last of the old guard not faded away. He imagined he felt Griffin’s soul pass him on his way out and it scared him a bit. So he stepped into the hall and walked out. A woman squinted into the sun and did not look down at him. He watched her, though, and she felt his eyes. She let the smoke curl about her face twice more before offering him a cigarette wordlessly. He accepted with a nod of his head that she did not care to see.

He smokes a pipe now, as he relaxes on the park bench. A woman sat there before he, and the bench is still warm from her. When he arrived he hobbled before her–although he did not normally do so, he was quite capable for eight-and-a-half decades–and she leapt to her feet apologetically.

As Mr. White tugs the smoke into his lungs he considers her haste and its cause. He decides that he was not dishonest–her guilt is her own affair. And besides–she should probably be on her way.

A speck of tobacco settles onto his tongue, and Mr. White plucks it away, staring down at it before wiping it onto his pants.

Ruby would be furious if she saw, but then she has been furious for awhile. That is her way. Ruby had been a good homemaker. Mr. White had never worried about a meal or pressed khakis.

He never had her lipstick smudge his cheek, either. He supposed the emptiness in his bed was not so bad as an empty belly might have been. He wonders if Ruby and Sandy will ever get along. Sixty-four years had not settled their mutual animosity, but he always held out hope. Ruby would never be Sandy’s mother, but he had hoped…

The tobacco burns down as he contemplates her. Sandy. His only child. His baby girl. He ponders her as he is prone to do in the silence, and it seems silent all the time now.

He thought that he did right by her. He’s certain he did. What does a girl need? Food. Shelter. Comfort. He made certain she had an abundance of each.

She isn’t a girl anymore, but when she was he was gone. She doesn’t remember the nights he came home late. In her memory there is a gap where he should have been. She doesn’t remember him whispering stories to her or smoothing her hair.

He told her he loved her, he swears that he did, but he only said the words to the dark.

Into the dark was not enough.

He sat between them at the breakfast table, Ruby staring sternly ahead–“the breakfast table is for eating, and we do not speak while we are eating”–Sandy defiantly humming to herself. Often he felt “I love you” bubbling up, a sickness desperate to relieve itself, but the room was too cold to receive his words.

So he did not say them aloud.

Even now he wonders if he doesn’t have time enough.

The shadow of Mr. White’s thoughts is matched by the shadow that falls over the bench. He draws his cardigan tighter over his shoulders, bristling at his own involuntary reaction. He glances at the man to whom the shadow belongs, but the man’s words stop his assessment.

“How often do you come here?”

A strange question formed from the lips of a stranger, but Mr. White feels compelled to answer.

“Almost every day now.” The man beside Mr. White is silent, a still, unnatural silent.

“When will you leave?” The man asks carefully. Mr. White considers the question for longer than he should.

He could leave now, he supposes, but Ruby would not be home and it would be lonely. He could meet Sandy for lunch, but she would ask about the appointment, and she would sense the paper in his pocket in the same way she sensed the hole in the camel jacket.

She had that way about her, the ability to sniff out the mundane. She would not consider this mundane. She would be angry with him.

She would blame him. Why didn’t he do this thing that she said he should do? Why did he spend so many years here in the middle of the country?

She would look at the barn that they were to convert years ago and the dust settled on the RV and the passports that expired last winter. She would hurt, a palpable hurt, because this is not how she envisioned this.

After the blame and hurt she would be afraid. She would be like a child again and he would not have the energy to raise her again. He isn’t certain he did the job right the first time, although she turned out beautifully. He should tell her that. He should tell her that she’s beautiful.

The paper singes his fingertips to spite him. It taunts him with its finality and its threats. It tells him, as it will tell Sandy–no. There is no time.

“In a few,” he responds to the man. The man seems to wait for his answer. Mr. White feels that the man would wait for forever, if required.

Of course, he is no man.

Mr. White turns to stare upon him. He stares back.

It is as if looking into a mirror. He looks as Mr. White looks, and more.

He looks healthy and strong and well-traveled. He has the lips of one who has said “I Love You,” perhaps even too much, the lips of one who kissed the grands just this morning.

His hair is an earned gray, dusted by sun and rain and snowmen. His legs are stiff from horse and doggie and an errant game of hide and seek.

Mr. White sees Sandy is his eyes, and Ruby too. Even here they are not perfect. But the words were spoken, haltingly and at the wrong time. He gave them to them in disrepair, yet they discerned his meaning.

Mr. White imagined Death many times. He envisioned many forms. He did not anticipate his jealousy, how angry death would make him.

“I’m not ready,” Mr. White declares.

“Aren’t you?” Death replies.

Mr. White is uncomfortable, more uncomfortable than he’s been in a long while. A warmth settles over him, and he knows that the warmth belongs to Death. It is different than he imagined.

More comfortable and soft.

“Can I ask you a question?” Mr. White asks.

“Ask,” Death answers.

“Why are you here?” Mr. White demands.

“You sent for me,” Death demures.

Mr. White ponders this. Did he? Certainly he was exhausted–the business of dying is exhausting. Every night he imagined two things–Ruby discovering a paper that he did not shred, somehow reading between the lines and discerning the winding down of the time he was given. The second imagining is always death–cloaked and grave, sweeping him from his body with a well hewn scythe blade.

Yet he did what he could to avoid both of those, he is sure. He kissed Ruby just this morning, and she seemed to warm to it. They are not happy–happiness left years before, but they are comfortable and at his age comfort is more than most people expect.

He shuddered when he considered every sunrise might be the last he laid his eyes upon–surely he did not long for death.

Death must be mistaken.

“I didn’t,” Mr. White assures Death. Death stares into Mr. White, unmoved.

“Then send me away.” Death commands. Mr. White moves his lips, but the words will not out.

Mr. White stands abruptly. He makes his way to the entrance of the park before turning. He can discern only Death’s shape from a distance, but he knows that Death’s unseeing eyes are focused on him. Mr. White returns to the bench.

“I don’t want you to follow me.” Mr. White declares.

“Why would I have to follow you?” Death asks.

“Why do you look like me?” Mr. White asks.

Death stares again into Mr. White, but he offers no answer.

“I want to see Sandy first.” Mr. White states.

“Why?” Death asks.

Again Mr. White considers Death’s question.

“I want to tell her that I love her.” Even to his aged ear Mr. White knows that his response sounds flat.

Mr. White opens his mouth to pose another question, but a sharp pain dulls his senses and stops him.

When the pain passes he gazes at Death, his face so sure and clear.

“Will they be alright without me?” Mr. White asks. Death gazes at Mr. White, but again he does not answer.

“Is it wrong for me to want to go?” Mr. White asks.

Death pauses before replying. “You were always on your way to this moment.”

They will miss him. They will be angry with him. Sandy most of all.

He wishes he could send words to her, but there are none.

Mr. White is selfish, he has always considered himself so. In death he had hoped it would be different, he hoped that his life would be laid out linear and bare, and the essence of who he was would be picked through and presented to those he left behind.

He turns to tell Death that he is ready, but he finds himself alone.

Dinner is with Sandy and Ruby. They do not speak to him. He considers telling them, but there are no words. There were never enough words.

At the door he pulls Sandy to him. She stiffens in his grasp, but she at least does not pull away.

He says, “I love you,” but only in his grip and in his eyes. He hopes she can understand.

Selfishly he is glad that he will not be required to witness the depth of her anger and despair.

Sandy stares into his eyes for a long moment and he imagines the child in there.

“I love you, Daddy,” she mutters. She turns away before he can answer, and his fingers feel hers long after she has gone. He wants to hold this moment and her love and take them with him.

When Ruby goes to bed in her room Death is there in his room, waiting for him.

Mr. White felt brave and well-lived as he pulled Death to him, and as he began to chill he considered Death’s familiarity and comfort. How close Death had been all the while. How sweet it felt to close his own eyes, and draw himself into eternal sleep.

II. Barbara Jean

She supposed (at least for awhile) that one could never have too many skirts. Good skirts could be as old friends. They were sensible and well made. They were easy to pack for long trips; this part she assumed, as it had been a long while since she and Vern had taken any trips. Even when they did she could not remember packing skirts or anything at all. Though she must have done this, as Vern never did anything domestic.

This, the inability to remember, was Vernon’s fault. Vern ruined. Everyone thought it, she knew they did.

It wasn’t even Vernon’s dementia. He was cold, always. Dementia only exacerbated who he was, it did not make him a new person. But before the dementia he at least wanted. He wanted to travel. He wanted to spend time with their boys and later their men.

Now Barbara had an empty house (she could not be responsible for him, and besides, he could not remember where he was half of the time, let alone where he should be, but she visited as often as she could) and a hundred skirts she could not wear. Barbara selected gingerly a faded, blue jean skirt. She tugged it over her ample hips, sighing heavily. She wouldn’t look in the mirror this time. It took so long to put on any foundation–forget the rouge–and somehow looking in the mirror made her face wet. The last time she considered cracking the mirror-she would have succeeded, were it not for Paul’s daughter being in the room.With the room empty save for her and her mirror it was hard for Barbara to keep the revulsion from her own face, even without looking at her hips pulling the seams.

Vern had looked at her that way, too. That was the worst part. Getting rounder and lower isn’t so bad; it’s not great, but there are worse things.

That cold stare, the unspoken revulsion. It splintered Barbara’s soul.

He wasn’t having an affair now, of course. He did not know who he was, and he would not know to be repulsed by his wife. He had affairs when he was younger–several. One of his lovers called once. What was her name? Barbara tried to remember, but her mind was blank.

The girl called the house just as if it were a movie. Barbara remembers it that way, a low melody playing their silent dinner, the phone startling them. Barbara folding the napkin and placing it on the left side of the plate, then the right. Barbara plucking the phone from the receiver, lifting it to her ear. Barbara not having the chance to say “hello,” because the woman (clearly much younger than even their youngest boy) began crying. The name “Vern” laced with “love” and “leave” was cast out at Barbara like a fist; she crumbled under the weight.

Vern was there, Barbara sees now. He stood sternly, pulling the phone from her hand. He listened for a few moments before barking, “do not call me here.” He hung up without a goodbye. He stepped over Barbara and took his place at the head of the table.

The boys and Vern looked on. Barbara could see even then the very clear choices she could make.

She pulled herself up heavily, narrowing her eyes at Vern.

She righted herself, lengthening her spine.

“After sinner–dinner we’ll have cookies. I’ve forgotten the milk.” She sat at her place on the opposite end, her face burning. She was glad then that her face was dark enough to hide her embarrassment, wondering if the girl from the phone blushed. She wondered if Vern liked it.

Vern offered no explanation and Barbara did not request one. Vern was not violent, but he was cruel. She thought, often, that the cruelty was worse.

He did not apologize and Barbara didn’t even leave the bedroom that time.

Or even the next two. Vern did not hide them, and Barbara pretended not to care.

When Jon left, she left. The house was already cool, and the spare bedroom was much warmer. It was a sensible move. For a moment Barbara wondered if Vern would ask her back.

He never did.

Their vacations did not taper off. They stopped abruptly, mid-sentence. One year they went down to one of the Carolina’s–North? And the next Vern purchased a new subscription to the local paper and a membership to the country club for each of them, but did not plan the trip.

Barbara wonders now if she should have. Vern did those things and she would not have known how. It would not have been proper, and besides, what would people think?

With trembling hands she pours cream into her coffee, counting out eight sugar cubes. No one would walk through the door to stop her, but she looked over her shoulder as she stirred, just in case.

She glanced at the clock on the wall and waited. Intuitively it rang, shrilly and metallic in the small room. She picked up the receiver and spoke, “Good morning, Jon.”

This was their routine. Jon, her youngest, calling to check on her. This was his way.

He loved her. Usually they spoke about their plans or a funny story they had heard.

Today she thought of his daughter. Not the oldest. She was in Pittsburg and would be home for Christmas. She thought of the other.

The one they didn’t mention.

She wasn’t dead. Barbara knew that sometimes families didn’t mention the ones who died.

In the beginning she wished that she had never been, but she never told anyone.

She didn’t even think God knew.

Barbara rifled through her memory, but she could not remember the last time her eyes touched his other daughter. In her mind the girl was still a child, but that wouldn’t be right.

She would be a woman now.

Barbara wondered if the girl hated her. She supposed that this was a bit presumptuous, to think that the girl would remember her.

She did not hate Jon’s daughter. She was just…a nuisance. A forgotten thing that, once remembered, drained and beat you. Barbara’s life was large by anyone’s standards and there was simply no room for the other girl. Barbara tried to leave the thoughts, but they followed her.

There were so many spaces to be filled there, so many unaccounted for pieces in this puzzle that Barbara had created. Barbara had always hated the mother–that was still true. The mother was just so right. Always so right.

And better. She didn’t say it. But it was there, in her eyes. She looked at you as if she knew you. She knew what terrible things you thought. She would tell you what she thought and no one checked her. She had freedom and she was a new woman.

She was nothing like Barbara.

Barbara thought of the conversation she had years ago, when Jon wondered if he was wrong.

She told him he had done all he could. “You can’t do anything. Her mother is crazy. You’ve done everything.” Barbara’s voice soothed him. Barbara’s lie sated him.

But there was the nuisance. She existed out there. Barbara’s friends did not know. Family had forgotten. She told them that it was the mother–crazy. Took her all the way to Georgia. Changed her number.

Barbara swallowed heavily. The burden of the lie lay at the forefront of her mind and she could not release it.

“I’m tired,” she offered Jon. He replied as she hung up the phone.

She entered the bedroom again, ready to discard the skirt. She did so.

She stood in front of the mirror, transfixed.

Her reflection wore a skirt.

Her reflection was her. . . And not her.

Her reflection spoke.

“Why?” In the back of her mind Barbara considered the absurdity of this. She considered that she was finally going crazy. Vern didn’t like animals, so she didn’t even have a brave dog that they speak about in the news, one who would call the emergency services when she invariably passed out and did not awaken.

And yet she answered, “why what?”

“Why did you think about her now?” Her reflection demanded.

Barbara responded with a question. “Who are you? Am I dying?”

“Yes,” her reflection replied. It did not mince words. It was cold and unsmiling.

And her.

“Why do you look like me,” Barbara asked Death. Death did not answer.

“What if I’m not ready?” Barbara asked. Her reflection–Death–stared into her, unwavering.

“Make yourself ready.” Barbara blinked and Death was gone.

People thought of her as a good person. She was a good person. She wasn’t perfect but she was good.

In her mind the words turned to sawdust and were meaningless.

She formed an apology, an explanation, but nothing came.

Death returned. Death returned while the words, “I’m proud of you” hung on Barbara’s lips, while they stood around and begged her to stay. She prayed the words off and she left.

A thousand miles away the girl, now a woman, felt an unfamiliar chill cross her cheek.

III. Vernon

Sweat would bead hot on his brow; it would skirt through the deep crevices of his leather face. The ropy veins of his once firm arms would rise and his unused muscles would burn awake, tearing through him as lightening. His eyes would water and burn, but he would not lose the light. When his knees finally buckled and his heart rapped quickly to its halt, he would tear a lasting piece from his accuser; he would not move forward easily and without sound.

The soundlessness and quiet traveled easy with him, but he would not end this way. When he rose again his voice would pierce the veil and his accuser would kneel; he would meet Death as an equal.

Vernon harbored no illusions. Death had come for stronger men. Death would assuredly come for him.

He preferred The Others on their knees. He would grip them and they would tear at the wall and he would pull their faces gently towards him at his moment–theirs always came first–he would whisper to Them “open your eyes” and They would, wildly, and he would gaze into Them, Their faces broken open and Their souls exposed for him, and a piece of him would break away.

Vernon did not kiss The Others. This was before the film that made Barbara uncomfortable; he did not kiss The Others because he did not want to see their longing for more. He was comprised of pieces, and he could not offer them more than this. He did not wish to.

He would not kiss them, but he would hold them after, for a brief moment. When he first began seeing The Others he would shower. He would scrub his golden brown skin until pink shone. Barbara was fascinated with the paleness of his skin, how close to White he might have been had he only avoided sun. He would consider this, her fascination, as he scrubbed the traces of Them from his body; he removed the scent  of them from everywhere but his mouth. It was vulgar, he understood. He kept that souvenir cruelly for her, Barbara. She would not kiss him, Barbara, even before. She did not like the way mouths moved against each other, she did not want that caress. She did not want his eyes to meet hers. She did not want him rooted in her soul.

After, he would return home to find Barbara in the kitchen. She was always in the kitchen, fretting. She would meet him at the top of the stairs and her eyes would meet his for a moment before darting away. She would smooth down her apron self-consciously. When the boys came she would gaze at him over their heads in a way that she believed was loving. He would capture her eyes then and he would remember The Others and his breath would catch. Not guiltily, of course. He needed something and he could not remember what, and in the moment that he captured her eyes all thought of that need vanished.

He would move close enough to touch her, Barbara, but he would not. She would not think it proper, and he was uncertain their bodies would still complement. He would be close enough to touch her, to ghost his fingers along her dress, but he would not. He would allow his breath to dance along her neck, and for a moment he would remember and she would remember.

Barbara was poor and dark skinned and unpopular. She was cute enough, but Vernon was handsome. His skin was a light golden brown, his eyes hazel. Barbara sat at the front of the room and to the left, and when he was bored Vernon watched the way the sunlight glinted from her long, pressed hair. She was prim and shy even then, and when he finally spoke to her she would not look at him.

Barbara walked home with her sisters; Vernon drove his car. He drove slowly beside her, yelling out of the window, his friends crying with laughter. Barbara tucked her head down and did not respond to him, only pressed her mouth into a firm line. Vernon sucked his teeth at her and sped off; in his rear view mirror he saw her wipe her cheek.

Vernon heard from her cousin that Barbara’s family hated him. He bristled at this; how could he be hated? He was wealthy. Handsome. He had a future. Barbara was poor and homely. He was better than she. He began to watch her. She held her head at an angle because she was shy, but even then she expressed defiance. There was a fire suppressed within her, and Vernon wanted to root it out. Barbara did not keep her head down because she believed him better than she. She was uncomfortable with their eyes meeting. She did not want to want him more than he wanted her.

Vernon chased Barbara because he could, at first. He could have any girl he wanted; they all wanted him. He wanted Barbara to want him.

She did not. She was studious but she was not brilliant. She was sweet and she did not want to be seen with him. He obliged her and met her in secret. When he had her she made him turn down the lights so that he could barely make her out. Her eyes captured his and held them the entire time. There was still a fire there, just below the surface. He wanted to out it. He would out it.

Barbara’s uncle begged her not to marry him. Vernon was not present for the conversation, and Barbara never shared this. Rather a cousin spilled it over a cocktail and a Persian rug.

“He offered her a car if she said she wouldn’t marry you.” the cousin revealed snidely. Vernon’s vision dimmed then and he swallowed past a deep lump in his throat. He wondered–he should not–how long it took Barbara to turn the uncle’s offer away.

“She thought about it for a week,” the cousin continued. Later, as Barbara slept next to him, her fingers lightly grazing his, he burned.

“Do you love me?” Vernon demanded. Barbara jumped at his sound–he spoke rarely, but authoritatively.

“I do love you, Vernon.” She offered her love as a plea and he accepted it without knowing why. Had she loved him? He was certain she did, but he did not believe she was in love with him. She loved him as one loves a savior–obligatory love. A self-sacrificing love. A love that placed Vernon above and Barbara beneath.

Their years were measured by a dance that both understood, but never at the same time. Vernon began searching for Others as anyone does–because he was bored. He could find Others easily. In his early forties he was still trim and desirable. Barbara desired him as she always had–silently, and in the dark. On her back she would peer up at him and she would bite her lip and he only saw her fully here, she only offered her soul, and only then in pieces, here.

He engaged the attention of Others because he wanted her, Barbara, to feel desperate; he wanted her to consider how lucky she was. It was this luck that drew his attention when he met Death for the first time.

He was engaged in an affair with an Other when he received the call. His father was dead. The body must be identified. He must do it.

It did not occur to Vernon to call Barbara. She would be home, in the kitchen. She would be devastated; she liked his father. She would not weep, though. Her tears would move softly, and she would look to Vernon for direction.

The face presented on the cold steel was indeed Vernon’s father. Vernon shared his father’s nose. It was strange to see his father there, unmoving. His father was a strong ,statuesque man. He exuded life and power; his shadow covered the world entire. Vernon crumbled into himself on the bench outside of the morgue. He felt the presence before he saw it, and when his eyes moved he only met a blur, first.

“He went easy,” the voice offered. The voice was cold and wet, but not unkind. Not kind either.

It simply was.

“What was easy?” Vernon demanded, his voice gravelly and not his own. He blinked firmly, wanting to be strong even before this stranger.

His father was never as clear as the face before him. Vernon started, gasping. The eyes pierced him, deep green with flecks of gold.

“Your father,” the man with his father’s face stated. Vernon’s heart throbbed in his chest.

“You killed my father?” The man did not answer, only stared at Vernon. Vernon’s throat constricted with knowledge.

This was Death. He wondered, faintly, if Death had come for him.

“Not yet,” Death offered Vernon.

“I wasn’t considering it, yet,” Vernon lied. Death nodded knowingly. Vernon ached with the knowledge that his father moved into the next easily. Why did he not fight?

“I’ll fight you,” Vernon stated. “When you come, I’ll fight you.”

Death stared into Vernon. He grazed Vernon lightly as he passed; when Death looked upon Vernon, Vernon felt the weight of himself lifted for a moment.

The moment passed, and Vernon was alone. Vernon wept.

Barbara responded to the news as Vernon knew she would, and he hated her for it. He wanted her to cry, to scream at him. He wanted her to mourn his father, to cry for him, to beg him to stay. Why would she not fight?

She collapsed into herself and he could not reach her.

When she finally asked about The Others, Vernon was unprepared. Barbara poured his coffee as she always did, offered him two cubes of sugar. She folded her apron neatly and sat at the table across from Vernon. Jonathan was still sleeping, and the gray at Barbara’s temples was pinned back. Barbara, as always, seemed self-conscious. From the corner of his eye Vernon saw her playing with her ring. The light glinted from the silver in her hair and he thought her beautiful.

He wondered if he should tell her. He had not said the words aloud before, and he wanted to, desperately, but they solidified like cement on his tongue. He swallowed his coffee without tasting it and he heard her words, whispered into her lap.

“How many women have you gone to bed with since we married? Vern? How many?” Startled he dropped the cup. His ears burned and he rose from the table angrily.

He had wanted her to ask all the while. He wanted her to notice. He wanted her to lash out, to feel, to defy him.

Instead she mumbled the words into her lap.

“Shut the hell up,” he shouted. He didn’t know those were the words he would cast at her, but they were out and he did not want to reclaim them. Her eyes darted up and met his then, and he saw her fully. She was proud but still fragile; in her eyes he saw the poor girl from the other side of the tracks. The fire that once was was dim, but it was not out.

Barbara did not leave him then. Even when The Other called at dinner she did not leave. Her eyes met his again, and he saw the light again dim, but it did not fade.

Barbara left quietly. She packed her things and moved to the room across the hall. A thousand times he called her back, he responded to her shouts in the dark.

But she did not shout, and his lips did not move.

Their years passed slowly and without sound; days crashed into each other, and Vernon found himself missing time. He forgot her birthday, first. Then their vacation.

Then the girl. Not one of his. Jon’s. He’d forgotten that she was supposed to be hidden. He asked about her, would have sworn that she was ten; just the day before he’d told Cheryl to keep her.

“She’s a blessing,” he revealed, his voice shaking. He did not see the blessing for many years, and they pretended the blessing did not exist.

But then he forgot. “Where is Jherine? Is she coming?” Barbara’s eyes narrowed and heat flared from them.

“She’s gone,” Barbara’s mouth formed the words and they dripped like venom. The fire that he had long desired whipped forth and burned him; Vernon recoiled.

“Where?” Vernon asked. He could remember, vaguely, something about her, the child.

“Just gone,” Barbara stated.

When next Vernon saw Barbara the heat was present again. Jon’s mouth was moving, but Vernon could not quite make out the words.

Barbara’s fire had made it to the surface. She would not accept this.

She would die if she did not, but the fire could not be contained. There was something that he wanted to tell her, he was sure, but he could not remember the words.

Vernon thought Death would come for him first. But it swept Barbara softly, and the fire in her dimmed and then outed.

Vernon remembered. “You are beautiful,” he wanted to say. He searched for her but he could not find her.

“Jon,” Vernon gripped the boy close to him. “Tell your mother she’s beautiful.”

Jon swallowed. “She’s gone, Dad,” Jon sighed.

“When she gets back. Just tell her.”

“Alright. I’ll tell her.”

Death came while Vernon was sleeping. He could feel the presence looming over him. When his eyes opened he saw Barbara. She gazed at him fully, her eyes dancing. He wondered. . .

“Did you know that I thought you were beautiful?” He begged. She nodded, silent. He wondered, with his leathery skin and his weakened arms what she thought of him. If she still thought him handsome. If she loved him.

For a moment he considered fighting. But Barbara was here, staring into him. She allowed him to see her, in the light.

“I–” he wanted to offer her an apology, to give her the last piece of himself, but she shook her head.

She held out her hand for him to take, and he did. He gasped at the familiarity.

“I said that I would fight,” Vernon stated. Death nodded.

Vernon leaned into Death as a lover, and they moved from life easily, and without sound.

IV. Helen

Terence would miss her the most.

Teresa would grieve in her way–wildly and destructively, leaving all the rest to clean up after her.

Nicole would cling to Terence and she would lose her footing and she would not regain it again for a very long time.

Lamar would grieve as a child would–selfishly and away from them.

Terence would be angry. His anger would swallow him and everyone else. He would rage against them, beat against them, because he could not rage against her. He could not beat against her, he could not tell her not to go.

Could he, would beg her not to.

Mama stay, his voice would crack. It hadn’t deepened as much as he pretended, and the lilt at the end would pierce her soul.

She would, if she could. Not because he needed her–he didn’t. But she wanted to be there.

Helen looked down at TJ, asleep at her chest. He had fallen asleep at Cheryl’s breast, but she took him and he slept against her just as soundly. She loved him. He looked like Terence did at his age. She loved him more for it. She wished she could see him always. She hoped from somewhere she might.

As she clutched TJ to her a shadow came over her. She gazed upon it, but she did not start as others might. She knew this face. It was hers, but more beautiful.

Helen was a handsome woman. She was beautiful, though, once.

Her beauty had not faded; it resided beneath the surface, saved,like all of the things she wanted to do, for later.

She saw this beautiful face–her face–not a month before, after Yvette died. A courtesy, Death said.

Helen was a girl, not yet six when she met Death the first time.

Ms. Rosie lived in the shack about a quarter of a mile down the dirt road–Helen didn’t think of it as a shack, not in those terms, but that is what it was. It was a shotgun shack, more cluttered yard than house, with more kids than anywhere else in the neighborhood. There were at least eleven at any given moment in Helen’s childhood there. Joe said there were more, he’d seen them himself, but that they’d taken to killing the rest, babies and kids alike. Joe said not to go over there without one of the older ones, just in case Ms. Rosie thought she’d missed one.

The summers in Eutaw were hot–not Georgia hellfire hot, Helen didn’t yet know that kind of heat. The summers in Eutaw were blistering and the kind of heat that tired you. It was the kind of heat you didn’t escape from, the kind you just melted into.

There was no pool in the colored part of Eutaw. The only water outside of the bath came from the creeks. There seemed to Helen to be thousands of little creeks for exploring and fishing when Joe and the boys let her come. There was only the one lake, though. Lake Hanged Man, the one that Joe said the White boys used to throw all the colored bodies into after their rallies. Joe said it was man made so you couldn’t find the bodies, that the white boys from Birmingham, some of Bull Conner’s boys were sent here into Eutaw just to build this lake.

If you went into Lake Hanged Man you would drown. There were 20 kids between Ms. Rosie and The Jones’, and the only one that was rumored to swim was Rufus, Ms. Rosie’s oldest boy. Joe said he could swim, but Helen knew he was full of shit. She said it, too. He slapped her in the face and pushed her. He towered over her threatening to tell everyone that she still pissed in the bed and she was almost six. It wasn’t true, but she didn’t say a word.

It was the first of a thousand times she was struck without a sound.

Joe and Rufus left Helen and LuBelle, Ms. Rosie’s fourth or fifth daughter, in charge. The older girls were sneaking into town while Mama and Daddy played cards with Miss Rosie and Mister (no one could remember his name). Helen thought he was alright, but LuBelle said she was glad all of them stayed in one room. She wouldn’t want to be alone with him.

Five times the threat, “you drown in Hanged man and they won’t find your body till it dries out and they pick out the rest of the colored bones.” It worked. They’d all seen the picture of Emmit Till, and that wasn’t but a year ago.

But it was so hot. Helen and LuBelle frowned through the dusty haze at the boys diving into the lake from the bank, spluttering and sinking, but laughing joyously. They were so hot.

They would hold hands.

The bottom of the lake was squishy and cool, and Helen thought she could feel worms beneath her feet wriggling into the mud. She turned to smile at LuBelle, who beamed back. Helen took the next step

And sank. Invisible hands ensnared her neck, tentacles shackled her, gripping her to the bottom of the lake. Hundreds of hanged men leered up at her, skeletal arms reaching out. She struggled, her lungs burning with muddy water.

Then nothing.

No. Not nothing.

LuBelle. LuBelle was there with her, in the lake. Helen could discern her as clearly as if she were viewing her through glass. She looked smoother than she had, and Helen stopped struggling against the water. LuBelle reached for Helen and Helen gripped her icy palms. LuBelle carried Helen to the surface, cradled her firmly in her arms, and it was then that Helen realized, vaguely, that she was still holding LuBelle’s hand–a different LuBelle entirely. Her LuBelle was floating face down in the muddy water. Helen began to struggle, but LuBelle was strong.

Helen knew that it was not LuBelle that held her, but Death.

“Am I going to heaven?”Helen asked. She was not afraid. She was tired. LuBelle shook her head.

“No. I’m not here for you. Not yet.”

The second time she met Death was at Grandaddy’s funeral. She saw him on the front row. He saw her–he was Grandaddy and it made her smile–and he tipped his hat to her.

She smiled harder.

She thought he’d come for Jimmy before her. She didn’t tell anyone, she just assumed. She didn’t think he’d recover from the stroke.

He was not a good man. She would get better, one day. She would choose right.

At Yvette’s funeral she was numb. Yvette had received her letter. She had called and they had talked. Yvette had turned her life to God.

Helen didn’t know what Yvette said to him. She wished she did; part of it was being nosy. But more than that she wanted to know what other people said when they talked to God.

She talked to God about Terence a lot. She didn’t have a favorite child.

But if she did, Terence would be hers.

He protected her.

He was the best part of her life, the only part that she didn’t feel was unfinished. She wondered if she told him that often enough.

Death was there at Yvette’s funeral. Sitting between the kids looking just like their mother. Death turned and stared at Helen and she knew.

It was the equivalent of your life flashing before your eyes. Suddenly everything makes you sick, and when you think about all of the life you thought you’d have time for, all the summers you would never see, you could become overwhelmed and stuck.

There are millions of things–billions of things–you could do with time left. When the clock is running down and Death is kind enough to let you see it, you can go places and see people and do things.

Helen ordered a cake. Teresa and Terence’s birthdays would be months away, but everyone should have a cake on their birthday.

Helen wanted to be there for all of their birthdays, but she would not.

At 45 Helen knew she would not live to see 46.

That morning, her fourth time seeing Death, she visited with him on the porch.

“Death,” she greeted him shortly.

“LuHelen,” Death replied. He smiled at her, and she smiled back. He knew she hated that name.

“I’m 45,” Helen announced. Death nodded without sound.

“But I have lived.” She declared for Death. He did not need her declaration, so he said nothing.

She had. It was not fancy and she would always be poor. But she was rich in love. In the ways they said and more. She had been loved.

Helen had loved, too. It had not been easy on her bones. They were sweet at first and Helen did not like the way she looked for so long…her beauty was tucked away, and yet Death made her relinquish it.

“What will you say to them?” Death asked her. Helen could measure her life in things she should have said.

Rains she should have walked in.

Sunlight she should have bathed in.

Beatings she should have prevented.

She wanted to say, I’m sorry, but there was no one to offer the words to.

“Will they be alright without me?” she asked Death. Death was an old friend and would answer her truthfully.

“No,” Death responded.

Teresa would unravel and would never reach 46.

Lamar would never be one of them.

Nicole would be ground into the hard road, but she would eventually out.

Terence. Terence would disappear, the sweet light that she knew would flicker and it would out. He would sleep for many years. He would miss her with a numbing grief, a blind, desperate longing for that which would be lost.

But he would out, too. Not unscarred, but he would not leave the world untraveled. In this Helen found solace.

She did not ask for an easy road. She wanted a road wide enough for a companion, and peace at the end of the journey.

Hours later Helen found herself cradled in Death’s arms, missing them. She gazed over Death’s shoulders, her promise, “I’ll be on my way” still warming the air where she left it. Death paused and stared down at her, silently asking.

She nodded, once, and with the confidence of old friends, met her eternity.

V. Lily

Death could only bear to visit her once. She had only just learned to laugh–not giggle, the way the younger ones did, but laugh. Saliva would dribble sweetly down her face and her eyes would brighten only for her mother and she would laugh.

Death did not take Lily easy. Death did not take a form for it could not bear it. Rather, Death appeared to her suddenly as both mass and void. She faced him directly, laughing, her sweet sound piercing the veil and ringing cruelly throughout the inbetween. Death swept her from her short life gently, cradling her as the baby she was. Death passed her mother, her eyes themselves voids of despair, and Death was afraid. Death would take Lily and there would be no other. Her mother would not bear it.

Death found solace in this.

Death held Lily close, then released her to her eternity.

Death wept.

VI. William Jamar

He startled awake from a dream, his heart hammering hard in his chest. It was a dream, he was certain, but the reality drenched his shirt.

He was afraid.

He turned to the body next to him, a dim moon cascading over her full body. She slept on, unknowing.

William rubbed the sleep from his eyes and tried to cast away the dream, but it clung to him.

In the dream he stood at a crack at the edge of the world. The edge of the world in his dream was dark and ragged, shredded skin and spent blood. It was cold at the edge, and the deep beyond it was certain. Behind him fingers like the digits of a sun-brittle skeleton scratched at his back, tearing at his skin. He was there at the end of the world wearing only his skin, and the beings behind him wanted even that. He stretched out his arms, desperate to reach over. He lost his balance and fell into the nothing

and righted himself in bed. It was so real, the dream. He would not call it a nightmare. It was a dream that he did not think he wanted, but then he did not dream much these days.

William’s sleep—when he could sleep—was haunted. He felt more than heard the comings and goings of those just beyond his reach, and his heart rate was always slightly elevated. If he happened to fall into a deep sleep his body would betray him and he would awaken, hands clawing at steel comfort.

Now he glanced at the woman sprawled out unknowing next to him, wondering if he could wake her. He could, but she would be angry. Her temper was volatile, but he was accustomed to it. Now he wished he could talk about his dream. What did it mean?

He would go to Grammy. The answer came to him as though spoken aloud. He crept from the bed and made his way across the cramped house to the lone bathroom. He checked in on the boys, the youngest with his mouth ajar, drool covering his brother’s arm. He wished they were awake so he wasn’t quite so alone.

In the dark of the bathroom he ran cool water over his eyes. He stared at himself in the mirror for long moments before startling.

His mirror was not his reflection at all. William was bone-tired, the kind of tired that hangs over the body like a pallor. He was covered in ink and his hair could use tidying.

His mirror bespoke youth. His eyes were clear with mischief, his mouth drawn up into a pleasant smirk. His mirror had not lived the same life.

William recoiled in horror, but the mirror spoke.

“Stay,” It commanded. William obeyed.

“What do you want,” his mirror asked him. William shook his head. This must be a dream. He thought he had awakened, but he was still trapped in the dream.

“You are not sleeping, but you are not awake,” the mirror revealed. “What do you want?” The mirror repeated. William swallowed hard.

“I want to rest,” he responded without thinking. The mirror nodded slowly.

“Who are you?” William demanded of his mirror shakily. “Are you an angel?” The mirror smirked at him.

“Are you death?” William whispered. The mirror did not reply. In the mirror’s silence William knew that he faced Death, but he was not afraid.

“Not yet, though, right?” William asked hopefully. Again the mirror said nothing.

“You will receive your rest soon,” Death revealed. He spoke the words as a promise of something grand, and William took the words with ease.

When William awakened again his bed partner was gone, the house empty. He made his way to Grammy’s house, formulating the question in his mind.

He couldn’t come out and ask her—she wouldn’t appreciate that. She would roll her eyes and brush him off if he didn’t warm her up first. He dragged out the lawnmower, pushing it across her tall lawn, still moving his mind over the question.

He would not ask, of course. He opened his mouth to ask her through the screen, but her words—I don’t like William at my house. He steals.—clawed his skin so thoroughly that he jumped. He mumbled words of goodbye and left before she could see the tears stinging his eyes.

He couldn’t be angry with her. That was her way.

He imagined his time as in an hour glass, running out. He could not imagine himself not here, but he could not imagine himself old, either.

The stories he and his sisters would tell about becoming old were always one-sided. It would not be his journey, he had always known.

He considered this as he spoke with the women in his life. His mom would always be first.

Her eyes were tired and she could not hide her disappointment. She did not express disappointment in him, but in his choices, she would say. He wanted so badly to tell her about Death, but she would not understand. She would want him to hide from it, she would not understand why he wouldn’t hide.

He would go to church with her so that she would see him enveloped in Christ. This would be a salve, he was certain. In the dark and the gloom of his absence she would hold the image to her like a portrait, something hopeful.

He wasn’t sure about Asia. She was so difficult to read, she would probably laugh because she was confused. Angie would ask him if he was ready, and she would bear the weight like a warrior.

Whitney would have a hole ripped in her universe. This he felt guilty about. She would lose her right lung when he was gone, and he could not think of a way to mend her.

They trying to take me out, is all he could muster, to prepare her for the inevitable, but it wasn’t enough. It would not nearly be enough.

William thought of the things that he did not do, and he felt immense sadness. At the park he gripped his sons to him, told him that he loved them. He watched his youngest—so much like William—with worry in his heart. Someone would need to watch him. He would have to remember to say that. He did not tell his children goodbye—he could not.

“See ya later,” he said.

The reality never meets the expectation. Though he knew his time drew short, he was surprised. One moment he was alive, and the next moment the veil was drawn.

He thought he would be alone in the end. He was not. Death brought to William the giants upon whose shoulders William stood. He lowered his head remorsefully, feeling guilt for what he did not do.

“Hold your head up,” Grace commanded. “We’re here because of who you were, not who you pretended to be.”

Death held out Death’s arms to William, and William stood. He sloughed off his worry and his tired like a coat too small for wear. He left them behind; they would not fit in his new world.

“What’s next,” William asked, but Death shook Death’s head.

“The journey is long. Rest William, and be at peace.”

William lay cradled in Death’s arms surrounded by those that loved him, and he rested and had peace.

Death and Mr. White: William Jamar

He startled awake from a dream, his heart hammering hard in his chest. It was a dream, he was certain, but the reality drenched his shirt.

He was afraid.

He turned to the body next to him, a dim moon cascading over her full body. She slept on, unknowing.

William rubbed the sleep from his eyes and tried to cast away the dream, but it clung to him.

In the dream he stood at a crack at the edge of the world. The edge of the world in his dream was dark and ragged, shredded skin and spent blood. It was cold at the edge, and the deep beyond it was certain. Behind him fingers like the digits of a sun-brittle skeleton scratched at his back, tearing at his skin. He was there at the end of the world wearing only his skin, and the beings behind him wanted even that. He stretched out his arms, desperate to reach over. He lost his balance and fell into the nothing

and righted himself in bed. It was so real, the dream. He would not call it a nightmare. It was a dream that he did not think he wanted, but then he did not dream much these days.

William’s sleep—when he could sleep—was haunted. He felt more than heard the comings and goings of those just beyond his reach, and his heart rate was always slightly elevated. If he happened to fall into a deep sleep his body would betray him and he would awaken, hands clawing at steel comfort.

Now he glanced at the woman sprawled out unknowing next to him, wondering if he could wake her. He could, but she would be angry. Her temper was volatile, but he was accustomed to it. Now he wished he could talk about his dream. What did it mean?

He would go to Grammy. The answer came to him as though spoken aloud. He crept from the bed and made his way across the cramped house to the lone bathroom. He checked in on the boys, the youngest with his mouth ajar, drool covering his brother’s arm. He wished they were awake so he wasn’t quite so alone.

In the dark of the bathroom he ran cool water over his eyes. He stared at himself in the mirror for long moments before startling.

His mirror was not his reflection at all. William was bone-tired, the kind of tired that hangs over the body like a pallor. He was covered in ink and his hair could use tidying.

His mirror bespoke youth. His eyes were clear with mischief, his mouth drawn up into a pleasant smirk. His mirror had not lived the same life.

William recoiled in horror, but the mirror spoke.

“Stay,” It commanded. William obeyed.

“What do you want,” his mirror asked him. William shook his head. This must be a dream. He thought he had awakened, but he was still trapped in the dream.

“You are not sleeping, but you are not awake,” the mirror revealed. “What do you want?” The mirror repeated. William swallowed hard.

“I want to rest,” he responded without thinking. The mirror nodded slowly.

“Who are you?” William demanded of his mirror shakily. “Are you an angel?” The mirror smirked at him.

“Are you death?” William whispered. The mirror did not reply. In the mirror’s silence William knew that he faced Death, but he was not afraid.

“Not yet, though, right?” William asked hopefully. Again the mirror said nothing.

“You will receive your rest soon,” Death revealed. He spoke the words as a promise of something grand, and William took the words with ease.

When William awakened again his bed partner was gone, the house empty. He made his way to Grammy’s house, formulating the question in his mind.

He couldn’t come out and ask her—she wouldn’t appreciate that. She would roll her eyes and brush him off if he didn’t warm her up first. He dragged out the lawnmower, pushing it across her tall lawn, still moving his mind over the question.

He would not ask, of course. He opened his mouth to ask her through the screen, but her words—I don’t like William at my house. He steals.—clawed his skin so thoroughly that he jumped. He mumbled words of goodbye and left before she could see the tears stinging his eyes.

He couldn’t be angry with her. That was her way.

He imagined his time as in an hour glass, running out. He could not imagine himself not here, but he could not imagine himself old, either.

The stories he and his sisters would tell about becoming old were always one-sided. It would not be his journey, he had always known.

He considered this as he spoke with the women in his life. His mom would always be first.

Her eyes were tired and she could not hide her disappointment. She did not express disappointment in him, but in his choices, she would say. He wanted so badly to tell her about Death, but she would not understand. She would want him to hide from it, she would not understand why he wouldn’t hide.

He would go to church with her so that she would see him enveloped in Christ. This would be a salve, he was certain. In the dark and the gloom of his absence she would hold the image to her like a portrait, something hopeful.

He wasn’t sure about Asia. She was so difficult to read, she would probably laugh because she was confused. Angie would ask him if he was ready, and she would bear the weight like a warrior.

Whitney would have a hole ripped in her universe. This he felt guilty about. She would lose her right lung when he was gone, and he could not think of a way to mend her.

They trying to take me out, is all he could muster, to prepare her for the inevitable, but it wasn’t enough. It would not nearly be enough.

William thought of the things that he did not do, and he felt immense sadness. At the park he gripped his sons to him, told him that he loved them. He watched his youngest—so much like William—with worry in his heart. Someone would need to watch him. He would have to remember to say that. He did not tell his children goodbye—he could not.

“See ya later,” he said.

The reality never meets the expectation. Though he knew his time drew short, he was surprised. One moment he was alive, and the next moment the veil was drawn.

He thought he would be alone in the end. He was not. Death brought to William the giants upon whose shoulders William stood. He lowered his head remorsefully, feeling guilt for what he did not do.

“Hold your head up,” Grace commanded. “We’re here because of who you were, not who you pretended to be.”

Death held out Death’s arms to William, and William stood. He sloughed off his worry and his tired like a coat too small for wear. He left them behind; they would not fit in his new world.

“What’s next,” William asked, but Death shook Death’s head.

“The journey is long. Rest William, and be at peace.”

William lay cradled in Death’s arms surrounded by those that loved him, and he rested and had peace.