Kansas City; 2018
From the administrator’s office, I went to temporary county housing until my aunt could fly in from Cincinnati. Not my aunt by birth, she stayed in Ypsilanti long enough to bury my parents and settle their affairs. My aunt gave me a shoebox of loose photos, all picturing me, which she’d pulled from my Mom’s album, erasing my face from the family.
At age ten, I was “placed,” a foster home. By fifteen, I’d been in three. The state shelled out for special schooling, sending me to classes with Downs kids, because there weren’t programs for misfits with my novel diagnoses.
In the last home, I fell in love with Rocky, seventeen with heavenly blue eyes. We sneaked out whenever we could at night and had sex in the back seat of a Chevy Nova parked permanently in a shed beside our foster family’s house. Rocky didn’t care I never learned to read, and I forgot about it, too, the only time I ever did.
Rocky turned eighteen and left, and I didn’t know where he’d gone. Kansas City, the house mother said. I packed a backpack and fled Ypsilanti to find him. I left my photos except one I had in a pocket of my jacket. If I’d remembered it was there, I’m not sure it was the one I’d have chosen to take. Still, I studied that image more than others, wondering.
It took a month to reach Kansas City by thumb. By that time, my love for Rocky had run its course. I was simply on the run, and I’d developed another problem. Up-close, personal, with a man, I wheezed, hyperventilated. The journey along those highways, to say the very least, was harrowing for a girl of sixteen.
Everything before Kansas City shaped me, but I hadn’t been living, only labeled, an orphan, disabled, a runaway. I was afraid the wheeze was another, PTSD. I staggered up a wooded, Kansas City hill in a residential area, wearing a ripped t-shirt, dragging the backpack that had seen better days, and collapsed on a sidewalk beside a tiny lawn of emerald green. Cherry found me.
Sweet Cherry Desireé. I told her my name was Mae Winston. It was really Fay White, but I was a runaway and would be until eighteen.
Cherry loved leopard print. Her coffee-colored skin smelled like vanilla. Ringlets cascaded out of floral scarves she wrapped around her hair. She showed me a closet about six by eight feet with a narrow bed and let me sleep there, her second bedroom. She was a hairdresser and worked five days a week. I cleaned her house, cooked, raked her lawn, and mowed. She trimmed my mousy brown locks every month and dyed them pink.
She figured out I couldn’t read. When I tried to explain, she compared my brain to wingdings. Pushing keys, she showed me how one stroke of this equaled that on her laptop, an icon on the screen. I shrugged. It didn’t explain scents, sounds, and colors, or the occasional thrill. Her analogy was clever, but not the same.
Before Cherry, I never cared for computers, but she loaded Google Chrome, so I could search with voice. I devoured youtubes, watched them all the time, like that Saturday morning on the sofa when I’d lived with Cherry about a year. I had to pee, forgot to knock on the bathroom door, and walked in on a man pissing in the toilet. I screamed, ran to my bedroom, and locked the door. I was clawing at the window frame to get it unstuck when there was a knock and Cherry said, “Honey, it’s alright. It’s me.”
Shaking, I stopped scrabbling at the window like a trapped rat. “Who was that man?”
“Let me in so we can talk.”
We sat on the edge of my bed while she explained. Smoothing the lumps with spandex under skirts, she was hiding anatomy, cock and balls she was saving money to fix.
“Do you like boys or girls?”
“I like men, Baby Mae. Nothing has changed.”
She stroked my pink bob, pulled me tight against her pillowy breasts, and we cried. We were alike, our human interfaces warped. We didn’t fit.
From youtubes, I learned about clay. I’d shaped colored dough from paper cans with the Downs kids, but this was more sophisticated. With clay, I could simulate fur on a dog, bark on a tree, shape delicate spires or a baby’s face. Cherry bought a box of fine clay, and I modeled her head with a fountain of kinky curls flowing from a leopard-print scarf. In return, she gave me a locket.
We snuggled on the couch in our socks while John Coltrane played quietly from vinyl LPs on Cherry’s turntable. She released the catch on the locket, springing the panels free. “That’s my dream family.” Cherry pointed to the average man. “That’s my husband.” Two frames pictured random kids. The fourth was blank.
“That’s where I fit. Someday.” She pushed the locket to my palm and closed my fingers over it.
“Don’t give me this.” I shoved it back.
“I want you to have it. It’s a dream locket.”
“I don’t get it.” I was still holding out the locket.
“You need dreams, Mae, even more than me.”
I didn’t understand, but took the pendant on its chain, folded and snapped the frames. I liked the lemon-flavored clicks.
One morning, Cherry was getting ready for work while I cooked breakfast, eggs and toast. I’d already packed her salad for lunch. We didn’t eat meat, only eggs, cheese, and beans. I called Cherry to eat, but she didn’t appear and didn’t call back. Smelling my own fear, I ran. Slumped on the floor, Cherry held her right fist to her chest. Her left hung limp on the linoleum next to her phone.
“Cherry! What’s wrong?”
“Nine-one-one,” she whispered.
“Fuck! Fuck!” I snatched the phone. Quaking, I pushed the button at the bottom. The screen with apps lit up. Round-eyed, I stared. “Cherry, which is the phone?”
“Green,” she gasped.
I tapped. Cherry’s chest heaved. Her forehead furrowed with pain. Even to save Cherry’s life, I couldn’t understand the figures that popped up, a peony, a stork, a shape like a tiki hut.
“Please, Cherry…” I lifted her hand, her finger. She flexed a joint. She pointed three times, and I tapped.
The 911 dispatcher asked about my emergency. “I think my friend’s having a heart attack!” I didn’t know my address, only our names. I set the phone on the toilet lid and left to unlock our front door. When I came back, Cherry’s eyes were closed, and she’d fallen limp against the tub. I wailed and the voice from the toilet asked what was wrong. Lugging Cherry up in my arms, I wept over her kinky curls.
About three minutes later, EMTs pushed me from the bathroom and worked over Cherry unseen. When they carried her out on a gurney with folding legs, she wore an oxygen mask. Alive. Cherry’s saviors let me get her purse and ride in the ambulance while holding her hand.
At the hospital, a team wheeled her away. As long as they fixed her. While I worried in the emergency waiting room, the shift changed, and a different woman sat at the desk. When I asked the new receptionist later about Cherry, she couldn’t find the name in the computer.
“I came in just a couple hours ago with her.”
The woman checked again. “I’m sorry. I don’t show a Cherry Desireé. How do you spell the last name?”
I turned, hiding my face, and fled the waiting room in despair, seeking the chilly air of that autumn day to cool my constant shame. I’d left the house in my denim jacket with brass snaps and rubber-soled Asics. I snapped tight, shrugged the collar close, and walked, trying to think.
A man crossed the street toward me, and I suddenly couldn’t breathe. Wheezing, I turned back for the hospital. After a few feet, I took flight. On the run, I glanced over my shoulder. The man was still there. I dodged down a narrow sidestreet to get off the sidewalk. The threat passed the mouth of the street, and I sprinted again. Hyperventilating, I dodged behind another building.
Slumped against a brick wall, I sat on the gravel in an alley and gulped cold air. A clear morning had given way to clouds and a fine mist. Even I was usually smart enough to get out of the rain. Once the sidewalk was clear, I’d try to find Cherry at a different desk though I’d have to admit I couldn’t spell the name. Brushing off my jeans, I looked around to head back and realized I was lost. A little kid is told to stay put, but I wasn’t a little girl anymore. No one was looking, and Cherry was alone.
Like an explorer in a new world, I decided to climb one of the hilly streets to see above the trees. If I could spot the hospital, I might work my way back. I left the brick buildings with their unintelligible signs behind and traipsed amid poorly kept homes, trash on the lawns, broken toys, hanging screen doors, chainlink fences, and locked gates. Grates on the windows. The mist turned to drizzle, which cleared people off the sidewalks.
In Kansas City on foot, it’s not easy to get above the trees. I walked for hours, avoiding people. On a drizzly day, dark fell early. I was getting hungry and was cold. I found a Kwikshop, where I could use the bathroom. The toilet doors were labeled with pictures, a big relief. When I came out, I tried to ask the clerk, a man, directions but could only wheeze. I waved my hand and walked out.
My pink hair was slicked to my skull, my jacket damp. I was walking to keep warm when a lighted porch drew me like a sodden moth. A white-haired woman wrapped in an ombre shawl she might have knitted herself sat watching the rain from a faded recliner beside her front door. I asked her directions to the hospital. Friendly, she pointed and rattled off names of several streets, which would have been helpful if I could read street signs.
I walked enough miles to finally stumble on bad humanity. From my highway days, I knew a nightmare when I saw it, and this man was that. This time, when I ran, the man gave chase. I crashed against a tall chainlink fence, hooked my fingers in, and scrambled. A security light lit me like a Hollywood star. I clawed, my wet, rubber soles slipping on the links, and grasped the barbed wire at the top. I grit my teeth. The man grabbed my ankle and yanked, tearing the flesh on my palms. I screamed and tried to kick free.
From a distance, a second man yelled, “Hey!”
The man grabbing my ankle gave up his grip, and my weight swung against the fence to hang from barbed wire. Rain in my face, I sucked air while two men grappled and grunted in the gravel behind me. Afraid to drop down, I couldn’t get up.
“It’s alright. He’s gone. Ran off.” A man circled my ankle with a warm grip. “Let go.”
My arms finally gave out, and he grabbed my waist with big hands to ease my descent. I went to my knees, gasping like a fish in the rain.
A glint caught my eye, raindrops on the pendant Cherry gave me. I pounced, picked it up, and checked that it didn’t break. Protecting the pictures of Cherry’s family from the rain, I folded the little wings.
“Here. You must be freezing.” The man shrugged off his leather jacket and swung it around my shoulders. He pointed at my dream locket. “Is that yours?” He patted his left jeans pocket.
“Yeh. My friend gave it to me.”
He pulled a chain from inside his pocket and dangled a pendant in the light of the blue-tinged halogen. “I thought it was mine for a minute. My mom gave me this.”
The lockets were the same.
“Where were you going? I can help you get there.”
“The hospital to find my friend, Cherry.”
I shook my head. I didn’t know the name.
“Okay. Let’s get out of the rain. We’ll figure it out.”
He had a car and explained as he drove. He’d been across the street, leaving a friend’s house, when he saw me down the alley, spotlighted by the security light. He said this was a bad neighborhood, that girls shouldn’t be out here alone at night.
“How come you were?”
“I’m not a girl.”
“I’m not either. I’m almost eighteen.”
He snorted and turned into a driveway. A lamp cast gold light in his living room. Wet, I stood beside a coffee table from the last century, and he pulled a phone from his pocket. His hair was buzzed tight, etched with a slender swirl.
“What’s your friend’s name again?”
He swiped his phone screen a few times and made a call to a hospital. No one had checked in with that name. He tried two more places that never heard of her.
“How big was the hospital?”
“Huge. A sea of aqua glass and a covered walk over the street. The emergency door sounded like chocolate.”
He raised his eyebrows. “Chocolate?”
“Well, I tried the big ones. We can swing by, and you can tell me if you recognize it from the outside. I might know which one.”
Before we left, he offered dry clothes, t-shirt and gray sweatpants with a string, and I gave him his jacket back.
“I’m Jamal, by the way,” he said as I went to the bathroom to put on the dry tee.
Introductions had escaped me earlier after hanging from barbed wire with bloody palms in the rain. “I’m Mae Winston.”
I ducked in the bathroom and tried not to make a bloody, wet mess. He knocked. “You dry? I’ve got bandages here.”
I sat on the edge of his tub while he sat on the toilet lid and wiped my palms with antiseptic. He cut away the loose skin, smeared the jagged punctures with ointment, and wrapped my hands like a boxer under the mitts.
“No problem. I’m glad you’re safe.”
“Yeh, thanks for that, too.”
He held my eyes with his gaze. I hadn’t been this close to a man since the journey south when my chest was crushed. When my mouth gaped, and I’d labored to breathe. In the hypnotizing silence, water plinked from the leaky faucet in the porcelain tub.
“It’s just what decent people do,” he said, breaking the spell.
“Let’s find your friend.”
He smiled and my situation improved. I was safe and dry, and Jamal didn’t make me wheeze. He might help me find Cherry.
We found the hospital with plate glass and lights. The doors flowed open like chocolate. At the central desk, a crescent about twenty feet long, Jamal asked the receptionist for Cherry Desireé. They didn’t have anyone by that name.
“But I came with her this morning. I think she was having a heart attack.”
“You came through emergency?” I nodded. “Let me check.”
We waited while the woman clicked keys on her computer like a percussionist. After a moment, she looked up, one eyebrow raised. “One man with a heart condition was admitted before noon, Charles Dresden. Could that be your friend?”
“That’s her. How is she? Can I see her? Where is she?”
“He’s on the fifth floor, Rm 512. Visiting hours are from five to nine.”
Jamal offered to come along.
“Um…sure.” I eyed the elevator warily. Alone, I would have taken the stairs to count the landings.
I might get away with the elevator if Jamal would push the buttons, but didn’t have much time to think. “Nothing.”
I pushed the elevator button as if knowing what I was doing. The elevator dinged, doors opened, and Jamal moved aside to let me go through. I glanced at the button he pushed. Now for five-twelve. I walked a half step behind the young man, exploiting his tendency to take the lead. He paused at corners, reading signs that mystified me. At each hesitation, shame filled me, not just for my disability, but for how I used Jamal, who was being kind.
He stopped at an open door. “I’ll wait out here.”
I’d pulled it off.
The first bed was empty, but Cherry was in the second, inclined, tubes in her nose, IV in her arm. Unbound, curls rioted around her cheeks. I rushed in, threw myself across her breasts, and sobbed. Sitting back on the bed’s edge, I gazed at her face. Her eyes were hollow, cheeks haggard, lips cracked, but she looked beautiful to me.
“Are you alright? Was it your heart?”
Smiling wearily, she reached for my cheek with a trembling hand. I held her wrist while she stroked my face with her fingertips.
I leaned close to hear. “Yea, Baby Mae. My heart tried to kill me, but not today.”
“They mixed up your name, so I couldn’t find you. I went outside and got lost in the streets. That’s why I’m so late. I was afraid you were alone. I’m sorry, Cherry.”
“How’d you get back, honey? What’s wrong with your hands? Where’d you get those clothes?”
“A man found me. It’s raining, so he gave me these, and he drove me here.”
“A man? You’re okay?”
“No wheezing. His name’s Jamal. When you get better, you can meet him. He’s got a dream locket just like mine…yours.”
Her eyes closed to slits, and her hand shook. “Go home, baby,” she whispered.
“I can’t, Cherry. I don’t want to leave you, and I don’t know how to find the house. I’ll sleep in the waiting room.”
She drew two long breaths. “Bring your friend, baby. Let me talk to him.”
“No, I can take care of myself.”
“Don’t sass me. Do what I say.” She tried to sit up, which scared me.
I jumped to my feet. “No, Cherry! Lie down. I’ll be right back.”
Jamal was in the waiting room, reading an ancient Popular Science magazine. “Will you meet Cherry? I was afraid to say no. She’s really weak.”
“Uh, sure.” He tossed the rag.
We went back in together, but Cherry kicked me out. Jamal wasn’t gone long.
“What’d she say? Is she asleep?”
“Yea. She asked me to take you home.”
“She told you the address?”
“Yea, come on.”
Again, I let him take the lead, and he punched the button to get us down, my escape from the fifth floor. This was how I navigated in the world I hadn’t chosen. Left at the wrong address, I was the one who had to adapt.
Jamal drove me home through streets I didn’t know. When we arrived, I invited him into the kitchen for hot tea.
“This is a nice place.” His eyes swept the counter. “Clean.”
“I clean and cook for Cherry. She’s a hairdresser, the best.”
Jamal sat at our kitchen table to wait for hot water from the microwave. He pulled out his locket and toyed with it on the table. When tea was ready, I took the other seat.
“Um…Jamal. Did Cherry say anything else?”
“She said you might need a ride to see her again.”
“It’s a lot to ask. I’ll understand if you won’t.”
“I told her I’d help. I’ve got work, but I can give you a ride tomorrow night if you like. Can I ask you something?”
“We passed a bus stop about a block from here. Is there some reason you can’t take a bus? This isn’t going to get me in trouble is it?”
“Nothing like that. It’s complicated, but I promise it’s nothing criminal.”
He shrugged. “I don’t mind helping.”
From a pocket, I produced my matching locket, set it on the table with a click, and he grinned.
I couldn’t tell time but was sure Jamal was too early for visiting hours at five the next day. When I asked him what time it was, he explained he only worked a half-shift on the weekend.
“Oh, I forgot it was Saturday.”
“Er…Sunday. You want some tea?” It was raining again and colder than the day before.
“I hoped you might offer.” He beamed.
I showed him to our living room, where he took the sofa, and I claimed the recliner. The laptop I’d been watching when he arrived was on the coffee table, its screensaver playing.
“Watching youtubes on heart attacks.”
“You’re the one who called 911?”
“Kinda?” He smiled like that was funny. He looked around the room and pointed to the clay bust I’d sculpted. Cherry had traded a haircut to have it fired in a kiln.
“That looks just like Cherry.”
“I made it for her.”
He went to the shelf to pick up the bust and examine the base. When he saw I’d pressed my thumb, he looked over his shoulder at me. “No signature?”
“I don’t like my name.”
“Why? It’s pretty.” He set the bust down carefully and took up his tea again as he sat.
I shrugged. “I guess.”
“I googled it, but didn’t find you.”
“You still think we’re criminals or something?”
“That’s not why I looked it up.”
“It’s not every night I rescue a white girl with pink hair from an alley in the rain and then find out her girlfriend is a black man in drag. You have to admit that’s kinda interesting.”
I set my tea down on the coffee table with a tap, crossed my arms across my chest, and glared. “I’m not Cherry’s girlfriend, and she’s not a man in drag. Cherry is a woman, and she likes men.”
He was silent a moment before a gleaming grin spread across his face. He laughed. “Even better. That leaves me the playing field.”
“What playing field? Are you interested in Cherry?”
He shook his head. “Nope.”
Still no wheezing.
That evening, I sat on Cherry’s hospital bed while Jamal leaned on the wall like a shadow.
Cherry mourned my hands. “What happened to you, baby? I’m gone one day, and you get yourself lost and injured.”
“It’s just cuts, not an injury. But you better come home anyway and take care of me.” I laid my head on her bosom, and she patted my hair.
“Jamal took care of you, didn’t he?”
He spoke up from the wall. “Just like you asked, Miss Desireé.”
“Thanks for bringing my baby.” Cherry sighed. “You won’t mind doing it again?”
“Not at all. I can give you a ride, too, when you’re ready.”
“I can get a cab.”
I raised my head. “No, Cherry. If Jamal brings me, you might as well come back with us. I won’t let you take a dirty cab alone.”
“Oh, is it us already?” Cherry cocked an eyebrow. Behind me, Jamal chuckled, and my cheeks grew warm. “Never mind, Baby Mae. When they release me, we can go home together.” She looked at Jamal. “Is that alright?”
“I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Cherry quickly grew weary. I wanted to sleep in the empty bed next to her but when Cherry told Jamal to take me home, he obediently dragged me away.
“You really love her, hunh?” he asked when we were in his car.
“Yea, I was sixteen when I came to kay-cee. She took me in.”
“She loves you, too. Your own folks gone?”
I hunched down in my seat. “They’re dead. There was a crash.”
“Sorry. My mom’s gone, too. Iraq. My dad moved in with my aunt and uncle. They’ve got six kids, so I passed.”
I nodded though he probably didn’t see in the dim light of the dash.
“Did you finish school?”
“I was no good at school.” My hands clenched on my bandages. “I take care of Cherry.”
“Cherry takes care of you.”
“So? We take care of each other.”
“So. Cherry’s health isn’t so good. You should think about school.”
“Who are you? My parole officer?”
“You ever have a parole officer?”
“No! I told you I’m not a criminal.”
He walked me to the door, and I fumbled my key. When I turned on the kitchen light, he stood on the porch, waiting for an invite. Still mad, I paused. He got the hint and started to leave.
“Wait, Jamal.” I put my hand on his shoulder, and he turned quickly back as if he’d hoped I would stop him. “Come inside for tea. You’re doing me a big favor. I should be more grateful.”
“I’m the one who’s sorry.” He stepped into the light and warmth of the kitchen. “I shouldn’t judge. Hell, I don’t know anything about you.”
I smiled. “You know more than anyone else.”
“Yea, I’m figuring that out.”
“I’ll get the tea.”
“I’ll help.” He brushed past to the cabinet where we kept our cups.
I laughed. “You’ve settled in.”
A cup in each hand, he leaned swiftly, and kissed me on the lips. I blinked. “I hope to.” He grinned but it faded. “Was that too fast?”
I took the cups from his hands, set them aside, and kissed him back. Problems dissolved in Jamal’s arms. Shame went away. His lips parted, warm and soft, drawing me in. I was tugging him through my bedroom door to score when he stopped me.
“When do you turn eighteen?”
My brow wrinkled in frustration, but I told him the date.
“We should wait.”
“For what?” I couldn’t imagine.
“Until you’re eighteen. I’m twenty-four.”
“What’s that got to do with anything?”
“It just seems strange. Seventeen is too young.”
“I won’t be more mature in a few days. I know what I want.”
He chuckled. “I’m glad you feel that way, but I still want to wait. Let’s make the tea. We can kiss on the couch.”
I had to settle for that. Jamal’s lips tingled like cinnamon where he trailed his warm breath at my ear and the back of my neck. I forgot about being a victim and a disability. He grinned at my bandaged fumbling and took off his shirt for me. I kissed his chest, licked his almond-flavored skin, and was working my way down his stomach when he stopped me above his jeans.
“No. Not until it’s mutual,” he said, gasping. “Tonight, we kiss.”
“I can’t change your mind?”
“You probably could,” he said, laughing. “But don’t try. I have to keep my honor intact.”
“I never met a man like you.”
“Good, because I never met a woman like you. We’re even.”
Jamal continued coming after work to give me a ride, and Cherry was better every day. The weather was colder, and I always invited Jamal in after the hospital to share tea. We kept making out on the couch, and I grew bolder as my hands healed. I groped the front of his jeans, and he yanked my hand away. “Not yet,” he growled. Nor could I get him to stay overnight. Without Cherry home, I was lonely and fell asleep each night on the couch, listening to John Coltrane.
Alone another morning, I made breakfast, cleaned the kitchen, then got out my clay. Working from pictures on youtube, I modeled a ballerina with a frilly tutu. At the kitchen table, I worked for hours, meticulously texturing layers of gauze with a kebab stick. When a knock came on the door, I jumped.
“Can you wait five minutes? I want to make a sandwich.”
He stared at my ballerina, whose torso was still a lump. “You did this today?”
“Yea. I forgot to eat lunch.” My head was in the refrigerator.
I loaded my arms with food to spread on the table, and Jamal opened a new bag of chips. He shook a few on my plate. “You like chips this hot?”
I shrugged. “Sure.”
He pointed to the picture. “With these green specks?” My face warmed. He offered me a chip, and I was caught. “Well?” he asked, when I’d eaten it. Onion-flavored, not hot.
He held me while I cried at his shoulder. “You don’t have to be ashamed. You want to tell me why you can’t read?”
“I don’t know. Something wrong with my brain.”
I shook my head against his chest. “Retarded, a freak.”
“You’re not retarded. Help me understand.”
I dried my eyes and pointed to the chip package. He watched my face as I “read” letters one-by-one. “Gorilla. Blue. Oranges. Waterfall.” I couldn’t put them together because it made no sense, not even to me. A gorilla had nothing to do with blue although gorillas must surely like oranges.
“You want me to read the letters to you?”
I shook my head. “No, it won’t help.”
“Try one more with me so I understand. To me, this is cee for chips.”
I learned a long time ago not to argue that cee didn’t sound like cha in chips. Squinting hard at the “letter” at the tip of his finger, I said, “butterfly.” He didn’t laugh.
“And numbers? You couldn’t read the numbers on the elevator, could you?”
“How did you call 911 for Cherry?”
“She was conscious. I pushed the phone on, and she pointed.”
“That’s pretty scary, hunh?” He took a seat and pulled me to his lap. “You need an emergency plan. Let’s think of one.”
“Cherry was going to buy me a phone with a good voice command.”
“That’s an idea. We can work with that. I’ll think about it some more, too.”
As Jamal drove us to the hospital, I was quiet, digesting more than my sandwich. I wondered where an illiterate woman fit in his life. I didn’t want to be a dependent. Walking from the parking lot, Jamal put his arm around my shoulders, and we hurried because of the cold. We headed toward the elevator, but he held me back.
“Listen, Mae. I had to be sure. I don’t think any less of you, and I don’t want it to change where this is heading between us.”
“It has, Jamal. I don’t feel the same. It was fun before. Now, I’m a disability.”
“You’re not. Don’t punish me just because I care. Better I know early.” He tucked his finger under my chin and lifted my head so I’d look at him. “Smile. Don’t be grouchy. I want you to be my girl.”
“Are you my guy?”
“Just as soon as you’re eighteen if you’ll have me.”
Cherry came home after about a week. Jamal drove us, and she leaned on his arm from the car to the porch. They grew close while she was in the hospital. Maybe he missed his mom. I plumped Cherry’s pillows, brought her a stack of books, and plugged in the laptop by her bed. Jamal ate supper with us then went home so Cherry could rest. That night, when she slept, I sneaked in and shared her bed.
In the morning, she pulled me close, my head at her shoulder, and asked about Jamal. “Did you sleep together yet?”
Cherry snickered. “But you tried?”
“Every time we kiss. He says I have to be eighteen.”
She nuzzled the top of my head, then combed my hair with her fingers. “You need a dye job,” she said, musing.
I breathed deep, smelling her skin. It was good to have Cherry home. “You can do it when you get better. Hungry? I’ll make you breakfast.”
“That’d be nice, Baby Mae.”
I kissed her cheek, and she patted my hand. I was frying eggs when there was a rap at the window of the kitchen door. Jamal’s face appeared in the pane, and I let him in.
“Want some eggs?” I asked.
“Sure. Smells good. Got any coffee?”
“Not unless you make it.” I pointed to the machine, and he went to work.
“Is it the weekend?” I asked.
He paused, stared at the machine, then went back to filling it with ground coffee. “Yea, it’s Saturday, Mae. We need to devise a way to help you keep track of days.”
I shrugged. “It’s no big deal.”
“It might matter someday. How do know when it’s your birthday?”
“Cherry will tell me.”
“And if Cherry’s not here?”
I slipped Cherry’s eggs on a plate next to sliced avocado and tomato and shoved bread in the toaster before answering. “Cherry’s not going anywhere.”
Jamal flipped the coffee switch and got three cups from the cabinet. “Not good enough. I don’t like worrying about you.”
“Then don’t.” I ducked in the fridge for the butter then pulled open a drawer too hard, crashing cutlery.
“I can’t stop.”
I shrugged and caught the toast as it popped. I turned my back on him to butter a slice, and he slipped his arms around me and lowered his lips to my ear.
“I can’t ever stop,” he whispered. “I think about you all the time.” He kissed my neck, my ear. He pushed my t-shirt aside and kissed my shoulder. He brushed his lips across my nape with a warm, moist sigh.
“Jamal…I have…to…get Cherry’s…”
I pulled free and found him grinning smugly down at me. Glowering, I piled Cherry’s breakfast on a tray and left Jamal drinking coffee in the kitchen. I closed the bedroom door and sat with Cherry while she ate. Sullen, I didn’t say much, and she knew I was mad.
“It’s the ones you care about who get under your skin,” Cherry said.
“Is he only toying with me?”
“You’ll know soon enough, won’t you? You’re eighteen in two days.”
“What if he has another excuse?”
“Baby Mae, you’ve always got me.”
“Too bad you don’t like girls.”
She chuckled. “That’s not what you thought a year ago.”
“You surprised me that’s all. I didn’t know!”
We’d gone over that and didn’t hash it again. By the time she finished eating, Cherry’s head was nodding. I helped her get comfortable for a nap and took her tray. I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to find Jamal waiting in the kitchen or not, but he was, drinking a second cup of coffee.
He poured a cup for me while I dumped Cherry’s dishes in the sink. “Come drink this before you wash.”
“The egg yolk will harden.”
“I’ll wash,” he said. “Come sit.”
I sat across the table and took the coffee he served with cream. He lifted his hand from under the table and pushed a photo across toward me.
“What’s your real name?”
I stared at the image, swallowed, and blinked back tears. “Where did you get that?”
“It fell out of your jacket. What the hell is it, Mae? Is that your name? Fay?”
I nodded, set the coffee aside, and picked up the photo of a baby girl embedded in the center of a green, translucent cube. A tree cast a shadow, shading the “baby cube” resting on the ground in a grassy meadow.
I turned the strange photo face down and slid it back. “What’s it say?”
His eyes widened. “You don’t know?”
“Of course, I don’t know!” Tears slipped down my cheeks. “I told you my parents are dead. This is all I have.”
“Is it you?”
“You tell me. I can’t read.”
He licked his lips and read the handwriting on the back of the photo. “Our miracle baby, Fay, 2000.”
My shoulders shook. I dropped my face to my hands and sobbed. “They…they…loved me.”
“Mae! I mean…Fay. What the hell is this photo?”
“I don’t know, Jamal.” I sat back and wiped the tears from my face. “It was in a box my aunt gave me when my parents died. I couldn’t bring the box when I ran away, but this one was in my jacket. It’s all I have left.”
“This isn’t normal. It’s a baby in a green cube of gelatin.”
“Is it? Is that what it is? I never could tell.”
“You think this is you?”
“I don’t know. I’ve always thought so. It was in the box with other photos of me. I…I guess it is. That’s my name, Fay, and that’s when I was born, two thousand.”
He pushed the photo back to me. “Here. I didn’t mean to snoop. It fell out, and it was so odd. I looked.”
I studied it as I’d done so many times, wondering about the baby embedded in a green cube. Maybe it was gelatin. It might be glass. Or emerald. I wiped more tears and turned it over to the words. More images just as strange filled my mind, a comet with a long tail, a Labrador chasing a red ball, a popsicle melting in the sun.
I looked at Jamal, who was staring. His eyelashes were wet. “Are you crying?” I asked.
“Maybe.” Jamal tapped his coffee down, and stood to round the table. He tugged at my arm. “Come with me.”
He dragged me from the kitchen, through the living room, and shoved my bedroom door open. My bed was unmade though I hadn’t slept in it all night because I’d left to snuggle with Cherry.
“I’m sorry I teased you before.” He pulled his shirt over his head, and the heady scent of almonds filled the small room. Backlit from the window, his outline gleamed, and I wondered if he knew he was beautiful.
“I’m not eighteen,” I said without much conviction.
He unsnapped his jeans and unzipped. “Close enough.” He grinned. “Besides, who knows how old you are?”
“Are you doing this because I was born in a green cube of gelatin?”
He laughed. “Maybe.”
He pulled me close to kiss, so I quit arguing. I wouldn’t disagree if he wanted sex with an alien.