The trip home from prison always lasts forever. After spending Saturday with robbers and killers and the man who murdered my mother, the chartered bus can’t get me back to Chicago soon enough. I have four weeks until I head back downstate for another fun-filled visiting day inside the walls. I’ll need every second to recover from today.
“Did daddy say anything about me?” my eleven-year-old sister Linda asks as I push our Aunt Edie and her wheelchair into the house. She’s careful to keep her eyes on her coloring book. Not even her voice cracks. The teeth biting her lower lip is the only crack in her mask.
“Not a word,” I assure her before our aunt can answer. The old woman sighs but doesn’t reveal my lie. We both remember what happened after the first visit, when we returned and told Linda the truth about what Father said.
Linda puts down her crayon and stares at the floor. Her fist tightens and she nods before jumping from her chair and heading upstairs to her bedroom.
My aunt reaches up and touches my arm as I push her wheelchair into her first floor bedroom. “I still think it’s wrong to keep her from her father.”
“There’s no way I’ll ever force my sister to sit through visiting day inside prison, I told you that already.” Aunt Edith makes me go with her when she visits her little brother, isn’t that enough?
“Linda’s so young, I understand why she hasn’t forgiven him. But you forgive, don’t you, Barnetta?”
No way. Never. “Of course I forgive him, he’s my father.” I take a deep breath. “Can you manage now, I need to get to work.”
It feels almost as good to leave the house as it did to watch the gray stone walls vanish in the distance. Lucky for me, Franks’ Place where I waitress three times a week is a big hangout for students at Farrington High School. Even late on Saturday afternoon the restaurant will be filled. The owner is understanding and accepted why I had to come late today.
I pull my jacket collar tight around my neck and lower my head as I head into the chill November wind. Walking helps me push aside the memory of the bumpy bus, the sad-faced visitors, tired prisoners, and vending machine coffee. And the grim faced guards who look at prisoners and visitors alike as if we were bugs they ached to squash. One of the few virtues of being a six-foot tall fourteen-year-old is that my legs cover distance quickly.
Cars rush down the street, speeding through yellow lights as if their drivers can’t spend an extra second in a part of the city where nearly every block is dotted with vacant lots and abandoned buildings. Christmas lights hang from trees, although Thanksgiving remains weeks away. Even in the so-called shopping district. Sale signs in brightly decorated windows beg passers-by to enter and spend. Darkened stores with boarded up windows warn what will happen if they don’t. Foreclosure signs in front of houses explain why they can’t.
A bus rolls past spewing dark exhaust that makes me cough. When I look up I see a man in my path, so close I have to jump to the side to avoid a collision.
“Sorry,” I say and start walking around him.
“Sorry don’t cut it, man,” he says in a voice that sounds like pieces of gravel rubbing together. He steps into my path.
I raise my head and see a guy only an inch or two shorter than me. He’s older than the usual high school crowd, maybe in his twenties, although his dark skinned face is as leathery as my father’s. His thick lips open into a grin revealing yellowed teeth. Two silver studs gleam in one of his ears, an unlit cigarette perches behind the other, and a silver chain holding a large crucifix hangs around his neck. He wears a red jacket with black markings, but I don’t need those colors to recognize a member of the Devil Dog gang, not after months living in this strange part of Chicago where people talk about blood and pain like it’s nothing. I’ve only been in this neighborhood a couple of months, but I’m not stupid nor a little girl. I know Double D is not just a bra size. I also know I need to get away from this guy as soon as I can.
He looks me over and smacks his lips. “I didn’t know you were a girl. You make one giant-sized shorty.”
I’ve heard that line a hundred times since I grew five inches and two big breasts in sixth grade. I hate guys staring at my chest. Don’t show fear, I remind myself. I have every right to be here. That’s what my therapist tells me.
“My name’s Darnell.” The rocks continue cracking against each other. “What should I call you, miss tall, dark and uhmmm tall?”
Let me pass and you can call me gone. I take a deep breath and try to appear confident as I start walking around this guy.
“Rude not to answer when a man talks to you, girl.” He moves into my path again, forcing me to stop. “Didn’t your momma teach you manners?”
When she lived, my mother taught me a lot. But she couldn’t teach me how to escape creeps because she never learned how to escape from the wrong man herself. The breeze brings the smell of alcohol and my mind flashes back to the long-ago months when my father came home every night soaked in beer or wine or whiskey and looking for an excuse to fight. I try remembering the things I’ve been told since moving to Chicago’s south side. One gang member alone isn’t too dangerous, not out in public, even if the sky is dark and gray and the sidewalk almost empty. One will just look and make a few crude comments and then let you pass. Two might be a problem, but things don’t become real scary until you have to deal with three. With numbers they enjoy that I-Am-God feeling and everything-I-want-I-take kind of power.
“I’m going now.” My voice shakes, but I take a deep breath that fills my nose with eau-de-bad-guy and continue forward.
Darnell grabs my arm, jerking me close. I hit at his hand without thinking. His grip tightens and his lips twist into something that might pass as a smile among his friends, but to me he’s a mangy alley cat waiting for the mouse trapped under its paws to stop kicking.
“Yo, Darnell,” a man’s voice calls from behind me.
From the corner of my eyes I see two men weaving through traffic to cross the street and reach us. Two plus one makes three; the dangerous number.
Three can kill you.
The newcomers come close and I recognize the taller one in spite of the reflective wraparound sunglasses that somehow don’t look out of place on him even on this gray day. Malik Kaplan, a senior at my school. He’s six foot four, with broad shoulders, all the muscles in the world, a killer grin, and an ugly heart.
His companion is several inches shorter and appears older. He and Malik share the same coffee with a touch of cream skin tone. He wears a moustache that makes him look like he’s laughing. They slow as they approach.
Malik’s movements radiate energy, as if he prepares to attack the way he does his opponents on the basketball court. I can’t tell if he’s after me or Darnell. Malik stops a few feet away and stands with his legs in a wide stance, arms crossed over his chest and head held high. He wears his grey and green camouflage jacket, the one he never takes off except when he’s on playing. It covers his body like indestructible armor.
“Hollah, Big John,” Darnell says to Malik’s companion.
“What brings you to our turf?” John replies with a solemn nod. The two men appear about the same age. They start one of those intricate handshakes I see guy’s use but don’t understand.
“That’s right,” Malik says, and the cool menace in his voice makes me shiver. “You have no business in my territory.”
“Your territory?” Darnell drops his hand and leans closer to Malik. The two are barely spitting distance apart, and I wonder whether spit or fists will fly first.
John touches Darnell’s shoulder and gestures with his chin. They move to the side.
Malik turns to me and puts his hands on his waist as if trying to make himself bigger. The little I see of his face below the glasses reveals no hint of his emotions. His head moves just enough to show he’s watching me from behind the lenses. It’s creepy, looking at the guy I once crushed on and seeing only my own distorted features reflected back.
“You don’t know much about the gang,” he says. “Life in the hood lesson number one: don’t mess with a Devil Dog.”
“If he doesn’t mess with me I won’t.”
“That’s not what I said and you just failed the lesson.”
“Is he supposed to be scarier than you?” My heart still pounds, but I won’t let Malik know how frightened I was.
“Nothing’s scarier than me, Barney.” Malik laughs, but his eyes remain cold as he says, “What are you doing out here?”
“Are you accusing me of something? For your information, I’m on my way to work. You know, that thing most people do because their family can’t toss them money and anything else they want.”
The wind picks up and I shiver. Strands of black hair pull free from the braid hanging down my back and fly across my face. I look across the sidewalk at John and Darnell who seem to be arguing about something and wonder why Malik doesn’t go over to join them.
“Shouldn’t you be over there helping your friend?” I ask after glancing at the two men as they stand talking. “Who is he?”
“My cousin John, and he doesn’t need help. Any Kaplan can handle a gang member or two.”
“I suppose I should say thank you.”
Malik’s thumbs hitch into his belt and he makes a suggestive move. “You know how you can pay me.”
There’s the Malik Kaplan I know and hate. He hasn’t changed. This was no rescue, he’s not here about me. This is about ruling the streets, pit bulls snarling over the same burial plot for their bone, while the bone itself didn’t matter. He’s still the pushy braggart and I can’t understand how I could have crushed so hard on a guy who only cares about himself. He’s a spoiled boy who gets whatever he wants handed to him, including the hot girls in school ready to give their all if he lifts an eyebrow.
“You’re smart enough to know that’s never going to happen,” I say and turn to leave.
“How’s that brother of yours?” he asks.
That brings my attention back. I don’t know why Malik mentions my older brother unless he wants me to remember just how scary he can be. I grit my teeth and answer, “David’s just fine. I’ll tell him you sent your love.”
Before Malik can say anything more, John returns. Over his shoulder I see Darnell moving on toward the end of the block.
John touches his moustache and bows. “I’ve cleared up the mess for you young lady.” He’s a definite step up the quality side of the Kaplan gene pool.
“Thank you, Mr. Kaplan.”
“Henley,” he corrects me with a grim tone. Then he squares his shoulders as if shaking off a heavy burden and takes my hand. His voice grows smooth. “Helping you was all pleasure. I’d love an opportunity to show you just how much.”
“John, she’s fourteen.” Malik’s lips curl, as if my age ever stopped him from hitting on me.
John drops my hand but the teasing note in his voice deepens as he says, “She’s still a very fine looking young lady.”
My heart jumps. I’m six feet tall and a size sixteen and I get so few compliments from guys that John’s words send a spark down my spine. He looks sincere and I’d like to believe, only Malik looked sincere too when he pretended he liked me. There’s a million miles between eighth grade and high school, especially after months of therapy to stop me from spent trying to follow my mother. When you’re a nerdy, oversized freshman horse other kids snicker about, and the school’s badassed homecoming king says you’re the beauty he dreams about…well, I wanted to believe him.
But it was all a pretense, a way for Malik to score points against my brother.
“Look me up in a few years,” John says.
“She’s a giant, you must mean look down,” Malik says.
“I never hold a few inches against a pretty girl,” John says while I blink back angry tears.
What do you think?