Illustration by Erin Perfect.

I hustled left at the car dealership, picking my way over the loose gravel in the road, hopping up on the concrete bridge to the safety of the smooth. I stopped running when I got to the top of the station steps and took advantage of my inhalerless wheezing and checked out the platform situation. No one but a dude in a black baseball cap, tattoos up his neck. He was circling the telephone pole, eating (I am nearsighted) fries?

“Damn,” the boy swallowed at me as I stepped down onto the wooden train platform. I was barefoot in November and way too fat to hide.

“I’m good,” I said. I even managed to shrug.

He stared at the blood and boogers weighing down my upper lip. I wiped at it with my sweatshirt sleeve, which was still too big for me and hung over my hands, meaning I hadn’t grown this fall, meaning puberty was still avoiding me like I was some amateur stalker. “Yo, can I git some of those napkins?” I asked without crying.

He furnished me with a hamburger’d stack. “Man”—he popped in a definite fry—“you got your ass beat. Oh shit, they take yo shoes too? Damn, that’s some Oliver Twist shit right there. Know what you need?” He finished off the last of his soda.

“Mr. Brownlow,” I said, referring to the old man who saves Oliver in Dickens. “Who?” he asked. “No one,” I said.

“You need ice.” He offered me his cup. “You shaking, man.”

“I’m shivering,” I corrected him and sat down on the bench so I could steady my elbows on my knees. Now that I’d stopped running I was cold, the hair at the back of my neck damp and spiraling tight.

“Damn.” He sat down next to me. “You just a little dude. Your feet don’t even touch the ground.”

There was no point dignifying that with a response so I merely emptied the ice out onto two napkins. It was a common/ alienating observation better ignored. If I wasn’t being called gay or a little bitch while getting punched in the side of the head like I used to at my old school, my policy was to let that shit slide.

“This the wrong time of year to get your shoes took. And I’m thinking your nose might could be broke. It’s all cut right there.” He demonstrated on his.

“I know.” I casually turned away from him, sliding the ice to that spot.

“What grade you in?”

“Ninth.”

“Ninth? You don’t look like you in ninth. You go to Lower Merion? You know a dude named Tyrese?”

“No.” I was so cold I couldn’t feel my toes.

“Where you go?”

“Friends.” I reached down and squeezed them, even though I could barely feel my fingers either.

“What? I said where you go.”

“Friends. It’s a Quaker school. Kinda religious, namsayin.”

“Like the oats? Like—what’s that old dude’s name? Benjamin Franklin!” He leaned back. “Bennie, the man on the big bill.” He wiped his hands on his jeans then turned his baseball cap around.

“He wasn’t a Quaker,” I said.

“What y’all’s beliefs?”

“I don’t know. I just go there.” I really did not feel like talking about peace and justice right that minute.

“You don’t know?” he repeated, my fictitious ignorance paining him.

“I’m not a Quaker,” I snapped, looking down the tracks for the train.

“How long you been going there?” “Since sixth grade,” I muttered. “Sixth grade? Then you best know!”

I sighed, “Man . . .” and switched up napkins. “In the priesthood of all believers. The light of God in everyone. Service. Peace.” My stomach did a hari-kari. I had to go to the bathroom real bad.

He thought/chewed the lone, brown shrimp’d french fry left in his bag. “Yeah. That’s deep, man. I’m interested in shit like that. Quakers. I’m Wallace.”

“James.”

“Train’s coming.” Wallace hopped up and shot his bag into the trash can as the light of the train pushed through the dark to find us. “You going home?”

I thought of how upstairs my little brother had been crying like he knew I was the only one who could hear him. “No.” I slipped off the bench, scanning the gloomily fluorescent parking lot. None of the cars were Mom’s. I knew she wouldn’t come but I had thought somehow she might come. “I can’t,” I told the light posts, the empty cars, the white paint keeping them apart.

“Ey!” Wallace waved at me from the yellow-painted edge of the platform.

I limped across the freezing concrete. “You think the conductor will be okay with letting me on?”

“You ain’t contagious, is you?”

“I’m serious, man.”

Wallace looked me up and down. “You best throw them nasty-ass napkins in the trash. And roll up yo sleeves—you don’t want to be looking like you killed nobody.”

“I meant I’m not wearing shoes,” I said as I hopped from foot to foot, trying to fight frostbite.

“So?” He was mystified.

“Ain’t that illegal?”

“What you mean?”

“Not wearing shoes in a public place—ain’t that illegal?”

He lifted his eyebrows. “You weird.”

Well, shit was weird. I had no phone, no shoes, no glasses. Nothing but a ten-dollar bill in my khakis. But even though I might’ve looked like a crackhead, I was more like a martyr, and ten dollars were enough to get me to Aunt Bernice.

As the train cars rattled by, Wallace said, “Here, man, let me give you my card.” He handed me a glossy black business card. “You might be in need of my services.”

The train stopped and the conductor stepped out as I turned the card over. “This just has your name and e-mail. What services do you offer?”

“Son, you name it, I can provide. For a price,” he said and hopped up on the steps.

On the train, Wallace swung into his own seat, stretching his legs across the cracking blue vinyl. I took the row behind him and put up my hood, worrying, would Mrs. P. give me another extension on my courtly love paper? She liked me. Thought I was the next Terrance Hayes. I didn’t know who that was but I told her yeah. Ostensibly, I would have to lean on this scholastic partiality.

Wallace pushed himself up so his chin hooked the top of the seat. “Man, let me tell you one thing.”

I was stroking my nose, trying to find which part hurt the worst. As my skin began to thaw, my ears burned.

“Pain lets you know you alive,” he said and flopped back down.

I exchanged glances with my reflection and wished I could talk to my dad.

Sometimes at night I woke with my back stuck to the sheet, remembering finding Dad asleep on the couch. I guess him and Mom were having issues even then. The windows open and a white curtain blowing on his face. Air so cold it was wet.

“Dad?”

In Grandmomma’s stories, men died of drafts. Sometimes they’d crossed an Obeah woman, or been cursed by some dude in love with their wife. But most times the draft meant a duppy was coming cuz somewhere, sometime, these men had done something bad.

I slammed the window shut to wake him.

“J?” Dad said, hitting back the curtain. “What you doing?”

“Why are you sleeping on the couch?”

“Your mother said I was snoring.”

I saw he was still wearing his shoes. “Where were you?”

“Out. Why you up?”

I’d knelt at his head, knowing he might dodge/comfort me. “I’m thinking bad thoughts.”

“Again? Boy, you know you got to get your sleep. You got school in the morning.” He made room for me on the couch.

“What do I do?” I asked, getting under.

“Think good thoughts.” He’d yawned, tucking me in. Sometimes at night, I imagined he was still there sleeping under the white curtain in that cold, safe room.

When we got to Suburban Station, I saw Mom in the crowd on the platform. A copper-headed woman getting on as I was about to step off. I pushed my way to her, knowing it was impossible, but because I have never not known her, I sometimes made her have superhero powers. When I squeezed close enough to brush her coat, I didn’t need my glasses to see that this lady couldn’t have even been Mom’s cousin. She wasn’t black—she was like Mexican or something.

“Ey, James!” Wallace called down to me from the escalator as it carried him up and into the city. He grinned as my eyes found him. “You alive, son! You alive!”

* * *

According to the homies in puffy coats on the plastic chairs around their stoop who took one look at my nose and agreed I was too fucked up to fuck with, it was 8:30 at night. On the real, though, I had found and tied two plastic bags over my feet, was legally blind, and all I had left in the world were bloodstained sweatpants with seven dollars and fifty cents in them. And still, I didn’t cry. I did have this feeling like I was being followed, but when I randomly/anxiously turned, all I saw was that the way I had come was dark.

I hobbled down Fitzwater and Eighteenth, passing flat-fronted brick row houses with long white windows and worn stone steps on my way to Aunt B’s. But my rush was in vain: no one was home. Not even a damn welcome mat for my ass. I slumped on the bottom step, perching my Pathmark heels on some weeds coming up out of the sidewalk and wiped at my dripping/clogged nose. There was no way I was gonna cry even though I was kind of starting to cry.

Self-snitching: crying had been a problem since I was nine. But back then, people were cool with it. I had earned my tears. Cuz when I was nine, my dad went to prison, my parents got divorced, and Mom and me moved out of Philly to her ex-boyfriend’s house in Bryn Mawr. But three years later to still be getting all inconsolable about negligible shit? Like when I misspelled remainder on the floor of the State Spelling Bee? (A gaffe I ascribe to it being 6 a.m. and a fear of large white crowds.) I mean, people at Friends paid more in tuition than people in my old school paid for rent in a year—what was to cry over now?

The fuzz of a woman in lavender scrubs with some animal on them stood over me. “Lord child, you scared me.” Aunt Bernice hugged me quick but just as quick pulled back. “What happened to your face?”

The concern in my aunt’s voice disturbed my weak hold on ocular dignity. “Nothing.” I looked down. “I got in a fight after school. Tenth graders. Way bigger than me.”

Aunt Bernice turned my chin as my cousin, Nahala, slammed the car door, saying, “Oo you got hit good, huhn?”

“Your nasal passages blocked?” asked my aunt, decorously ignoring my cousin.

“Not really,” I said.

Then in rapid fire: “You been throwing up? Your neck hurt? This happened at your school? Does your mother know?”

I thought back to Mom, waiting in the pickup line at school, the flags at the top of the flagpole on the side of the gym snapping. I had spotted her leaning out the window of our black SUV in aviator sunglasses, seeing me and smiling then spitting out her gum. Behind her was Jacquon, trapped in his car seat, looking happy to see me when I climbed in front and gummy smiling to let out some drool. Today it had seemed like going home would be okay. I wondered what Jacquon was doing.

“She ain’t home yet,” I said. “She went out. To dinner. With a friend.”

Aunt Bernice unlocked the door. “Well, it don’t look too crooked.”

Soon I was deep in the scratchy cushions of Aunt Bernice’s couch where back in the day I had made some dope-ass forts. I swaddled myself in one of Grandmomma’s quilts with an ice pack until Nahala tickled my feet.

“Stop it.” I kicked.

“You were dreaming,” she said.

“I’m just resting my eyes.”

“Ew, you sweating over everything.”

“No, I’m not.” I sat up and my damp sweatshirt peeled from my back.

“You can’t call or nothing before you come over? This ain’t no motel.”

“I forgot my phone,” I said.

Aunt Bernice came out from the kitchen where she was reheating coffee. “Nahala, give your cousin a clean shirt and socks.”

“You forgot your shoes too?”

I looked at my dirty cracked feet. “They stole them.” “Sure,” drawled Nahala. “C’mon. Somebody have to kill me before I let them take my shoes.” I followed her into her room where she had flung open her closet. “First, we need to get you up out of that crusty-ass sweatshirt.”

I sat on her bed and raised the hoodie she’d thrown at me to my eyes. Just as I’d suspected: glitter. “This is not really me,” I said.

“You right, beige isn’t so good with your skin. You darker than your mom. Yasmine kinda look mixed.”

“So?” I heard a dish fall without breaking in the kitchen. “So what you need”—she said need too loud—“is bright colors.” Aunt Bernice stepped in holding a thermos. “J, you want to come and have them take a look at your nose? Nahala, don’t you have something a little more . . . for a man in there.”

“Not that are gonna fit his fat ass,” my cousin said.

“Girl, ain’t nothing ever easy with you. Just find him something in my stuff. It’d be good to have a doctor make sure, honey,” she said to me.

“It doesn’t hurt anymore,” I said.

“I find that hard to believe. I’ve got to get to work. Call your mother and let her know what’s going on,” Aunt Bernice said and went out.

Nahala listened for the front door then rolled her head to me. “I know, you know.”

“What are you talking about?”

“I know what goes down in yo house. Yasmine told me Karl’s been tripping. But she let him beat on you?”

“I don’t know what you mean.”

“I mean, you ain’t his son. But none of this would’ve happened if she hadn’t got up in his face.”

“Who?”

“Your moms.” She made a sound of disgust. “Nigga, don’t play dumb. If you wanna be with a crazy-ass dude like Karl, you don’t go popping off at the mouth.”

“You’re retarded,” I said, my face blank/combusting.

“I’m not the issue. I’m the type of chick dealing with what God’s given me. Your mom—”

“Shut up!” I rolled up and ran blindly at Nahala, trying to ram her backward into the closet, but she reached up and grabbed the top of the door frame and thrust me back with her foot so that I fell and rolled off the bed.

“Oh hell no! Ain’t you had your ass beat enough already? Come on now, I ain’t about to fight no nine-year-old.”

“I’m twelve,” I fumed, scrambling up.

She patted the bed. “Come on, I ain’t mad at ya. Look, J, all I was trying to say was that I feel yo mom. I do. Yasmine just trying to hold down her man. I mean, she has love for you, obviously. But who you think is paying for your fancy-ass school?”

“I have a scholarship.” I stayed where I was.

“That don’t pay for it all.”

“My dad pays the rest.”

Nahala snorted. “Yo dad can’t pay for a phone call. My mom puts money in his account every month. Your dad . . . Listen to your cheesy ass.” She slapped her thigh, cackling.

I digested this. Then my next step was clear. “I’ll pay you to take me to see my dad.”

“Boy, you must be out your mind.”

“Fifty dollars. C’mon, you’re eighteen, you can take me. Please?”

“You got fifty dollars?”

“Not on me—at home.”

“Who you foolin?” she said.

“Seventy-five? I swear I have it. Drive me in the morning when your mom’s asleep.”

“Seventy-five dollars?” She pretended to hesitate. “Karl do this to you?”

“Maybe.” I sat down on the corner of her bed, pressing my nose where it hurt the most. “Maybe I did something to him.” “Yeah, right,” she said and pulled a suitcase down from the shelf at the top of her closet. “I got something that’ll fit you.” She unzipped it and threw me a shirt. I put it to my face. The letters N.W.A.

“This is yours?” I asked, surprised.

“Your dad’s.”

“It’s dope.” I swallowed and was glad to be blind, running down the hall and into the bathroom where I squeezed his t-shirt to my chest and did not cry.

* * *

We drove our dead granddaddy’s faded blue Buick sedan over an hour and a half to get to the prison in a rain that cut silver.

We didn’t try to talk over the acrobatics of the radio’s R&B until the storm got so heavy Nahala had to pull over. She turned the radio off and we passed a two-liter bottle of Cherry Coke back and forth, listening to the beating the roof was taking.

“This kind of weather gets me moody.” Nahala burped and began picking at the steering wheel. “Thunder in the morning. Don’t make no sense.”

“Stop hogging.” I pulled the bottle from her. “How old is this car?”

“Older than both us put together.”

“What if the roof starts leaking?”

“Hope you can swim.” She handed me the bottle cap. “Why didn’t you call your mom?”

“Why didn’t she call me?”

“You think she knows you with us?”

“Why not.” I put my forehead to the window, looking up into a sky of dirty-looking rain. Sometimes after one of her fights with Karl, Mom would come up into my bedroom and look at me like she didn’t know which one of us was in trouble. “She’s probably fine,” I said.

“Damn, now I got to pee. You seen bruises?” Nahala asked.

“Not on her face.” A red smear of brake lights glowed in front of us.

“What about Jacquon?”

“Never.” I flushed and right away I could picture his sad face—how he pushed his bottom lip out before he cried. “Karl’s never touched Jacquon.”

“Not yet.”

“I couldn’t take him—he’s a baby and I’m a kid. Mom will watch out for him.”

Nahala gave me a look. I pointed to the car in front of us. “I believe they’re moving,” I said and turned up the music until I couldn’t hear the rain.

“Hi,” I said to my dad/mystery man who was a hunched blur behind the Plexiglas. “What’s up?” Meaning I had totally forgotten what to say. Maybe this was the wrong move. What could Dad do? He was more helpless than me: a neon’d prisoner of the state, segregated from my low-grade worries.

Nahala snatched the phone from me. “Hi Uncle James.” She handed it back, still facing my dad but eavesdropping on the girl next to us crooning to her man.

“I want to know what’s up with you,” he said to me.

“I don’t know. I just wanted to see you, I guess.”

“Now you see me.”

“No, I don’t actually,” I said.

“What happened?”

“I don’t have my glasses.”

“Son. What happened to your face?”

“I got in a fight.”

“At school?” He sounded surprised. “Ain’t they supposed to be teaching you to turn the other cheek?”

“This kid, this big kid, he—”

“Nigga”—Nahala smacked my shoulder—“I ain’t drove your ass down here for you to lie.”

The phone line went silent/aggrieved.

“You know why you named James?” he asked.

“No,” I sulked into my t-shirt, then mumbled, “after you.”

“And I’m named after my father, your granddaddy. Now that man? That man was born evil and done stayed that way. But because he was named James, I got named James, and your grandmomma said you got to be named James, that way at the end of the day you got his hard and my heart. You James the third.”

“Dad, to be honest—”

“Finally,” said Nahala.

“I came here to tell you I need to move back to Philly. Can I move in with Aunt Bernice? Say yes.”

“What’s wrong with living with your mother?” he asked.

“I hate that bitch.”

“Yo! Who you talking to with that mouth? That’s not being how I taught you to be.”

Even Nahala looked at me with big NO eyes.

“You know what that fight did to you?” he said. “It put fear back in your heart. Last thing you need is move back to Philly. Now what’s your name?”

“Dad.” I thumped my fist on the counter.

“Boy, I want to hear that name out yo mouth.”

“James Marcus King the third.”

“Amen,” said Nahala.

“At least those rich kids ain’t packing nine millimeters,” he said.

I folded my arms over my chest. “All I want is to live in Philly with Aunt Bernice, is that so much to ask?”

“Why? Why do you want that so bad?”

I said nothing, listening to the beat of my heart. Even though it was November, the AC was blowing morgue breath down my neck, and this time I knew who the duppy was hunting.

“Now I realize you probably think because I’m in here I can’t help you, right?”

“It’s not that. It’s . . .” I wished I could see his eyes properly.

“What? Ain’t nothing you can’t tell me.”

“Okay.” I took a breath. “At school, they tell us violence is a short-term satisfaction, and I know that’s right, the right thing, but what about defending someone you love? I mean, you’re not supposed to do anything? You’re just supposed to stand by and watch them get killed?”

“Who’s getting killed?”

“It’s hypothetical, Dad.”

“Your mother? What you really talking about is revenge, son. You want to hurt them for the hurt they just did, but even if you f-muff them up, that don’t heal the first hurt. That’s done. That’s past. Now you just like them: somebody who hurts people.”

I felt like he wasn’t really getting me. “But if someone was hurting me wouldn’t you—”

“What? Wouldn’t I what?” he asked, all wild.

“If someone was trying to kill me, Dad . . . wouldn’t you?” But I couldn’t say it. How could I—being there—say it?

He was holding the phone with both hands. “If something was ever to go down, to happen to my son? Man, I just couldn’t be in this world . . .” he trailed/choked.

“Dad?” I gripped the phone tight.

“I just hate seeing you like this, man. Bad enough I can’t hug you or even shake yo hand, but now I got to see you all busted up and I can’t do nothing? You know I live for my kid.” He covered his face.

“Uncle James?” asked Nahala.

“Dad?” His head was down. “It’s just my nose! I mean, I’m alive, I’m okay. Right? Dad?”

“Oh you gon be okay.” He looked up, wiping his face. “We is making sho of that. Now you tell me exactly what happened.”

“James,” said Nahala. “James,” said my dad.

But when I opened my mouth there was a God-robbing crack in my chest and I knew that my life was not ever gonna come correct. So I put my head down on the counter so no prison dudes would see and cried like a nine-year-old into the phone to my dad.

Yesterday I was at home with my dresser against the door, Petrarch on my lap, and Mom downstairs in Where Were You Bitch? (featuring Karl). I was listening, trying to figure out if the crashing was bodies or furniture, and at the same time read the Rime Sparse.

I went into the hall. Why? Cuz my little half brother was crying and I didn’t want Karl to come up. Even though it was November in Bala Cynwyd, I was sweating in the house’s sunless heat debating whether or not to call the police. In his room, Jacquon was in his crib, snuffling on his fuzzy red back, gumming the corner of a soft plastic book.

I went in his room. “What’s good, little man?”

He stopped chewing and rolled toward me, blinking at me through the wooden bars.

“Hi,” I whispered and picked him up, his big ol head still wobbly so I cradled him in my arms.

A door slammed and Mom, high on Prosecco, was shouting. “How’s life in the crib?” I set him back down to pick his pacifier up off the rug and rubbed the carpet fuzz off with my sleeve, wishing Mom and Karl would die/vanish and then Jacquon and me could live with Aunt Bernice until I was eighteen and we moved into my place. Downstairs, furniture began to slide, and Jacquon’s gold eyes went all portentous. “You okay,” I said and rubbed his little back and wound his mobile of fluffy baby birds so they sang and spun, but then Mom screamed and we screamed too.

Then I was standing in the middle of their bedroom holding the phone. But it felt like a toy cause Mom’s crying was louder than any dial tone. Soon my hands were pushing through Karl’s magazines until they found his gun, black and shining at the bottom of his nightstand drawer. As I skidded down the hall, I passed by Jacquon, sitting up in his crib, and as our eyes met, I glanced/transmitted: Look, I’m sorry I’m about to shoot your dad but I’m doing it before he kills our mom. A lot of that might of got lost in translation (him being before language as he was), but I swear we had an agreement.

At the top of the stairs, I was still in the place of where I might not do it. But as I walked down, the gun behind my back, I saw Karl’s big square head over my mom as he choked her on our hand-knotted New Zealand wool doormat. All I could do was point the gun and close my eyes, wishing as I pulled that we all died and reappeared somewhere easy.

There was a metal roar and I opened my eyes. Karl was standing up, his mouth dropped, looking at a bullet buried in the wall to his right. “What the fuck?” he shouted.

Both of them were looking at me, alive and angry.

“James?” Mom coughed, crawling against the foyer wall. I tripped down the stairs, gun out, coming at Karl until it poked his chest.

“Calm down, man.” Karl tried to back away.

“James!” Mom was up and her hand was out. “You give me that gun!”

But I lifted it to Karl’s head. I just wanted him to go away forever. I didn’t care how—just away.

“Listen to your mother, man,” he said. “You’re a—a good kid.”

“James!” My mom tried to get my attention. “I don’t want anybody getting hurt.”

I looked over at the charms which had pierced so many: the Curtises, the Rashans, the Calvins, the Rays and Derays. But that hair coppered, those breasts immoveable, thus a body to make any video vixen anxious, meant nothing to me. “She is your mother,” Dad had said when they were taking him off to prison. “She is your diamond. You take care of her for me. You’re the James of the house now—” and he had smiled to show me that he believed I could do it. I looked at my mother, saw the left side of her mouth cut red and her cheek swelling elastic, and I told her, “But Mom, you’re hurt.”

As I was looking at her, Karl punched me in the face. My glasses bit under my eye and my nose cracked. Without thinking, I hit him with the gun as he was coming at me, smashing whatever I could until he went away, then I dropped back, cupping my screaming nose.

When I wiped my stinging eyes, I could make out Mom bending over him, seeing if he was okay, begging, “Karl? Karl?” He shoved her off, cradling his head as he sank to his knees.

“Mom?” I called to her from where I was on the floor.

She stumbled over and lifted my chin, her gold necklace penduluming into the blue silk of her shirt. “Oh baby—” She hesitated to touch the swelling between my eyes. “Your nose.”

I took her hand. “Let’s get Jacquon and go.”

She snatched it back. “We got to get you some ice.” She tried to wipe the blood from my nose with the bottom of her shirt.

“Ow! Stop!”

She cringed. “Does it hurt?”

“No it feels amazing!”

“Boy, this is no time for attitude,” she snapped, then stood wringing her hands. “Shit, shit! What am I gonna do?”

“Let’s go!”

“I can’t.” She covered her face then straightened. “I’ll get you some ice. Stay here.”

“Can’t you at least call the police?” I yelled at her as she rushed toward the kitchen.

Karl tried to get up without falling. There was a trickle of blood coming from a dent on his forehead.

“Mom?” I was on my feet. The room tilted and I remembered the gun. “Mom?”  I called again, frantically looking around the foyer. Nothing on the hardwood but the rug and my broken glasses.

“What?” Mom hurried back in. “What’s wrong?” She eyed Karl and grabbed my arm. “Come in the kitchen with me, c’mon!”

“You’re dead, man,” moaned Karl.

Mom changed direction, pulling me with her. “This way.”

“Stop,” I hissed as she tried to wrestle me to the front door.

She angled it open. I dug my fingers into the doorframe. “The gun!”

“I have it—” She pushed me out the door and I spilled onto the front step, my hands slapping the chilled concrete, the door slamming behind me. I lay there in my blood/defeat, listening to dogs bark somewhere in our cul-de-sac.

And when Jacquon’s cries appeared, they were little paper airplanes over my head, and like the ones at school, somehow they always find me. I forgot about Mom—she was an adult, she could take care of herself. All I wanted was to go back in for my little brother, so I got up and beat on the door until I heard Karl scream, “That’s him! Motherfucker, I’m gonna kill you!”

My legs went seasick, blood stopped going to my brain, and my stomach started signaling a loss of control in my bowels, cuz the duppy was there behind that door, ready to drag me toward death where I would forget my name.

What happened, Dad? I left. Because the body betrays, forgets us—who we are, who we love—saves itself, and what we think the world is melts like crayons that leave no mark but a mess. I didn’t faint; didn’t pee my pants; I ran. My legs pumped and the blood rushed up from my stomach to my head.

Of course I thought of them as I ran, thought of calling the cops, of going back, but instead I told myself that they’d be okay cuz at the end of the day Mom said she had the gun.

* * *

We left the prison and hours later I was cutting across our yard in Nahala’s too-small flip-flops, lifting the pouting stone cherub on the porch for the spare key. A neighbor two houses down was backing out of his driveway and seeing me, braked. I stood there, staring through the gnats playing over the flat-top hedges, waiting for his window, but he just rolled out with a screech down the cul-de-sac. I went to the doorstep where Wallace and Nahala stood in the rude chatter of birds. An SUV was in the driveway.

“This is a bad idea,” said Nahala, done pounding on the door. “I don’t think she’s home. Imma call your mom again.”

“I got the key. It’s all good,” I said.

“Oh yeah?” she asked. “Then why we got him here?” Wallace looked down at her from his almost impressive height. “For protection,” he said.

“How much you getting?” she asked.

“Fifty.”

“Fifty?” She laughed.

“Nahala! That’s all I have,” I told Wallace. “I’m broke y’all, broke.”

“J, let’s just go. Wait till your dad speaks with your mom.”

“When’s that gonna happen? He can’t call her, she has to call him. She won’t do it.”

“Look, you can stay at my house forever—I don’t care.”

“He want to make sure his mom’s okay. Girl,” Wallace said, “you ain’t got to worry when I’m around.”

“Whatever.” Nahala rolled her eyes.

I put the key in the lock. Maybe I was thinking if I could just get into bed and go to sleep, I would wake up and nothing bad would have happened. But when I got upstairs Jacquon’s crib was empty, his little striped dog lying on its side. My room was how I’d left it: Petrarch’s sonnets facedown on the bed. Downstairs, I heard Nahala calling,“Hello?”

“This some Quaker shit?” Wallace appeared behind me and picked up the book.

“No. I was supposed to be writing a paper about courtly love. But it was due today, so . . .”

“Too late,” he said.

Nahala came running up the stairs. “No one. Let’s go. It’s freezing in here. Jacquon at day care?”

I wondered if I’d ever see my little brother again. “Probably,” I said, coasting down the hall like I was sitting in a hovering armchair. I wandered toward the cracked door of Mom and Karl’s bedroom.

“Go on,” said Nahala, “Open it.”

My stomach somersaulted and landed wrong on its back. “You do it,” I told Wallace.

“It’s your house,” he said.

“Ain’t I paying you?”

“Y’all chicken.” Nahala put a hand on the door, then paused. “J, maybe you should close your eyes.”

“Why?” asked Wallace, uncomfortable.

“Yeah why, Nahala? I can’t even see.”

“Cuz you just a kid.”

We all stared at her hand, shrinking back from the door as it opened like tourists at a zoo with no cages. But there was nothing inside except bedsheets feeding a pile of clothes on the floor.

“See! Nothing,” said Nahala.

“I’m gonna see if my glasses are downstairs,” I announced, heading down the hall.

Wallace followed. “Ain’t they smashed?”

“Maybe I can tape them.”

Nahala grabbed my elbow. “I’m ready to leave.”

“Why?” I asked/taunted, letting Wallace step in front of me.

“Because it feels like a haunted house up in here.” She took my hand going down the stairs. “I don’t even like scary movies.”

In the foyer, Wallace moved a coat off the entryway bench so he could sit down. “Y’all hungry? Ey.” Wallace pulled my broken glasses from underneath him. “These yours?” He held the one good lens to my eye and I had a moment of clarity. “Can you see?”

“Yeah.” Seeing our foyer, I felt all of the heat shut out of my body and a cold weight pour in.

“Y’all check the kitchen?” Wallace let his arm drop and my vision went.

“They would have heard me calling,” said Nahala. “You two do what you want, I’m gonna wait in the car.”

But I had to make certain. I left Wallace and Nahala and walked, a kid displaced, into the deserted rooms I’d once inhabited through a house that felt visited by the plague. I went into the living room and through the dining room where Jacquon’s high chair stood, its white tray flipped up, cereal alphabets glued to the bottom by old milk, but I never made it to the kitchen cuz there was a bloodstain burning the beige carpet before the linoleum.

I screamed.

“Is it wet?” Wallace whispered from somewhere behind me. “I ain’t touching it,” hissed Nahala.

“You hear that?” I asked but could not turn my body. “Sirens,” Nahala murmured.

Wallace walked in front of me, squatting over the stain. “Are they coming closer?” I asked, the siren’s bullying wail like a bubble rising.

“They not for us,” I heard Wallace say as the edges of my world curled/burned gray.

“Hey.” Nahala pulled at me. “James.”

“/”

“James!”

“/”

“James?”

“/?”

“It ain’t blood,” she said.

And I dropped into her arms, the living having gone out of my boy’s legs.

“It’s coffee,” she told me as they helped me escape.

“You okay, little man,” Wallace said, carrying me out, “we got you—you okay.”

But it wasn’t me who wouldn’t be okay, it was them, him, the little brother I was leaving behind.

This story is excerpted from The Man Who Shot Out My Eye Is Dead, which will be published by Ecco on January 17th, 2017.

Chanelle Benz

Chanelle Benz has published short stories in The American Reader, Fence, and The Cupboard, and on Granta.com, and is the recipient of an O. Henry Prize. She received her MFA at Syracuse University as well as a BFA in acting from Boston University. She is of British-Antiguan descent and currently lives in Houston.

One Comment on “James III

  1. Thank you for this amazing story, I’m completely bowled over. Don’t know whether to cry or just sit here with my mouth open..

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