Chapter One: The Beginning of the End
For as long as I could remember, we lived in an apartment located in a building complex everyone called The Projects. Even as a little girl I hated the name. It didn't sound like a home, a place to live with your family. It sounded just like the word suggested: some government undertaking, some attempt to deal with the poor, some bureaucrat's program. Beni called it The Cages, which made me feel like we were being treated like animals.
I suppose at one time the buildings looked clean and new. In the beginning there wasn't gang graffiti scribbled madly over every available space creating the Books of Madness, as I liked to describe them. The streets in front weren't dirty and the small patches of lawn didn't look mangy and sick. Now the whole place seemed like someone's ashtray.
Our apartment was on the second floor: two-fifteen. We were lucky because we could use the stairway when the elevator was broken, which was often, and we weren't on the first floor where there was a greater chance for burglaries. Some of the tenants on the first floor actually had bars installed in their windows, which was why Beni named the complex The Cages. It didn't do any good to tell her that bars on cages were meant to keep animals in, not people out. She claimed the government wanted to keep us locked inside.
"We're like some ugly pimple on the face of the capital. I bet the government people don't want foreigners to see us. That's why they don't take them through our streets," she declared, parroting one of Ken's frequent speeches of self-pity.
I couldn't deny that there was a lot of fear and crime around us. Everyone had some kind of an alarm and often they went off accidentally. It had gotten so no one paid much attention to them. If there was ever an example of The Boy Who Cried Wolf, it was here in The Projects.
Beni, Roy and I had only three city blocks to walk to school, but sometimes we felt we were going through a minefield in a war zone. During the last six months, two people had been killed by stray bullets fired from passing cars, one gang shooting at members of another without regard for innocent bystanders. Everyone thought it was terrible, but went on and accepted it as if it was simply a part of what had to be, like some nasty storm coming through. There wasn't much anyone could do about bad weather and most people had the same attitude about our street crime.
Mama was visibly terrified whenever one of us went out after dark. She'd actually start to tremble. I began to think we weren't living much differently than people in the Middle Ages. When our teacher talked about the fortresses, the moats and drawbridges and the dangers that lurked outside the fortress walls back then, I thought about The Projects now. Beside having alarms and bars on windows, everyone locked his doors three or four ways with chain locks, bolts and bars and did the same with the windows. Many of the elderly sat away from their windows and shivered at the sounds of the night, the screaming in the hallways.
From my window I could just manage to see the lights in some of the government buildings, and when we walked a few blocks east and looked toward the Capitol, we could see the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial all lit up with promises. We were able to take some class trips to the sites and even tour places like the Treasury Building where we saw money being printed, and the FBI building, where we learned about crime labs and fingerprints. We never saw the Congress in action, but we did visit the buildings.
I sometimes felt like an astronaut on these class trips. It was as if we were being transported to another planet. We saw the fine homes, the embassies, how rich and prosperous people were. We heard about all the wonderful hopes these buildings and monuments represented, but we always returned to our reality where it was possible to witness a drug sale on the corner, or see an unattended child wandering near broken glass and rusty metal. What will become of him? I wondered. What will become of us? In school we studied about democracy and we were taught dreams that were apparently reserved for other sleeping faces, not ours.
Recently, someone overdosed on heroin under a stairwell in our building. The police swarmed over the hallway like blue bees and then left as quickly as they had come, none of them seemed surprised or even concerned. I think they, too, had come to accept the horrors the same way we had.
Mama always dreamed of getting us out of here, of course. To me it seemed most of the people who lived here could no longer even imagine that for themselves. Mama wouldn't talk to anyone but us about it because she hated the dark, heavy notes of discouragement. Once, when Ken was doing well, not drinking as much and making a decent wage, we were able to put away enough money to actually consider the possibility of at least renting a small house in a better neighborhood, but then one day Ken went and secretly withdrew the money. I remember how Mama came home looking drained of blood after she had discovered what he had done.
"He killed our dreams," she mumbled.
I thought Mama was going to have a heart attack. Her lips looked so blue and she seemed to have trouble breathing. She had to have a shot glass full of whiskey to calm herself. She sat staring out the window most of the afternoon, sat there gazing down at the streets with a strange, soft smile on her face and hummed an old tune as if she were looking at a beautiful field or majestic mountains. I tried to talk to her, give her something to eat, but she didn't seem to hear me. I was very frightened, afraid for all of us.
Finally, Ken came home. Roy wasn't there at the time. I was glad of that because there would have been a fight for sure. Beni and I were in our bedroom doorway, holding our breath. We expected Mama was going to explode with a fury we had never seen before, but she fooled us. She spoke calmly in the beginning, just asking him to tell her why he had done such a thing without telling her, and what he had done with the money. At first, we thought he wasn't going to tell. He moved across the kitchen, getting himself a beer, wrapping his long, thick fingers around the bottle, opening it and taking a long gulp. He leaned against the counter by the sink.
"I needed it," he finally said, "to pay a debt."
"A debt? What debt? The electric bill that's past due? The dentist bills for Beni and Rain? What debt, Ken?" she demanded.
"A debt," he repeated. He avoided her eyes. She rose slowly.
"Some of that money was money I slaved to earn. Don't I have a right to know where it's gone?" she asked, still remarkably softly for her.
"I had a debt," he repeated.
She seemed to inflate, her small shoulders rising, her bosom lifting. I looked at Beni. Her face was full of anger and my stomach felt like hornets had built a nest inside.
"You gambled away our money, didn't you, Ken Arnold? Go on, tell me. You just threw away all that money, months and months of work, gone!"
He turned to face her, the beer bottle to his lips, his neck working like the body of a snake. Suddenly, Mama slapped the bottle out of his hand and it flew across the kitchen and smashed on the floor.
Ken was stunned. For a moment he couldn't move. He was so amazed at her aggression and her anger, it stopped him from breathing too. For Beni and me the sight of Mama, all five feet four, one hundred and five pounds of her fuming in front of Ken with his six feet five inch, two hundred and fifty-pound body with his massive shoulders and thick neck, was terrifying. He could squash her like a fly, but she stuck her face into his and didn't blink.
"You go and destroy my hope just like that and then tell me it was some debt? You go and spill my blood and sweat in the street and tell me it's just some debt?"
"Back off, woman," Ken said, but I saw he was shaking. Whether he was shaking with his own overwhelming anger or fear was not clear. Suddenly though, he realized we were there, too, and his pride reared up like a sleeping lion.
"What do you think you're doing slapping my beer across the room? Huh?" he roared, his eyes wide. "You're a crazy woman and I ain't standing here and listening to a crazy woman."
He turned and rushed out of the house. Mama stood looking after him for a moment and then she went to clean up the mess. I jumped to help her.
"Watch you don't cut yourself, Rain," she warned in a low, tired voice as I picked up the pieces of glass. Beni was still shivering in her chair.
"I'll do it, Mama," I said.
She didn't argue. She went to her bedroom to lie down. I thought she might never get up, but somehow, Mama found the resilience to fight on, to restore her optimism, to replant in her garden of hope and dream on for all of us.
I think it was Mama's courage more than anything that kept me full of dreams, too. If she could be this way after what had happened to her, I thought, I, who was so much younger and still had so much of a chance, had to be full of heart. I had to hold onto my smiles and not be like Beni. I had to push back the urge to hate everyone and everything. I had to see blue sky and stars even in days of rain, so many days of rain.
Our school was nothing to look at. In fact, I often closed my eyes when I first turned the corner and the tired, broken-down building appeared. It looked more like a factory than a school and all the windows on it had bars. There was a chain link fence around the property, too, with big metal signs warning against trespassing.
Two uniformed guards were at the front entrance when the students first arrived for class. To get into the building, we all had to pass through one of those metal detectors you see at the airports. On too many occasions, students, especially gang members, had slashed other students with knives and on one occasion, a tenth-grade boy was found carrying a loaded revolver. The teachers were adamant about added security. There was almost a strike before the powers that be installed the metal detector and kept uniformed guards patrolling the halls and supporting the teachers.
Mr. McCalester, my history teacher, said all the teachers should be given battle pay as well as their salaries. He made it sound like we should all be thankful if we made it through a school day without being harmed. It was hard to concentrate and care about poetry and plays, algebra and geometry, chemistry and biology while outside the fenced-in area angry young men waited to destroy each other and anyone who got in their way.
Most of my and Beni's friends were battle worn, veterans of the hard streets. Everyone knew about drugs and no one was surprised to find someone using crack, pot or whatever happened to be the flavor of the day. Neither Beni nor I ever used or tried any of it. Roy was the same way. There were times when I was afraid Beni would give in. Girlfriends challenged us, said we weren't being "sistas" and we were acting stuck-up.
Some of the girls resented me anyway because of my looks. Mama always taught me that vanity was a sin, but I couldn't help wondering if I had been given some special gifts. My hair was straighter, richer than most. I had a creamy caramel complexion, never bothered much by acne. I also had light brown eyes, more toward almond, with long eyelashes. Roy once said he thought I could be a model, but I was afraid to even wish for such a thing. I was afraid to wish for anything good. Nice things had to happen to us accidentally, by surprise. If you wish for something too hard, I thought, it was like holding a balloon too tightly. It would simply burst, splattering your dream into pieces of nothing.
When I was younger, Mama loved to brush my hair and hum one of the soft melodies her mama had sung to her.
"You're going to be a beautiful young lady, Rain," she would whisper softly in my ear, "but you've got to know that beauty can be a burden too. You've got to learn to say no and watch yourself more because men will be looking at you more."
Her warnings frightened me. I couldn't help but walk through the school corridors with my eyes firmly fixed straight ahead, not returning a glance, not welcoming a smile. I knew most of the kids thought I was a snob, but I reacted this way because of the tiny hummingbird that fluttered in my heart every time a boy gazed at me with interest. That flutter sent a chill through my spine and down to my feet. I'd almost rather be unattractive, I thought.
I know Beni didn't think she was pretty, even though I thought she had nice features and beautiful ebony eyes. She had a bigger bust than I did and liked to keep a button or two undone or wear tighter clothes, but she was wider in the hips and Roy always criticized her for looking like a tramp. My lips were thinner and my nose was straighter and more narrow than Beni's. Sometimes, when Beni wasn't looking, I would study her face more and try to find resemblances between us. She and Roy looked more alike, although his hair was closer to mine.
Once, I asked Mama about it and she said sometimes your grandparents show up in you more than your parents do. I thought about it and studied the pictures we had of Ken's parents and Mama's parents, but I didn't see resemblances to me in any of them.
Neither Mama's nor Ken's parents were alive. Ken's father had been killed in a car accident and his mother had died of liver damage caused by alcohol. Mama's mother died before her father. She had had a heart attack. I got to meet my grandfather, but he lived in North Carolina and he died of emphysema before I was five, so I didn't remember all that much about him except he smoked so much, I thought it came out of his ears as well as his nose and his mouth. Mama had one sister in Texas. Her name was Alana, and she had a brother named Lamar somewhere in Florida. They rarely contacted each other. I never met Lamar, but I did meet Alana one Christmas when I was seven.
Ken never talked about his older brother Curtis, who was in prison in Oklahoma for armed robbery. A man was killed so he had been given a long sentence.
Aunt Alana was supposed to have had a baby she gave away, but we didn't know any real details about it except that it was a girl. Sometimes, Beni and I would wonder aloud. We imagined she would be about our age and she probably looked a little like one of us. Occasionally, Beni would tease Roy and say things like, "Be careful 'bout the girls you sleep with, Roy. One might be your cousin."
Roy hated that. He hated it when Beni talked about sex. He was always after her to put something on lately, too. She would parade about in her panties and bra and sometimes, she would put on a robe with nothing underneath and not tie it too tightly. Roy would get so angry his eyes would nearly explode. He had Ken's temper for sure, only not for the same reasons.
He was different with me. If he caught sight of me underdressed, he looked away or walked away quickly. I always tried to be properly dressed if I was in the kitchen or the living room.
Despite his gruff manner at times, Roy was as loving and as protective a brother as Beni or I could want. He tried to be right beside us as much as he could be when we were in the streets. Now that he was taking a job at Slim's Garage after school, he was troubled about our walking home without him. He had told us both at least six times to be sure we went directly home and not stop at any of the jukebox joints to listen to hip-hop music. "The worst types hang out there," he warned.
"He just wants to keep us little girls forever," Beni complained. Two of her friends, Alicia and Nicole, were always trying to get her to go out after school. Finally, one afternoon after Roy had started working, she met me in the hallway at the end of the day and said she wanted to go with Alicia and Nicole to hang out for a while at Oh Henry's. It was a dingy luncheonette in one of the worst neighborhoods. Roy always said if all the roaches living in it were harnessed, they'd pull down the building.
"Mama will be upset," I told her.
"She won't know unless you tell. I'll be back before she gets home."
"Why do you want to go there?" I pursued. "You know what it's like."
"I don't know what it's like. I never been there, Rain. Besides... there's someone I want to see who goes there," she added with a flirtatious smile. I knew she had been flirting with Carlton Thomas lately; he was in a gang because his cousin was a leader in it.
"If you go, I have to go," I complained.
"No, you don't. I can take care of myself," she bragged, loud enough for Nicole and Alicia to hear.
"I know you can, but Roy will kill me if I let you go by yourself."
"I don't care about Roy. He doesn't run my life," she snapped. "And I don't need you watching over me either, Rain. I'm not a baby."
She spun around and joined Alicia and Nicole. They started for the exit.
"Okay, wait up," I called. "I'll go but we're getting home before Mama," I added when I joined them.
They sauntered along, Beni looking pleased with herself, her eyes full of anticipation, and despite the brave front she put up, a little fear, too.
* * *
The music was loud; the room was smoky and crowded and it smelled greasy and sickly sweet, but no one seemed to mind or care. Some people were dancing. Older boys who had been out of school a while were drinking beer and passing the bottles to those who weren't old enough to buy it. I saw some drug deals being made and bad stuff being passed along. Most of it was done out in the open. The owner and the bartender and waitress acted as if the place was empty. If they saw anything, they looked right through it.
I glanced at Beni when we all entered and saw the look on her face was not much different from the look of disappointment and disgust that was on mine, but the moment she caught me staring at her, she acted as if she was still very excited to be there.
"Now that you see what's going on, you still want to stay here?" I asked.
"Of course I want to stay here. Why else would I come?"
She dove right into the crowd with Alicia and Nicole, surrounding Carlton, who was talking to members of a gang. I knew they were gang members because they wore Dickie pants with a blue belt hanging down from their pockets. They called it "flue" instead of blue, which was the color for the Crips.
I didn't see anyone I wanted to talk to so I tried to stay out of sight, more toward the door like someone who thought a fire might start at any moment and it was better to be near an exit. After a while Beni came back for me.
"If you're gonna just stand there like a statue, Rain, you should go home. They're all laughing at you. At least come listen to the music and dance or something."
"We should go home, Beni. Look at this place. Look what's going on," I said nodding toward a couple who were kissing and petting as if they were alone in the back of a car. Across from them, some young man looked like he was in a coma, his body slumped in the chair. The music blasted so loudly around us it was hard to hear.
"Beni," Nicole shouted. "Carlton wants to ask you something."
"I'm not leaving," Beni fired at me and spun around to walk back.
I was so uncomfortable, I considered deserting her. A part of me thought it would be terrible, but another part of me couldn't wait to do just that.
"I ain't seen you here before," someone said, and I turned to look at the heavily pocked-marked face of a young man. He had a cigarette dangling out of the corner of his mouth. It looked pasted there on his wet lips. He had a thin scar over his right eyebrow and his eyes were glassy, red. The blue belt hung from his pants pocket. He looked older than everyone else and was probably in his twenties, I thought.
"That's because I haven't been here before," I said quickly.
"Slummin'?" he asked with a cold smile. He had a gold tooth and when I looked closer, I saw some hairs curled under his chin. Hardened like a prune dried in the hot sun, he looked more purple than black and his lips curled outward with a bruise on the corner of the lower lip. I actually felt my stomach churn at the sight of him.
"I'm not exactly happy to be here," I replied and he laughed a quiet laugh, just his body shaking. He shoved a toothpick into his mouth as soon as he withdrew the cigarette, which he just tossed to the floor and stepped on.
"Come on. I'll show you where it's quieter." He reached for me.
"No thanks," I said stepping back.
"I don't bite. Much," he added with another wide smile. I spotted another scar, this one on the side of his neck. It ran down toward his right shoulder.
"Yeah, well I haven't had a tetanus shot recently," I said, trying to act brave even though my insides were shaking. Come on, Beni, I prayed. Let's get out of here.
He laughed again and two other members of the Crips joined him. He mumbled something to them and they all laughed.
"You want something to drink? Smoke?" he asked me.
"No thanks," I said. I backed up a few more steps toward the door.
"Hey, girl," he said with a look of disgust, "you come here for a good time, didn't you?"
"No," I said.
"Then why'd you come?" he demanded, his face folding deeper into anger, his eyes wider, his nostrils flaring like a wild horse.
"Maybe she likes the food, Jerad," one of the boys at his side muttered, and they all laughed.
"What's your name?" Jerad asked, stepping closer. I looked for Beni, but I didn't see her anymore.
"My sister is here," I said for no reason and I looked harder for her.
"So stick around. What's your name?" he asked, this time more firmly.
His two buddies stepped between me and the door. I hugged my books tighter to my bosom. Looking around desperately, I saw no one who would come to my aid. If anyone was looking my way, it was with a gleeful smile, enjoying my discomfort. It frightened me even more.
"What'cha got under there?" he asked nodding at my bosom. "Some buried treasure?"
They all laughed and the circle they were forming grew wider and tighter as more boys joined them. My heart began to pound. I looked frantically for Beni and saw she was dancing with Carlton.
"I really have to go home," I said.
"So soon? What, are you on parole and got a curfew?" he asked. Every time he spoke, his private audience laughed. I felt their eyes all over me, drinking me up in gulps from head to toe. It made me feel naked, on display. My face felt hot as fear planted itself firmly in my stomach and sent my blood raging around my body.
"Maybe she wants you to walk her home, Jerad," one of the other boys said.
"I could do that. I could drive you home, too," he offered.
"No thank you."
"She's stuck-up, Jerad," another one commented.
"Are you stuck-up?" he demanded. I glanced at him. His eyes looked glazed with anger. "You think you're better than the rest of us because your skin's lighter, girl?"
"No," I said.
"So how come you don't tell me your name?" he followed.
"It's Rain," I said.
"Rain. My name is Rain, okay? Now leave me alone," I pleaded.
"Rain?" He took out his toothpick and nodded. "I like that. Me and my Rain girl. What'cha think, Chumpy?" he asked a heavyset and much shorter boy.
"Rain's a trouble that will follow you everywhere you go, Jerad," he said.
"Yeah, that's right, Chumpy. You wanna be my Rain girl, Rain?"
"No. I want to get my sister and go home," I moaned.
"Now that's not too friendly," he said. "Come on," he said, grabbing me at my elbow. "I'll buy you somethin' to drink."
"No thank you." I pulled out of his grip.
"No thank you? How polite. Ain't she polite, Chumpy?" he asked.
"I never seen a more polite Rain," Chumpy quipped. Everyone laughed. The circle they made tightened so
I couldn't look toward the bar or even at the dance floor.
"I bet kissin' you ain't like kissin' rain, though," Jerad said. He drew closer. I backed up into one of the boys behind me who gave me a small shove forward into Jerad, who then put his arms around me.
"Whoa, take it easy. Don't be comin' at me so aggressively, girl," he said with a laugh, but he held onto me. "I'll be here for you. Don't worry."
They all laughed again. I struggled to get out of his embrace.
"Let me go," I said.
"After I get my kiss. Come on," he urged, bringing his lips closer to mine. "I never kissed no Rain before. Come on."
"No, let me go." I squirmed. He looked at the others and they tightened the circle. Panic nailed my feet to the dirty wooden floor.
Someone from behind seized my arms just above the elbows and pulled them back so hard, my books slipped and fell to the floor. I gasped, but before I could shout, Jerad pressed his thick, wet lips to my mouth, cupping my breasts in his palms as he did so, and the group sent up a cry of glee. It drew everyone's attention because when he pulled back, I could see people looking at us and laughing. Beni stopped dancing and gazed at me with amazement.
"Now that was no Rain kiss," Jerad said, "but that there is some treasure," he added, nodding at my bosom.
I didn't move. I never felt so violated; I was terrified.
"Chumpy," he said. "Pick up the girl's books. Where's your manners?"
"Sorry," Chumpy said. He picked up my books and handed them to me.
I wanted to wipe my mouth, but I was afraid of getting Jerad angry, so I turned away and started toward the door. The boys stood their ground.
"Let her go. For now," Jerad ordered and they parted. I hurried out and into the street. Even the littered gutter felt fresher and cleaner than where I had just been. I walked as quickly as I could, my legs trembling, cold tears flowing down my cheeks.
"Rain!" I heard Beni call and turned before I reached the corner. "What happened?"
"I'm going home, Beni. I don't care if you stay there. I'm going home." I wiped my cheeks and my mouth with the back of my hand.
"Okay," she said, realizing how upset I was. "Wait a minute, will you?" She went back inside and then came out with her books, hurrying up the sidewalk to join me. "What happened? Why did he kiss you?"
"I didn't want him to, that's for sure," I said. "He forced himself on me. I hate that place."
"You know who he is? He's the leader of the Crips here. That's Jerad Davis," Beni said looking as if she was talking about some movie star.
"I don't care who he is. He's disgusting and so are his friends." I walked faster. "I knew something bad was going to happen if I went there. I just knew it."
"Oh, what was so bad?" Beni asked. "He just kissed you."
I stopped and turned on her.
"What was so bad? I didn't want him to kiss me, Beni. That's what was so bad and he touched me, too," I told her indicating my breasts. Her eyes widened.
"He's disgusting and so are his friends and so are most of the people in there," I cried, and walked faster.
Beni mumbled something under her breath and caught up.
"You better not say anything about it to Mama or Roy," she warned.
"Don't worry. I don't want to think about it anymore. You're not getting into any trouble."
We hurried along, Beni looking sullen and frustrated and I feeling completely violated.
* * *
It was always difficult for me to look at Roy and hide my thoughts and feelings. He had a way of gazing through my eyes into my heart and mind. No one was more sensitive to my moods than Roy, not even Mama. I was afraid of what he would see when he came home.
As usual, I started preparing dinner for us. If I kept busy, I thought, I wouldn't dwell on what had happened to me. Beni helped some, but was still brooding about having to leave Oh Henry's so quickly. When Roy came home from work, he went right to the stove and looked at the roast chicken. I had small potatoes and onions in with it and the aroma was delicious. He took a deep breath and rubbed his stomach.
"I'm starving," he declared. "Put in a day's work in just four hours. Slim's got himself a new slave, but I ain't complaining."
Beni sat at the table flipping through a movie magazine. Roy stared at her for a moment and then looked at me.
"You better wash off that oil and grease before Mama gets home," I warned him. He nodded, but he didn't change expression. I looked away quickly.
"Everything all right?" he asked. I made the mistake of shifting my eyes toward Beni before replying.
"Yes," I said.
"What's going on, Rain?" he demanded.
"Nothing's going on, Roy. We're just... worried and upset because of Ken," I said.
He stared through me in his usual way, those dark eyes fixing so hard and fast, it was easier to shake off fly paper. I had to pretend to check on the chicken.
"You girls come right home after school?"
"Yes," Beni said quickly. "And quit treating us like children. Just because Ken went and run off doesn't mean you're our daddy, Roy Arnold."
"You cause any more problems for Mama and you'll find out who's gonna be your daddy," he threatened pointing his long, thick forefinger at her.
Beni wasn't easily intimidated by anyone, least of all Roy. She flipped her magazine at him as if it was a frisbee and it hit him in the chest. It wasn't that it hurt him. It was that she would do it. He started around the table at her.
"Roy!" I cried.
He stopped, his shoulders up, and looked at me.
"You're headed for trouble, girl," he told Beni.
"It's none of your business," she wailed.
"Just leave her be, Roy," I said. "Mama's going to be home any minute. Please," I pleaded. "I don't want to make her any more upset." He looked at me again, then at Beni, and then left the kitchen.
"Why did you do that, Beni? You know his temper."
"I don't want him thinking he can lord it over us just because he's older and he's a man," she said. "I feel like some trapped bird in here most of the time with him saying don't do this and don't do that, and what are you wearing that for or why don't you wear longer skirts? I don't need any one telling me what to do," she declared. "He never says anything to you."
"He just wants to be sure you're safe, Beni."
"I don't need him to do that. I'm old enough to take care of myself." She stared at me for a moment. "You better not get me in trouble, Rain," she cautioned and went into our room.
Mama came home before Roy returned to the kitchen. She was tired and I saw she was disappointed Ken hadn't returned. I knew she had been hoping he would.
"Dinner looks delicious, honey. Didn't Beni help you?" she asked, looking at our closed bedroom door.
"Yes, she helped, Mama," I lied. A lie to keep Mama from being upset was a good lie, I thought. She shook her head and smiled at me though.
"Sure she did. That girl doesn't lift a finger unless I'm standing right over her. Roy home yet?"
"He's just cleaning up for dinner, Mama."
"Good. I'll do the same and then be out to help," she said.
"There's nothing left to do, Mama. The table's set," I said.
She sighed deeply, smiled at me, and started out, stopping at the doorway.
"Thank God we've got you, Rain. It makes it all a lot easier," she said.
It nearly made my heart crack to see her lower her head and walk with a slight stoop. She was exhausted and full of worry. How could such a tiny woman hold so much grief?
We were all quieter than usual at dinner. Mama tried asking questions about school, but Beni remained sulky and Roy continued to have suspicious eyes. I kept as busy as I could and was actually happy to clean up by myself when Beni complained she had too much homework.
"The teachers don't care how much they pile it on us," she moaned.
"Just do it all," Mama ordered.
"Well, I can't do it all if I don't get started right now," she declared.
"It's all right, Ma. I have most of my work done. I don't need Beni tonight."
Beni rushed off to the phone to call her girlfriends as soon as she saw the opportunity. Mama was at my side and Roy went into the living room to watch television.
"I keep hoping times will stop being hard for us, Rain, but it doesn't seem to change. The first chance you get to leave this hell hole, you take it, hear?"
"I'll never leave you behind, Mama," I promised.
"Sure you will, honey. You're supposed to. You children are the hope."
She put her arm around my shoulders and hugged me to her and then she went into her bedroom. After I finished cleaning up, I started for the bedroom, but Roy came to the living room door. He hadn't been watching television so much as biding his time.
"Come on in here a minute, Rain," he said.
"Come on in here," he said more firmly. I lowered my head and walked into the living room.
"I've got homework to do, Roy."
"You'll do it. I want you to tell me the truth, Rain. What happened today?"
"Oh Roy, don't make more trouble."
"That's what I'm afraid's going to happen if I don't know everything. You don't lie to me, Rain. We always tell each other the truth," he said softly. His eyes lingered on my face. They were soft, loving, pleading.
"Beni let her friends talk her into going to Oh Henry's," I revealed. "I went along to be sure she'd be all right, only it was me who got into a situation."
"Someone named Jerad forced himself on me, had his friends surround me and then he kissed me."
I didn't want to tell him all of it. I could see just being kissed was enough.
"Then what happened?"
"I ran out and Beni followed and we came home. That's the whole thing. It won't happen again. I promise, Roy. We'll never go back to that place."
"Yes," I said.
"He's killed people, Rain," Roy said.
My heart was thumping so hard, I had to take a breath.
"If he ever comes near you again, I gotta know, hear?"
"Yes," I said nodding.
"Beni's getting wild," he said looking toward our bedroom. "She's gonna get herself into real trouble someday. I don't want you tagging along. She'll drag you down with her."
"I can't desert her, Roy."
"Don't desert her, but if she's stubborn, don't let her drag you down," he warned. "Promise me." He reached out and took my hand. "Promise, Rain."
"I promise, Roy," I said. His eyes softened again.
"Good," he said. "You're too good for this place, Rain. I've got to get you out of here someday."
"We all have to get out, Roy."
"Sure," he said. He stared hard at me and I tilted my head in confusion. He blinked a few times, then pulled himself up. "Go do your homework," he said like an older brother, "and don't keep any secrets again."
I smiled at him and then I leaned over and kissed him on the cheek.
He was still standing in the doorway looking after me when I reached the bedroom door and looked back. His look stirred that little butterfly in my heart, the one that rang alarm bells when boys fixed their eyes on me in the hallways and in the streets. Maybe Roy felt my butterfly's wings too, because he turned away quickly and disappeared.
Confusion, like static on the radio, jumbled my thoughts. I rushed into the sanctuary of my schoolwork, grateful for the distractions to help me forget the day.
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