I jammed half of a fresh cookie into my mouth, letting the chocolate melt over my tongue. The other half crumbled and fell apart into pieces, still warm from the oven. My charm bracelet tattled on my intention with a slight jingle as I reached in for another cookie.
Mom swatted my hand away, her flowery perfume overtaking the room. “Calipescia! Save some for Kody.”
“No way. He’ll eat all these in a minute tops.”
“Cali, he deserves them after that win.”
Her dress swooshed across her calves as she turned to grab a potholder, giving me three seconds to shove another cookie in my cheek. I squeezed my eyes shut in ecstasy and held back a moan of perfection as I chewed on heaven and let the pieces of heaven glide down my throat and enter the queen’s palace that was my belly. When I opened my eyes, Mom stood with one hand on her hip and shook her head.
“What am I gonna do with you?” She pointed a finger at me. “It’s a good thing you’re fifteen and don’t have to worry about your metabolism yet. One day you’ll look back and…”
I stopped paying attention. She was wrong. When I’m old and gray, I’ll never regret my life. New York had called me and I’d answer with a smile.
Right after I graduated from Slate High, I’d be under the stage lights every night!
My phone dinged to the melody of “Chandelier” by Sia but I silenced it. Messages lit up from Anna and Derick, both asking me out to the party down the street. All the Juniors would be drunk already, swaying around some family’s fancy living room, acting like it was their victory when Kody was the one who led the basketball team to State victory earlier that night.
My big brother. My hero. Kody
The oldest of us, Coop was cool too, but twenty years old was just—old. Speaking of the devil, Coop walked out from behind the corner and had to stoop a bit to wrap his arm around my shoulder.
“Any sign of him, Cali?” Coop’s scent radiated fresh after shave. Had he been borrowing Dad’s?
I peered out the window into the darkness on the lookout for a green Jeep. “Why is Kody taking so long? You don’t think he got pulled over, do you?”
Coop’s arm tensed. Rigid as Mr. Dinglebutt’s mustache in chemistry lab. His afro swayed back and forth when he shook his head. “Naw, Kody’s fine. He never drives over the speed limit. I swear that boy needs to loosen up a little.” But I could see the fear in Coop’s dark eyes. We both knew what it would mean if Kody was pulled over. Cops didn’t take well to a six-foot three, two-hundred-pound Black teenager.
Kody’s best friend and teammate, Avery, hopped through the back door. “Are all these decorations for me?” His ridiculous wink made it look like he had a bug stuck in his eyeball and was trying to keep it in there like his whole damn life depended on it. Amateur.
Avery swiped a cookie from Mom’s platter. “You should open a bakery, Mrs. Walsh.”
Mom’s smile was warmer than the blissful dessert. “Thank you, dear.”
Avery followed my movements like a panther stalks its prey, so I focused on the driveway again, past the green bushes that Dad hadn’t tended to in weeks. Why was he always working so late when he and Mom shared the same law practice? It didn’t seem fair that Dad had longer hours.
“Kody’s here!” I slammed my head on Coop’s chin when I jumped up.
“Ooww! Damn!” He winced.
Mom flipped off the lights. “Hide!”
A balloon burst when I crouched down, making me jump out of my skin.
In the darkness, behind the couch, Avery’s sweaty smell made me gag. His hand brushed against my thigh and rested on my leg. I slapped that flipping trash-wad like a ninja on steroids. If someone was going to hit on me, they at least better be smelling like gold and glistening like diamonds from a shower. No joke.
The back door handle turned. My heart stopped for a second. Surprises were legit, the best thing since ukuleles, and that was saying something.
The back door jammed for a moment, then creaked open under his solid push. Kody’s broad build filled up the frame. “Uh…guys?”
“Surprise!” I leaped up and turned the lights on, blinding us all for just a smidge of a moment. Swaying my hips to “Bang Bang,” by Nikki Minaj on my phone, I turned up the volume higher and started a dance party in the kitchen. With: me, myself, and I.
Kody’s eyes didn’t show any trace of winning the State championship. His shoulders were slouched heavy, and his footsteps trudged along the hardwood until he dropped his gym bag with a loud thud in the corner. What was his deal?
Mom bustled around the kitchen, rattling pots and pans as she looked for something in a cabinet. “Kody! Tell us all about the game! What did it feel like to shoot the winning point?”
“Good.” Kody picked up three of her fresh cookies from the counter and crammed them into his mouth. He didn’t look good, but more like Eeyore on depressants. Maybe he finally broke up with that awful, possessive Christine chick.
Pretending like I didn’t give an elephant’s hoot about his mood, I collapsed on our couch, the leather sticking to the bottom of my thighs. I swiped through my phone but couldn’t focus on the messages. My reflection stared back at me on that little rectangular screen. I didn’t look at all like Coop or Mom, but the spitting image of Kody and Dad. Us three had epic celebrity model features with our wide noses, squared off jaws, and fuller lips that belonged on the front of a magazine. My white friends said I have skin as dark as midnight, but that wasn’t even a thing.
Out of the corner of my eye, Kody sunk his forehead into his palm. The good sisterly thing to do would be to go over there and see who put a monkey up his butt, but a new message dinged on my phone.
Derick sent a million emojis while Anna just sent one heart. A night making out with Derick’s buttery soft lips would be like devouring scrumptious vanilla cupcakes. But Anna’s skin was too delicious to resist. She would be my peanut butter swirl milkshake on a spring day.
I met Kody’s gaze as he entered our family’s kitchen. Something was wrong. The tension in the air snapped tighter than my guitar’s strings.
Mom turned off the stove. “Well, Kody, if you don’t want to talk about the game, then at least give your dad a play by play when he gets home. He was stuck at the office all night and was heartbroken that he couldn’t make it.”
Kody cleared his throat and projected his voice. “I need to tell you all something, right now!”
I looked over. Were his hands shaking? No, he never got riled up.
Coop poked his nose over the back of the couch cushion.
Mom stopped clattering dishes.
Avery froze in the midst of raiding the fridge.
“I’m not going to Duke,” said Kody plainly.
Mom clapped her hands together. “So, you decided on Chapel Hill? That’s so exciting. They have so many good programs. I was thinking pre-med, but it’s your choice… I’ll just…” She zipped her lips.
Kody looked at each of us. “Is it really my choice?”
“Yes, dear. Always will be. Always has been.”
Uh oh. He was about to drop a bomb. I clenched my fingers around the armrest.
Kody pushed his shoulders back. “I’m joining the army.”
Time stopped and all air was sucked out of my lungs.
The plate Mom held onto slipped through her fingers and glass shattered across the floor. She placed one hand on her heart. “Oh!”
Kody bolted to her side.
Her eyebrows knitted together, then she looked up at him with a stern face. “Kody—I—” She placed one hand on the counter, steadying her swaying motion.
“Here, come sit.” Kody guided her to a kitchen chair at their wooden table.
“Engineering or desk job?” Mom asked.
“No. Infantry. I want to specialize in artillery.”
I lurched off the couch, and kicked a kitchen stool to the floor, letting the metal stool tumble to the ground, over the broken glass. “No! You can’t be shot at! I won’t let you go!”
Kody crouched down and picked up the larger glass pieces. “I’ll be safe. I’ll be trained and professional. Plus, I probably won’t even be deployed. Things are good under Obama.”
“No!” I stomped in place like a child, but I didn’t care. This had to be some joke.
“I’ll still take college classes on the side,” said Kody.
Coop grasped his shoulders and spun him upright again. “What are you talking about? You have a 4.0. You already have college credits! If I had your brain—”
“No!” I ran at Kody, punching his gut, but making no impact on his brick-like stature. “I won’t let you join the army!”
“Cali, calm down.” The sadness in Kody’s eyes was still there. He was holding onto a secret and only I knew the key.
“Come here.” I dragged my Hulk of a brother up the stairs to my room. Inside, I pushed my drums and keyboard out of the way and swept all the sheet music off my bed. “Sit!”
He flopped on my bed, making the springs squeak in protest. “Cali—”
My finger doubled as a dagger pointed to his face. “No brother of mine is flying to the other side of the planet and getting blown up by some evil demon bad guy.”
He sighed. “I’ll be fine, Cali. Don’t you have a dream?”
“Sure, singing on Broadway.”
“Joining the army is mine.”
“But—you’ll—” Tears pooled behind my eyelids. I hadn’t cried for twenty-four hours, so it was about time for another waterfall release. But this time things felt different. Kody’s face showed no signs of backing down. I could almost see his teeth grinding together in secrecy.
“You can’t go! What if—”
Kody stood and put both his large hands on my shoulders. “I have to go.”
He dropped his gaze and headed for the door.
I bolted between him and the exit, using my 120 pounds as a shield against this wanna-be soldier. “See. You have no reason to go!”
He crossed his arms and lowered his chin, just like when Dad was about to give a lecture about drugs or alcohol or B’s on report cards. “I don’t want to deal with this right now.”
“You mean you don’t want to deal, with me. You don’t want to waste any time on your little sister getting in your way? I’m why you’re leaving, aren’t I?”
“Cali…” His minty scent wafted through the air as he moved and pressed his thumbs against his temple. “Just, leave me alone. Go write another song or something.”
And with that, he stormed out across the hall and slammed his bedroom door behind him. Well, so much for a celebration party for his basketball win. Rage boiled in my veins. Who did he think he was?
I sank into the oversized beanbag on my floor, creating a loud squish sound. Making a decision like joining the army affected all of us. How could that selfish prick not consider what I needed? A girl like me lived in fear of something happening to her big brothers every freaking day and now my smart-ass brother decided to move towards danger voluntarily. The nerve. I plucked a guitar pick against my chin, as lyrics came to mind.
The moon beamed in through my window and shone on my guitar. If he was leaving, so would I. My heart pounded fast. Staying in Oak City served no purpose without Kody. I poured out my backpack full of unused school books and shoved in the necessities: clothes, phone charger, granola bars, sheet music, toothbrush, cash, keys, and who cares. For a moment, I just froze and glanced around my chaotic room. The clock ticked on, closer to midnight by the second. If I had Kody to tell me otherwise, he’d say to slow down and think about my choice first.
I spotted Dad’s credit card on my dresser from when he let me buy tickets to that Beyonce concert and swiped it into my pocket. Heart racing, I pulled a Cubs sweater over my head and shook my long thick braids out down my back. The sweater smelled like Kody. I had forgotten I stole it last week for that campfire with Anna. My phone buzzed again, this time Anna’s gorgeous face blessed my screen, but I silenced it again. This life was over. My past. No more contact.
I sucked in a deep breath and lifted my window. A strong February breeze blew in, rustling all my sheet music around the carpet. Temptation trickled in to go back and sort out my favorite songs, the only possession in my room that truly mattered. But there was no point if I’d never play those again.
A band would let me join once they witnessed my skills. I stepped out onto the rooftop with practiced confidence and scaled down the pergola. A thorn sliced my fingertip, making a throbbing sensation pulse under my skin. That wouldn’t stop me. Neither would a hundred semi-trucks or pirates with lasers or a pack of wolves from an armageddon movie.
My sneaker slipped on gravel underfoot as I raced to Mom’s white Volkswagen Bug. Her keys rattled together as I unlocked the door. I only had my permit, but Kody had taught me how to drive safely. Driving all the way to New York, though, by myself—too much. Bus station was the best option. I knew what I was doing. My plan would work.
Unfortunately, the automatic floodlight on our garage shone directly on my North Carolina license plate, but I started up Suzie Q and zoomed her down our street faster than a kindergartener could slurp ice cream.
The empty streets sent warning signals to turn back at each stop light, but I didn’t care, only pushing on the gas harder. My hands shook as I turned up the volume louder and ran a red light through town. The trees swayed from the wind in that eerie way like in the films where someone would jump out from behind a rusty dumpster. But this was no movie. Kody’s words echoed in my mind. Army. Leave me alone.
This would teach him to leave his best friend. We always had each other’s back. Who would be there for me now?
I’m the one who taught him a C chord and how to catch a snake. He needed me to survive. Yes, that made more sense. I didn’t need him anymore. All Kody ever did for me was to teach me how to play chess and tell me boring stuff in his books and—nope. I was definitely better off without him. The fact that the Army would finally relieve me of his annoying habits blessed me with the opportunity to attempt my musical career. I had all those stupid colonel and commander guys to thank. Just as I pulled into the empty Greyhound parking lot, I pulled out my phone and set a reminder. “Send thank you notes to all the army people.”
The bus depot sign flashed neon lights but the “Grey” wasn’t working so the word “hound” flickered repetitively. When I stepped out of Suzie Q, an owl hooted in the distance, making me aware of the otherwise creepy silence surrounding me. Music was my life. A moment without sound felt like doomsday, burying me in a pit of emptiness. An odd sensation of slow motion overtook my senses as the oak trees circling the lot towered over me like sharp drumsticks pointing toward the black sky. As I walked toward the front ticket booth, I scuffed my feet along the concrete just to hear some sort of reassuring noise. Closed.
Why wouldn’t they sell tickets at midnight? Stupid town. I kicked the base of the stone wall, sending a piercing jolt through my toe. Tires rolled slowly closer behind me. I gasped and swiveled on my heels fast. Cigarette smoke drifted to my nostrils and a Drake song rang out from the car. Green eyes peered at me through a partially rolled-down, tinted window. A white man puffed smoke through the window.
“Hey, pretty thing.”
Don’t make eye contact. I gripped my keys so fiercely that it probably imprinted a dent in my skin. Only ten feet to my car.
“I’m talking to ya, sweetheart.”
Eight feet to the car. I gulped and picked up my pace, immediately aware of the length of my skirt above my knees.
The tires of his car cracked over rocks at a snail’s pace next to me and the man reached out his arm. I lurched to the side but his door swung open fast. He stood even taller than Kody with a bald head and thick blonde beard. Of course I noticed the gun strapped to his waist as he blocked my access to Suzie Q. If only my car had a mind of her own and could spring to life.
“Look at me, girl,” he roared.
I clenched my fists into balls and raised my chin high. “What?”
“I need your help.”
“Please move.” Flashbacks of the boxing lessons Kody had given me rushed to the forefront of my mind, but my feet were cemented to the spot.
“It looks like you’re looking for a way out of town?” He nodded to the ticket booth and smiled. His parents were probably dentists and had a bunch of plaques all over their office, with their deadbeat son’s picture plastered alongside them. I could hear their squirrely voices now. Oh, yes, Dudley is the most well known drug dealer in Oak City. We’re so proud. If Anna were here, she’d like the Harry Potter reference. Though, this guy wasn’t round or comical. His razor-sharp glare shot treacherous threats without a word.
“The train sells tickets at this hour. I’ll buy your ticket wherever you wanna go if you make a delivery for me at the station.”
Inside his car sat a briefcase. No, no, no. I wasn’t about to get mixed up with some James Bond situation. No, thank you.
“I’m not leaving town. Excuse me.” Trying to sidestep this mofo was pointless. We played a quick game of a silent tango. His cowboy boot tripped me and sent my backpack falling off. My palms smashed into the gravel and cut into my skin. Asshole.
“Don’t lie to me.” He stared down at me and stars framed his head like a bass clef. Those puke green eyes trailed up from my bare ankles to the hem of my skirt. My heart slammed an allegro tempo, about to bust out of my ribcage.
I kicked Mr. Creeper’s shin hard and scrambled in a crawl toward my door. Sirens screamed as a squad car flew by. Not for me. I’d have to save myself.
His arm reached down, showing the extensively hairy knuckles and thick hairy forearms. Why the hell was he bald? My sweatshirt choked me so tight as he pulled me up toward him.
“Lemme go!” I slapped at his broad shoulders as he laughed.
“Listen, you’re a strong kid. But, you’re gonna help me. Get in.” His grip tightened around my elbow, pulling me closer to his stale whisky stench.
The guy wanted to abduct me. Cool. Sounded like a great plan. I couldn’t reach my backpack to grab my phone. The streets were empty. I needed Kody, but he was asleep. Plus, he’d probably kill this guy and put himself in jail. No, I could handle this. Delivering the briefcase, which was probably full of puppy ears and kitten hearts, would be my toll to escape this city for good.
“I’ll deliver it if I drive my car to the train station.” I could hear the shakiness in my voice.
“No. Get in.”
“Let me drive.” I stuck out my hand.
Mr. Creeper laughed in my face, a low deep growl that would send coyotes into hysteria. Maybe, I knew nothing about coyotes.
“You don’t look old enough, but I like you. You can drive.” He grabbed my backpack, dug through it and held out my drivers permit, with my address on it. Great, now I’d have a stalker. With his hand over the gun, he frowned. “No games.”
Bile rose in my throat and I choked it down, tasting the sour remains of Mom’s cookie. He opened the driver’s door for me. “Your chariot, my lady.”
Overwhelming dread consumed my gut and a shiver went up my spine. I had no other option. Sliding into the driver’s seat, or my new prison, I took a deep breath as he rounded the hood of the car. I buckled up as I convinced my inner voice that I’d be done with this guy in a few minutes. The smell of leftover McDonald’s wafted inside. I coughed and rolled down the windows.
Mr. Creeper tossed the briefcase onto the floor and lumbered into the passenger seat. His fake smile turned down and the creases of his face deepened. “Drive.”
Born and raised in Oak City, I knew where the train station was but maybe if I drove past the police station…
He pointed; his bony finger scarred with lines. “No, turn left.”
Well, my brilliant plan wasn’t written in stone. My hands turned clammy on his steering wheel as I could feel his eyes on my body. At least I wore Kody’s giant hoodie that hid my curves. But I’d bet my collection of headphones that Mr. Creeper’s thoughts weren’t about what tv show he’d binge tomorrow.
“So, running away from home?” He rested a rough hand on my knee.
I rolled my lips in tight and squinted ahead as a drizzle started bouncing off his windshield. Crashing was an option. Perhaps I could run his side of the car into a lamppost. Karma would send some piece of metal straight through this guy’s chest.
“Come on, a girl like you must know a thing or two.”
I moved my knee, but his touch followed.
He clicked his tongue and rubbed his crusty hangnail up my thigh. I sped through a red light and whirled around a corner.
Mr. Creeper’s head smashed into the door and his hand flew off. “Hey! Watch it!”
Clenching my jaw together, I floored the pedal and raced down the two-lane city road.
70 miles per hour.
“Slow down!” He grabbed the oh-shit-handle with one hand and tried to alter my steering with his long arm outstretched.
80 miles per hour.
Right when Mr. Creeper started to reach for his gun, I slammed on the brakes. The dude went soaring through the windshield, shattering glass into more pieces than when Mom broke her plate earlier. My fast breathing turned to panting and a tightness formed in my chest. No hesitation. No weakness. In a daze, I reversed and drove toward the train station. The rain fell harder, splattering.
Sirens wailed in the distance. To where? Hopefully the guy died, and then the devil could torture him in her own ways.
Suddenly aware that I had pulled into the train station lot, I had no memory of the last few minutes of the drive. People sat on wooden benches in the brightly lit train station. My heaving chest started to slow and my shoulders loosened. I grabbed the briefcase, but realized my backpack was still lying in the bus depot parking lot, with my ID and cash. Wait! Sliding my hand in the thin pocket, I felt the plastic credit card. Hope.
Abandoning the crook’s car, I threw his keys past the train tracks into some bushes. I lugged the briefcase with two hands and fumbled with the latch, but a lock combination sealed it shut. While walking into the train station, I shook the briefcase slightly. Drugs or money? Both? Maybe neither. There could be jewels, gems, diamonds, treasure. Maybe the deed to a castle.
A lady who resembled my grandma, with gray hair wrapped in a bun smiled at me from behind the ticket-booth counter. “Are you okay, sweetie?”
I could use my theater skills and act my way out of this dilemma.
My cheeks felt frozen but I forced a smile. “Hi. One way ticket to New York, please.”
My grandma’s soul-twin scrunched her nose, making her glasses wiggle. “You look familiar. Shouldn’t you be home?”
I thought of my warm bed for a moment, shoving aside the disgust from the fear that man just imprinted on my entire future. “New York is my home.”
“Mhm.” Her tone was undeniable as she studied me, using her sixth sense like a fairy godmother. I’d never wish for a flippin blue dress for a ball, but rather to book the gig to play at the prince’s ball, to sing in front of the land’s greatest and make a name for myself.
“How much?” I slapped the credit card on the counter and slid it under the little glass barrier. Why did they have those?
“One hundred fifty, sweetie.” The lady stared at the credit card far longer than she should’ve before sliding it through the machine.
A train whistle blew from the distance.
She frowned. When I reached out to take Dad’s credit card, she laid her hand on my wrist. Those rounded nails were like soft puppy paws. “Can I call someone for you, sweetie?”
An old-school office phone sat just next to her. Mom, Dad, Kody, Coop—they’d all pick me up without questions asked. Did I really want to leave them all?
Hell yes. If Kody was going to the army, then I had no purpose in Oak City.
The train whistled again, and I could hear the rumbling. The strangers in the lobby gathered their belongings like half-asleep zombies and I followed the walking-dead line outside. Wind shipped my face and rain soaked my cheeks. I used the briefcase as a shield against the battering showers.
The train chugged up and stopped with a screech. The robot-people filed on just as a tall woman smacked right into my side and tried to rip the suitcase from my clutches. I wrapped my knuckles around the handle harder and stood my ground.
Her nostrils flared as she whispered in my ear. “Let go.”
A sharp blade poked under the Cubs sweater and against my stomach, a millimeter from breaking my skin. What did I get myself into? A dizzying sensation took over as I released my grip and let her take it without a word.
“Good girl.” A slimy smile snaked up her cheeks as she jumped on board.
I opened my mouth, unsure of what would even come out when the conductor shouted, “Last call!”
The ticket in my hand flapped in the wind and water splotches formed on the paper, wetting the ink. I made eye contact with the conductor, and he waved me on, but I stepped back. I was acting like an idiot. What the hell would I do in New York without clothes, money, my phone or food? In the last hour Kody had announced he’d be leaving me, would probably die in battle, a creeper had assaulted me, and both a gun and knife had threatened my life. A flippin nightmare. Tears poured from my eyes as I leaned against the station wall.
I just wanted to go home. The conductor shrugged and closed the doors with a click. The crossing barriers lowered along the street and the train pulled away into the night. Rain drenched my hair, and a crack of lightning disguised the sobs escaping my lungs. I turned to Mrs. Fairy Godmother’s counter. She looked at me knowingly and came out from behind the glass shield with her arms open wide. Running into her arms immediately warmed my iced over heart.
“Let’s get you home, sweetie.” She wiped a tear away from my cheek.
I nodded and shoved my cold hands in my pocket. “I don’t have a car.”
“Do you want to call someone?”
“Can you drive me home?”
She wrapped her hand around my shoulder and guided me across the lot, passed the creeper’s car. If the guy lived long enough to find his car, he’d be pretty pissed that the pretty leather interior was soaked.
Mrs. Fairy Godmother’s SUV smelled of lilacs on a summer day. The storm eased the closer we drove to my neighborhood. Exhaustion weighed like an anchor on my body, slowing everything down. Even the songs on the radio seemed to decrease its pace. Maybe I could survive Kody’s news afterall.
He deserved happiness. Maybe the army was his calling. I never even found out why he chose to enlist instead of register for college. He always over thought every decision. This one wouldn’t have been any different. I needed to accept Kody’s choice and support him.
One pair of headlights flashed in my eyes and turned in front of us. I rested my wet hair against the headrest.
Hopefully Mom and Dad were asleep and never even noticed I had left. I could cut up their credit card and suggest someone stole it to buy a train ticket. But all those hopes disappeared when we pulled up my drive. Every light was lit inside. Crap!
Mrs. Fairy Godmother smiled sweetly. “You’ll be okay. Just tell them the truth.”
A giant sigh escaped my lips. “Thank you for the ride.”
With each step up the sidewalk I considered all the ways they might punish me. Plus, I’d have to ask for extra shifts at my job at the record store to buy a new phone. A few droplets landed on my nose and slid down my face as I stood outside the door. My hand hovered over the door knob and shook my head. They’d never trust me again if I told the truth.
Straightening my shoulders back, I stood tall and walked through the side door to the illuminated kitchen. Mom leaped out of her chair and rushed over, wrapping her hands around my drenched form. I sighed and let her hug me. Dad laid his head down on the table and made a prayer shape with his hands. Kody darted out of the office with terror in his eyes, until he met my gaze. His shoulders softened, but before I could say anything, another person trailed Kody from out of the study. Was Coop still here too? From out of the shadows, a bald man with a big blond beard and deep scratches on his skin smiled at me, limping closer.
My heart hammered in my chest. Mr. Creeper found me.
(Stay tuned for another short story in Kody’s POV to see how this one turns out)