TWO - CHANDRA
Chandra knew what she must’ve looked like to the man—a complete mess.
“Ma’am, I’m sorry about your friend,” the young man said. “You look like you could use some help too.” He tilted his head and frowned. “Are you hungry? Could I get you something to eat?” He scrunched his nose and drew back from her, smelling a waft of her body odor.
“No,” Chandra said and sniffled, rubbing her arms. “I’ll be fine.”
“Do you need a ride home?” the young man asked.
Chandra shook her head. “No, sir. I’m okay.” With everything she had gone through, she didn’t trust too many people anymore. Sometimes it was better to be a loner than a follower of the crowd. She had learned that the hard way.
“What’s that by the dumpster?” The man in the raincoat walked over to the garbage bin and picked up her black diploma case. “A college diploma?” He opened and read the inside. “Frederick Douglass University. Chandra Johnson . . . Bachelor of Pharmaceutical Sciences. Is this yours?”
“Yes, it’s . . . it’s mine,” Chandra confessed, swaying. She swiped a hand past her cheek, ashamed and embarrassed of her present state of condition.
The man hung his lower lip and handed it to her with a confused look as if she was crazy or something. How could an educated woman with a college degree in one of the highest paying job fields be dressed in raggedy clothing and living on the streets?
“Thank you,” Chandra said quietly.
The man gave her a chin jut. “Sure, thing. Take care of yourself, and don’t waste your life, okay?”
“Yeah.” Chandra wore a weak smile and patted her frizzy, black cropped do.
The man walked back to his car and drove away to wherever he was going prior to stopping at the curb.
Chandra released a long breath and glanced upward. Order my steps, Lord. Guide me. Her mind and memory were disoriented, and she hadn’t a clue where to go. She continued walking along the sidewalk, following the busy traffic on Ocean Drive until she reached an intersection. She pressed a button on a pole for the pedestrian crosswalk.
A bright red hand flashed on the opposite end, stopping drivers in their tracks.
She jogged across the painted walkway, leaving off Ocean to Pontiac Road. Getting help for herself wasn’t far away now. If she could get help anywhere, it was from the church. She journeyed down the sidewalk on the left side of the road. She was in downtown Saint Vincent, which was an even worse environment. When she turned the corner onto Castle Avenue, she bumped into an average-height, Hispanic man with a red bandana tied on head, a member of the Spanish, Red Knives gang.
Chandra raised her head to his face and backed away with a gasp. Her breath grew heavy, disturbed by the presence of him.
“Hola, Andra?” Spade said with a grin. “Yo, I got something yummy for you. All free—no cost to you either.”
Chandra gulped and clutched her sweater again. She glanced down at his pants, hesitating to speak up to him. “You . . . you stay away from me. You caused me to ruin my life. I never want to see you again!”
Spade cocked his head with his calm smirk and tucked a hand in a pocket of his baggy denim jeans. “Now, Chandra, you know you don’t mean that?” He tapped his side pocket. “It’s free—all right here. I’m in a better mood tonight than usual.” He pulled a small bag of coke from his pocket, just enough for her to see it, but to keep it hidden at the same time. He narrowed his wide eyes at her and lifted a corner of his mouth. “Sabes que lo quieres…”
Chandra panicked and felt her defenses dropping to the ground. She knew what he said—he had taught her some Spanish and code words for the Red Knives, and it was the truth. No matter what she willed herself to say, she really did want it, and that was what scared her the most. Her eyes watered and her teeth chattered, glancing from Spade’s pocket to his honey-brown face. “I . . . I can’t take it. Not again.”
Spade frowned and spoke in Spanish again, urging her to take his supply. “Seguro que puedes, ¿no? ¡Tu puedes tenerlo todo—todo ello!” He smiled playfully and flexed his thin eyebrows.
Chandra closed her eyes and swallowed a hard lump. Her heart was broken from her family issues, Mario’s overdose, and the terrible decisions she made in her life. For a long time, she had been sad inside, wallowing in her list of couldas, shouldas, and woes. She knew how cocaine increased her energy, boost her mood, and made her forget all her troubles—the intense feeling of pleasure and being on top of the world.
Help me, God. She looked down at Spade’s bejeweled, gold-ringed hand—the bag of dope in the middle of his palm. Her heartbeat raced and she licked her lips. She started to take it from him, but a bible verse out of nowhere fell in her mind, a verse of compassion her father had taught in one of his last sermons she heard: Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Before she grabbed the bag from Spade’s hand, it made her come to a halt.
“Well, go ahead,” Spade said, eyeing her. “Take it, Andra.”
Chandra lifted her head and straightened. “No, not anymore.” She drew a deep breath and look him in his eyes. “I’m done with you, Spade. I’m done.”
Spade mocked a laugh and stuffed the bag in his pocket. “Whatever, Andra. No pressure. I’ll be around when you need me.” He threw her a peace sign, turned around the corner, and strode down the cobblestone alley between Castle Avenue’s brick, apartment buildings.
No pressure? Chandra shook her head as she watched him leaving, feeling a mixture of yearning and relief. She folded in her lips and down the opposite direction. If anything, it was better that she walks away from Spade. She followed the thin strip of Castle Avenue and turned off onto Maple Lane.
The blowing wind and drizzling rain picked up and became stronger, and what everyone thought was a light drizzle transformed into a boisterous thunderstorm.
She needed to find shelter somewhere fast.
Chandra trotted down the sidewalk with her case in her arms and looked ahead up the street. In the middle of the steady, pouring rain, she spotted the cross and the bell tower at the peak of the stone exterior church. She let out a tired sigh, running to the steel chain-link fence. The closer she got to the church, the more the verse repeated in her mind.
“I’m coming,” Chandra whimpered. “I’m coming . . .”
Traffic passed her on the lane and she nearly got hit by a car, but she leaped back on the sloped pavement outside the fence. She gripped her hand on the loops of the fence and caught her breath, blinking for a clearer view at the church through the hazy storm.
Lightning flashed and brightened the dark, night sky.
Chandra sighed hopelessly. Tired and worn, she had no choice but to go back. All the windows were boarded up and yellow tape barricaded the double-door entrance. With no one present, there was only one place left she could seek refuge—the place she had been too afraid to visit after stealing money from her family and the church.
Her parents’ house.
Walking against the forceful, whistling wind, Chandra turned around and followed the path from whence she came, tracing her footsteps back to Ocean Drive. Once she finally got there, she turned off onto Lincoln Ave, avoiding Fisherman Lane. She traveled down the sidewalk, passing a row of oak trees. Her heart lifted when she reached the little gray house with a single window framed in white shutters, the only house on the end of the block. Her father warned her to never come back, but she knew deep inside he didn’t mean the words he said. How could he? She was his child, and he was a pastor—a man of the clergy whose job was to reach out to and save the helpless and lost.
The porch light shined, signaling someone was home.
Chandra wondered if anybody was awake, and fearing her father’s reaction to her uninvited presence, she hoped it was someone other than him. She walked around the house to the back door and noticed the light from the sink window was on. Somebody was in the kitchen—the dark shadow of a short woman wrapped in a robe on the blinds of the window, possibly her mother. She stood on the outside steps and hesitated to knock. Do it, Chandra. Just do it. She knocked lightly, but enough for the woman to hear her.
Footsteps approached, and the door creaked open.
“Chandra?” Denice blinked in disbelief and studied her.
She shivered and smiled weakly at her little sister. “Hi, Dee. What are you doing here?”
Denice twitched her mouth and tucked her hands in the pockets of her robe. “Russell and I broke up. I thought it was best for our child. Daddy’s been letting me stay with him until the baby’s born and I get well-off on my feet. I’ve been working at Ray’s Food Market, but I’m planning to go back to college to get my associate degree and a better job as a preschool teacher. I’m hungry and awoke to get a midnight snack.” She frowned. “What are you doing here?”
“I’ve come to get help,” Chandra answered.
Denice rolled her eyes and wore a look of disapproval. “Are you sure? Or do you just want money for drugs again?”
Chandra sighed and rounded her shoulders. “Please, Dee, don’t hassle me. Not now.” She tilted her head. “What happened to the church? I stopped by there and saw the windows boarded up and it blocked off with tape.”
“Haven’t you heard? The Grim Reapers vandalized the church last month. It was all on the news.” Denice screwed up her face and backed away. “You miss out on everything, don’t you? Do drugs mean that much to you?”
“Look, I’m sorry, but can you please let me in?” Chandra said. “I’ve been walking all over town ever since I got kicked out Bo’s place. Mario suffered an overdose and was taken to the hospital. Please, Dee. Please, let me in. I’m cold and wet, and I need help.”
Denice bit her lip. “I don’t know if I should. It’s Daddy’s place, and you know he was angry at you for stealing money from him and the church.”
“I know,” Chandra said, shivering from a chill, “and I’m sorry for that too. Can you please let me in? I . . . I need help and want to get clean.”
“That’s what you said last time to Mom,” Denice scolded, “but you bailed out three days later before you got settled in good. How do I know you’re not lying again? How does anyone know?”
“Because I ran into Spade on the way here,” Chandra answered. “He offered me a bag of dope for free, but I refused to take it. Not that I wasn’t tempted, but I didn’t take it. I mean it, Dee. You have my word.”
Denice checked over her shoulder and sighed. “Alright, fine. Hurry up in here.”
Chandra entered the house, relieved to get out of the chilly, wet weather. “I can’t believe you’re expecting a baby . . . you, my little sister.” She arched her brow. “Are you scared?”
“Maybe a little, but I try not to think about it too much. Being early in my pregnancy, Dr. Mathis said I should stay calm” Her sister closed the door.
“Do you know what you’re having?” Chandra sounded intrigued.
Denice nibbled her lip and placed her hands in the pockets of her fluffy robe again. “Not yet. I’m supposed to have my fifth appointment next Wednesday. Maybe I’ll find out then.” She released a slow breath. “I’m not confident Daddy would agree with you being here, so you’ll have to stay hidden until I think of what to tell him.” She looked at Chandra, uncertain. “Let me . . . check the hallway.” She peeked out the walkway to the kitchen. “Looks like the coast is clear. Wait here. I’ll get you a towel to dry off and one of mom’s old robes.” She left in the hall.
Chandra walked around and inspected the kitchen, remembering how she felt growing up in the house when she and her sisters were little girls. She touched and opened a few of the wooden cabinets above the counter and smiled at the refrigerator. Some crayon drawings from elementary students her father taught in school were hanging by fruit magnets on the fridge. She and Denice used to do the same thing, making pictures for their parents on their anniversary or birthdays. She folded her arms and looked at the square table in the center of the room. When she was a kid, every Saturday morning she used to get up early and eat a bowl of Froot Loops at the table while watching cartoons on her father’s mini-boxed TV set.
“Here’s a towel and a robe.” Denice returned and handed them over to her older sister.
Chandra wore a wry smile. “Thanks.”
“The rain soaked you from head to toe, but girl, you still need a bath.” Denice placed her hands on her lower back and chuckled.
Chandra tittered and blushed. “Yeah, I know.”
“For now, you can take off your damp sweater throw, dry off, and put on this robe,” Denice said. “You look like you could use a good meal. I’ll warm up some leftovers for you.”
Chandra removed her sweater and dried her arms. “Thanks, Dee. I appreciate it.” She looked around again. “Nothing’s changed much. Everything looks the same.”
Denice opened the refrigerator and took out a crockpot. “Daddy made beef stew. You can eat that.” She grabbed a dish from a cabinet above the sink and started spooning a portion of the stew in the bowl.
A boom came from in back the house, as if something were knocked down.
Denice and Chandra froze in their places.
“What was that?” Chandra asked, draping on their mom’s old pink robe.
Denice was breathing heavy. “I don’t know.”
“Dee? What’s all that commotion out there?” their father said from his bedroom.
“Daddy’s up.” Denice gasped. “Quick! Go in the utility closet.” She placed the down on the counter and opened the closet by the back door.
Chandra scurried into the utility closet, hiding behind brooms, mops, and a shelf of several cleaning supplies.
“Be quiet and don’t come out,” Denice whispered and then closed the door.
Chandra nodded and stayed in the dark as Denice and her father conversed in middle of her secret absence.
“Dee, what are you doing up?” their father asked. “It’s twelve midnight.”
“I’m sorry, Daddy,” Denice said. “The baby’s hungry, so I came in the kitchen for something to eat.”
Chandra’s heart pounded, overhearing her father and little sister’s conversation. If her father found out she was in his house, he might throw her out on the street. She remained motionless as Denice suggested, but fumes of chemicals, mothballs, and boxes of scented dryer sheets made her sensitive nose tingle.
“Who were you talking to? It sounded like you were speaking with someone?” their father said.
“Nobody,” Denice said. “It was nobody, Daddy.”
Chandra wiggled her nose and sneezed in her hands.
“What was that?” their father said. “It sounded like it came from the utility closet. Is there someone in there?”
“Uhh . . .” Denice said nervously.
“Dee?” Their father’s tone was stern and firm. “You’re hiding someone, aren’t you? It’s Russell, isn’t it? Get away from the door.”
“I can’t, Daddy,” Denice said.
Their father made a tired groan and sighed. “What do you mean?”
“Because . . . you might get upset,” Denice said.
“Maybe I will, and maybe I won’t,” their father replied. “Now move from the door, Dee. This is my house, and I have the right to know everybody who’s in it. I’m not saying it again.”
Denice released a slow breath. “Promise you won’t get angry?”
“Dee . . .” their father said, annoyed.
Denice sighed wearily. “Yes, sir.”
Chandra hid her face behind her diploma case. She flinched and squirmed, as if she were trying to seep and disappear through the apple-printed wallpaper.
The knob rattled and the door opened.
Chandra peeked over her case at her father’s shocked expression. “Hi, Daddy.”
“Chandra?” Even without his eyeglasses, their father could tell who she was, scrutinizing her. He flared his nostrils and crossed his arms as she stepped out from hiding. “What do you want? I’m not giving you money.”
“I don’t want your money, Daddy,” Chandra said. “I just wanna get sober . . . to be clean again.”
“Are you positive you’re done?” their father asked. “It won’t be an easy process.”
Chandra hugged her diploma. She gulped and nodded. “Yes, sir. I’m . . . I’m done this time.”
Their father made another tired groan. He frowned and rubbed his wrinkled forehead, stepping back from her. “Go . . . go upstairs and take a shower. You’re almost your mother’s size. You can wear one of her nightgowns.”
“You’re not throwing me out?” Relief suffused Chandra’s features.
Their father drew a long breath and blinked back tears. “No. I’m going back to bed.”
Chandra and Denice watched him as he hung his head and scuffled in his slippers out of the kitchen.
“Do you think he’s angry?” Chandra wore a weak look.
Denice folded her arms and twitched her mouth again. “No, I think he’s hurting.” Her chin trembled and her eyes pooled, and immediately Chandra knew there was something else going on she didn’t know about. The last time she was home their mother was diagnosed with acute leukemia and in the hospital fighting for her life. Their father donated his bone marrow, but she never found out whether it worked. It just occurred to her to find out the results from his test and their mother’s condition.
“Did Daddy’s bone marrow work?” Chandra asked.
Denice swiped at a tear on her cheek. “No, but they wanted it to.”
“Where’s Mom?” Chandra said.
Denice hesitated and sniffled.
“Where is she, Dee?” Chandra urged, holding Denice’s arms.
Her little sister broke down crying. “Mom . . . was trying, Chandra. She really was.”
An arrow struck Chandra’s heart. Tears spilled down her cheeks. No, not mom too.
“I’m sorry, Chandra,” Denice said.
Chandra sobbed and rushed out of the kitchen to their parents’ bedroom. Their father was standing by the dresser, admiring a framed newlywed photo of him and their mother. He opened a drawer and pulled out a long, cotton and lace nightgown.
She slowly walked up to him. “Daddy, Mom’s dead, isn’t she?”
Her father turned around, fidgeting with the nightgown.
“Daddy?” Chandra said.
He held his mouth in a hard line, and then confessed. “She’s gone, Chandra. Your mother died two months ago.”
“No . . . no, no no!” Chandra balled her fists to her head, collapsed to her knees, and wept on the hardwood floor.
Her father knelt beside her, comforting her in his arms. “I tried to call and tell you, but I guess your phone was disconnected. Another lady had your old number and had answered my call.”
“I lost my phone to Spade. I traded it because I didn’t have money,” Chandra said.
Her father shook his head and sighed. “I should’ve known you might’ve done something like that. I know it’s difficult, but we’ll get through this time together.”
“We will?” Chandra said and shifted her body from him. Considering what went down after Genesis ran away from home, she didn’t know how she, Denice, and their father would ever heal with the heart of their family no longer around. Aside from the Lord, her mom was the adhesive who helped keep everyone sticking together after going their separate ways during the day.
Her father frowned. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
Chandra grimaced and brushed off her remark. “Nothing . . . I’d better take a bath.” She wiped her tears and stood.
“Washcloths are in the linen closet,” her father said, inching up a grin.
Chandra allowed a smile. “Thanks.” She left from the master room and grabbed another towel and washcloth from the closet. She glanced down the hallway at her father in her parent’s room and lowered her head. She wanted to believe him, but because she knew he had his own doubts about her, it was hard to have faith in his words. Though it was true love was an action word, it meant a lot to Chandra to hear it said sometimes, especially after everything she had gone through and her willingness to seriously try to make a change.
Genesis—the firstborn girl—was her father’s favorite of she and her sisters. Chandra knew that all too well, and her sudden disappearance crushed her father’s spirit. Genesis had everything going for her: looks, brains, and personality. Their father claimed he loved each one of them equally for years, but Chandra’s observations growing up as a child and teenager told her differently. Of course, she hadn’t been completely honest with her parents while in college either, which made her worry of losing their respect and love for her. Truth is, drugs weren’t the main issue. It was only part of her problem, which helped her escape the dreadful emotions she had been feeling inside for some time.
Chandra wanted to be honest about her big sister and set herself free, but she thought it would only make matters worse between her and her father.
Spread them farther apart.
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