I spend my entire shift at the museum replaying what Mr. P told me. The look in his eyes, like he was trying to tell me something without coming right out and saying it. I can’t decide if my mind’s playing tricks on me or not.
On my way back to the gift shop from one of my errands for Mitch, someone grabs my shoulder. I whip around, shielding my face.
“Calm down, baybeh doll. Meesha isn’t gonna hurtcha.”
“Sorry. My anxiety’s sorta been acting up.”
“Well, a blind man coulda seen that.”
“What time do you get off at tonight?”
“Same as you, I assume. 6 o’clock. Gotta make sure everyone’s outta here and then I can go. Why ya askin’?
“Would you mind giving me a ride home tonight? Don’t feel like taking the Metro again.” I don’t feel like being alone. I’m a wreck.
“Sure, sweet thang. Meetcha out front. I shouldn’t be any later than 6:15.”
After work I make a quick call to Estelle to check up on her. She seems fine. Nowhere near the person she was when I arrived, but better…I guess.
Meesha walks out of the building, pointing at her watch. “Let’s go. Told ya I wouldn’t be later’n six-fifteen, didn’t I?”
I follow her down Constitution, where a navy 1999 Ford Explorer is parked at a meter under a shady tree.
She gives me a look after I settle in the cracked leather seats. “I hope you don’t expect to be riding in this car without no seatbelt?”
“Oh.” I buckle up immediately as she tunes the radio to some oldies station.
I want to tell her what’s going on but don’t dare, so I stare out at the blur of shop lights along Pennsylvania Avenue. A smooth R&B song plays while we wait for a pedestrian to cross the street. “You know,” I finally say, “when I first started practicing how to drive, this was the car I wanted more than anything.”
“Oh yeah? And what happened?”
“My adoptive parents—well, my adoptive father anyway, wasn’t exactly too fond of me.”
“How come? You telling me he didn’t appreciate your attraction to trouble? Then that man must be a fool, baybeh doll.”
It’s the first time anyone’s ever really asked me. But what I find really strange is that I actually have a bubbling urge to talk about it. I never have before. “He blamed me for my adoptive mother’s death. I guess it was sort of my fault. But I dunno… I couldn’t have stopped it. I don’t think I could’ve. Anyways… he used to beat the crap out of me. Pretty much all the time. I’ve had a tooth knocked out. Arm broken. Stitches. You name it. Pretty messed-up life, huh?”
I look over at her but she’s keeping her eyes on the road. She’s not judging me.
“So,” I go on, “when I found out I had grandparents I’d never known about, I split and came here to find them. And it was like a whole new life... but now, right when everything was actually coming together—” I can’t help it. My armor shatters and I start crying. “My grandfather… one of the only good people I’ve ever known... he just died.”
Meesha steers over to the curb. “Sugah, you’ve got a lotta weight on them shoulders... Come on over here.” She pulls me into a hug. “Seven years ago, I lost my first husband of 20 years. Al. Tore me to shreds. Didn’t wanna live another day. Blamed myself for years for not bein’ able to cure the cancer. But over time I freed myself. I had to. I couldn’t keep punishin’ myself for things that were outta my power. The Lord has His ways. Whether we like it or not. You need to spread them wings and soar, baybeh. Fly high. You’ve got a spirit in ya that shines brighter’n gold. And you can’t let anything dull that. Understand?”
She grins. “You know what I do when I’m feelin’ down? I get me some Krispy Kremes. What do you say?”
“Only if the red light’s on.”
“Do I look like a lady who’s gonna have it any other way? No, no, I don’t think so, sweet thang.”
I don’t know how she’s managed to calm me down so effortlessly, but I almost doze off. I only open my eyes as she pulls into the surprisingly empty Krispy Kreme lot.
“I’ll be right back. You wait here.” She locks the doors and struts into the place like she owns it.
My phone goes off, but it’s an unknown number. My stomach feels weird, tingly. I unbuckle my seatbelt because it’s bothering me and sit up. My cell beeps, signaling that I have a voicemail, but no bars are showing. It’s scanning for service. I glance around outside the car and crack the door open just enough so I can wave my phone in the air to try to get a signal. A bar finally lights up and I hit the voicemail button. When I hear the sinister voice say, “Good to see you again, Gavin.” I’m so startled that I drop the phone on the pavement.
I hear footsteps hitting the pavement and turn to spot Naima running toward me. I don’t even have enough time to act before she kicks the door open, pulls me out, and slams me to the ground so hard that I feel the gravel shred my palms as I try to break my fall.
“Let’s just stop this,” she says. “It’s getting a bit tiresome already.” The lights in the parking lot turn her eyes an eerie gold. She’s wearing a white leotard, a long trench coat that glows in the dark of the night—and her gleaming white pistol, in a white titanium holster dangling from her hip.
I grab my phone and pull myself to my feet. I step back from her. “Stay away from me!”
But she marches toward me, her heels crushing the gravel under her feet. I don’t stand a chance.
“It’s quite simple,” she says. “Just give us what we want and we’ll be on our way.” She circles around me and scans me up and down, I assume checking me for a weapon.
“Where’s Axel?” I shout defiantly. If he’s out there waiting for me, I want him to hear me.
“Oh, he’s around,” she says with a deadly smirk.
I look around but there’s nowhere to run. She knows it too. There’s only one thing I can do now. A surge of adrenaline hits me as I leap at her. I manage to tackle her, pulling her down onto a crooked concrete parking stop. “You are never going to hurt my family!”
She lets out a piercing shriek and scratches at my face with the glowing concentric rings on the fingertips of her gloves. I struggle until I manage to straddle her and hold her under me. Her head is now bent crookedly against the right rear tire of Meesha’s SUV.
“Leave us alone!” I let go of her arms and enclose my hands around her neck and squeeze.
But she manages to wrap her legs around my neck and yank me down. I knock my head on the quarter panel of the truck. She jumps up and jabs her heel into my stomach. I squeal, louder than I think I ever have. She grinds her heel in deeper. “You fool!”
The sweat from her bald skull is dripping onto my face. It tastes like venom. I’m seeing stars.
“Get your hands off that boy!”
I force my eyes open and see Meesha planted before us with her gun drawn.
“I’d advise you to think wisely,” Naima warns. “Is he worth risking your own life for?”
“Lady—” Meesha’s voice is icy. “—if you don’t get the hell off him, I’ll show you whose life I’m gonna risk! You hear?”
Naima eases her heel off my stomach and I roll over gasping for air.
“Step back and put your hands where I can see them,” Meesha demands.
Naima smiles. “But of course.”
“Don’t do nothin’ crazy now or I will shoot!”
Naima touches her wrist and presses something on her gloves. An earsplitting screech sirens in my ears. It’s so piercing it feels they’re going to bleed. Meesha drops her gun and crashes to her knees. I huddle and jam my hands over my ears to shield them from the blistering noise.
After a moment it stops. When I open my eyes, Naima’s gone.
“What was that?!” Meesha gasps. “I’m sorry but I’m callin’ the cops!”
“I’m callin’ the cops! No questions about it!”
“You don’t understand—”
“So help me understand then!”
“I ain’t playin’, Gavin. I need to know what’s goin’ on. Either you tell me, or you tell it to the officials.”
“No—I can’t—please believe me. It’ll only put you and Pete in danger.”
She yanks me up from the ground. “Get in the car! Now!”
She tears out of the parking lot in a rage.
“Thanks for not calling the cops,” I mutter.
She slows down and runs her fingers along her pigtails, which are all tangled. “You gonna’ tell me what’s goin’ on here? You can trust me.” She taps impatiently on the steering wheel.
“I can’t tell you.”
“You know…she was right—riskin’ my life for some kid I don’t know. Who don’t even have the decency to level with me.”
“It’s not like that. It’s just—I can’t—”
She glares at me. “So be it. Then I don’t wanna hear one more word from you.”
I stay quiet. I want to tell her, but it’ll put her and Pete in danger. Maybe it’s better this way. She’s already done more than she’s needed to.
She drops me at the house and drives off without another word. I want to run after her, tell her everything, let her help me. But I can’t. I shouldn’t. I trudge up the steps to the porch, take out my key—and see the sliver of light running along the gap between the door and the jamb. The door’s not only unlocked. Someone’s left it open.